Saturday, November 7, 2009

The best games won't be pretty ones

Some moron said this a little over two months ago:
" ... there's a good chance that the winner of the game in Happy Valley on Nov. 7 will run the table against the rest of the conference and finish 12-0."
Ummm ... yeah, not so much. Penn State has been about as good as expected -- the Nits would be 9-0 and probably No. 4 in the country if the offense had shown up against Iowa -- but Ohio State has obviously been a disappointment. The loss to Purdue was the culmination of weeks of frustration with Terrelle Pryor, Jim Tressel and the offense in general, and easy wins over Minnesota and New Mexico State don't do a whole lot to ease concerns.

It's possible that the offense really is improving, but even if that's the case, don't expect it to continue against Penn State. I'll bet you didn't realize that Penn State -- not Florida, Alabama or TCU -- leads the nation in scoring defense. A schedule full of dismal offenses helps, but 9.33 points per game is still pretty damn good.

I hesitate to compare games from different seasons because teams are often totally different, but I think last year's all-defense battle in Columbus gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect Saturday. Both offenses were completely shut down until the fourth quarter, when the Lions -- playing without a concussed Darryl Clark at that point -- marched down the field with seven straight running plays to score the game-winning touchdown in a 13-6 victory.

The obvious differences this year will be the full-time presence (presumably) of Clark, the absence of Beanie Wells -- who carried 22 times for a whopping 55 yards in that game -- and the location of the game. Considering that Penn State totally shut down OSU's offense in Columbus last year with Wells and that the Buckeyes were dominated by the only comparable defense this year (USC), it'll take a minor miracle for Ohio State to score 20 points on offense.

The only question is whether Clark can avoid making the killer mistakes he made in the Iowa game, when he threw two second-half interceptions in Hawkeyes territory (one of which led to an Iowa touchdown) and lost a fumble that resulted in a safety. In other words, he was singlehandedly responsible for at least nine Iowa points, and Ohio State has a defense perfectly capable of replicating that. The Wisconsin game serves as a good example: OSU completed five passes and was outgained by almost 200 yards, but two interception returns and a kickoff return for a score would have been enough to win even if the offense hadn't chipped in 10 points. The Buckeyes don't need a good offensive performance if they have help.

But here's the thing to ask yourself about this game: Is it more likely that a senior QB (Clark) gives the game away at home or that a turnover-prone sophomore QB (Terrelle Pryor) with little help from his running game tries to do too much and makes a potentially game-changing mistake on the road against one of the best defenses in the country?

Yeah, I thought so. Prediction: Penn State 20, Ohio State 13.

I also planned to break down the LSU-Alabama game, but it occurred to me as I started looking at the two teams that they're almost mirror images of Ohio State and Penn State (albeit slightly better versions). In SAT terms, Alabama is to Penn State as LSU is to Ohio State. All four schools have elite defenses, but the fundamental difference in each game should be that one team has an offense with a pulse -- Alabama in this case -- and one team doesn't.

It's actually pretty remarkable how similar OSU and LSU are statistically, from the decent-but-still-not-very-good running game to the recent statistical improvement to the "dual-threat" sophomore quarterback who doesn't really scare any respectable defenses with his arm. Ohio State's defense is slightly better, but it's a negligible difference, especially when you consider that the Buckeyes still have to play three of the toughest games on their schedule.

Jordan Jefferson always does something that makes you think, "man, that guy makes some incredible plays," but the passing game just hasn't been able to produce points against quality teams (no touchdowns against Georgia or Florida). The primary reason: the offensive line. When you have an athletic QB like Jefferson and you've still allowed 23 sacks in eight games, you have a problem. And when you have Jefferson, Russell Shepard, Charles Scott and Keiland Williams in the backfield and you can't do better than 69th nationally in rushing, you have an even bigger problem. This isn't something that will suddenly solve itself two-thirds of the way through the season, especially against Alabama's awesome-at-everything defense.

The concern for Alabama has to be that while Mark Ingram has been consistently excellent, Greg McElroy and the passing game have become an afterthought, and the offense has suffered on the scoreboard because of it. See if you notice a trend here in Alabama's point totals: 34, 40, 53, 35, 38, 22, 20, 12. That's not good. The defenses have obviously gotten better in that time -- Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee are all tough -- but it's not like LSU, Auburn and (potentially) Florida will be any easier. You have to be able to score some to win, and that's a problem right now for the Tide.

All that said, I still don't think LSU can win this one without a lot of things going right (a defensive or special-teams score, a big touchdown early to grab momentum and take the crowd out of the game, etc.). In Baton Rouge, maybe. In Tuscaloosa, no way. Prediction: Alabama 23, LSU 10.

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