Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jim Tressel has a downside

The bitching in Columbus has reached a fever pitch in the last 72 hours, with Jim Tressel the target of anger usually reserved for Michigan fans. When Ohio State lost 18-15 to USC on Saturday, it marked Tressel's sixth straight loss against a top-10 team, and this hasn't gone over well. This comment is from respected Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors:
The fact many of us didn’t honestly expect OSU to win (I predicted a 4 pt loss) doesn’t take away the sting because the game was given to USC via horrific game/clock management, slow development of players at key positions (ahem, QB, ahem) and an overall lack of discipline showing itself in penalties and poor fundamentals.
I'm not sure there's anything in that rant I can disagree with, and it doesn't really even delve into the biggest issue: OSU's offense (or lack thereof). The fact of the matter is that "Tresselball" has become a running joke among fans and critics alike, and despite having one of the most talented QBs in the country, when OSU got the ball back with a minute left against USC -- playing at home and needing only a field goal to tie -- everyone in the stadium knew the game was already over.

Ohio State's offense only exists at this point in a "keep our defense from getting exhausted and don't turn the ball over" mode. There is nothing else, and it's not because of talent; that's just the way Tressel has chosen to run his teams since he arrived in 2001, which has led to the problems cited above (lack of development, poor fundamentals, etc.).

I'm not the world's most brilliant football strategist by any means, so I'll yield to Smart Football:
Ohio State's gameplan against the Trojans was utter rubbish, and it failed to meet the number one requirement of every gameplan: put your players in position to succeed.
Ouch. There's a lot more to that analysis, and I highly recommend it for its thoroughness in ripping apart basically everything the Buckeyes did (or didn't do) offensively. But in summary, OSU's play-calling was indefensibly predictable. If this were just a one-game issue, it could easily be overlooked. Everybody has bad games. But while Tressel's defenses have been among the best nationally on a maddeningly consistent basis, the offense has been an ongoing problem; you can't simply hope that USC, Florida or Texas will gift you a win via turnovers while your defense shuts them down the same way it shuts down Northwestern. When talent is a wash, elite coaching will always win out.

With that in mind, here's USC linebacker Chris Galippo after Saturday's game:
"We talked about it all week. I saw them get into their roll-out formation ..."
Galippo is a first-year starter (as are nine of USC's 11 defenders), so the fact that he could recognize OSU's play based on the formation is all you need to know.

If this all sounds familiar, it should: USC's players made almost identical comments after kicking the crap out of Michigan in the 2006 Rose Bowl, and the OSU fans' complaints sound a lot like the constant grumble that plagued Lloyd Carr's final years as coach. Everyone in the stadium could tell you what play Michigan was running based on the formation and personnel, and to think that opposing coordinators couldn't do the same would be foolish.

Creativity and unpredictability might not be requirements for an effective offense, but they're definitely required if you want your offense to be effective against an equally talented defense.

The difference between Carr and Tressel (in regards to offense, anyway) is that Carr didn't call the plays; he simply continued to employ longtime friend Mike Debord, who had all the creativity of a robot, as offensive coordinator. Tressel, on the other hand, bears the sole responsibility for OSU's offensive ineptitude, which is baffling. For someone who seems to be a brilliant program manager, consistently churns out dominating defenses and has seen his offenses struggle against nearly every elite opponent in the last several years, why is he not willing to cede control to a respected offensive coordinator -- even if it's one who primarily sticks to his play-it-safe style?

There are coordinators out there who run a fairly basic, "safe" offense while still managing to produce on a somewhat regular basis against quality opponents -- USC, Georgia and LSU come to mind -- and Tressel's refusal to find someone who can do that for him is probably the most damning claim you can make about his tenure.

When John Cooper was fired in 2000, the reason was obvious: He could beat everyone except Michigan -- the opponent every OSU fan cares about the most -- and he couldn't win a national title because of that. Tressel has no problem beating Michigan (the fact that he consistently outcoached Carr from 2003-07 tells you just how predictable those Michigan teams were), but he can't beat anyone else of significance, which is just as problematic when the goal is a BCS championship.

Do I think he should be fired? No. It'd be great for Michigan, but it'd be an extreme overreaction. There probably aren't five better programs in the country right now than OSU, and anyone ignoring that is either blinded with anger or supports another Big Ten school and is tired of watching his team get beat. You don't win four straight Big Ten titles and play for three national championships in seven years without knowing what you're doing.

But Ohio State fans should demand an offensive coordinator who can provide something -- anything -- while developing some of the five-star talent that's being thrown away each year in an offense designed in 1973.

As for the game itself, OSU should feel no shame in losing, only disappointment in having the game in control for 56 minutes and not being able to put it away. There were issues besides coaching -- Pryor's terrible first-quarter interception, for one -- but this was a game OSU should have won, and that says one good thing and one bad thing about the Buckeyes.

The good: Well, they were in control for 56 minutes against a legitimate top-five team.

The bad: If they couldn't win at home against a vulnerable USC team with a freshman quarterback despite being in control for 56 minutes, when will they win a big game?

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