National Championship - Ohio State vs. Florida
by Brett Berliner(NCAA Football)
Posted on January 8, 2007, 4:23 PM
How They Got Here: Florida
As I'm sure you've heard by now, Florida nearly ran the table in a very tough SEC on their road to the National Championship. Their first real test, September 16th at Tennessee, was a squeaker that Florida was behind most of the game, and then took a late lead on a TD pass from Chris Leak to Dallas Baker. Although Tennessee is in the midst of a down year, it still isn't easy to win in Knoxville and the Gators started their SEC season off right. They followed that up with two relatively easy wins at home, against Kentucky and Alabama, two solid schools, and that lead into Florida's best victory, at 23-10 triumph over the LSU Tigers in the Swamp. The Gators played their best defensive game, pressuring Jamarcus Russell into making repeated mistakes and stifling the Tigers' normally strong ground game. This game was really the coming out party of Florida freshman Tim Tebow, who threw two TD passes (including one on a bizarre jump pass) and made national highlights for the first time.
The Gators suffered their first and only loss in their next game as they visited Auburn and were dumped, 27-17. The score isn't quite indicative of the game, which was tight and the margin only swelled on a last play fumble recovery for a touchdown by the Tigers. Even in defeat, Florida showed its strength as they allowed no offensive touchdowns to Auburn, who managed two defensive TDs, a safety and four field goals. Still, it was more than enough on that day. UF rebounded the next week by defeating a slumping Georgia team at home, 21-14, as their defense again stepped up to harass Georgia freshman QB Matthew Stafford all day. In between that game and a trip to Vanderbilt, the Gators dismissed their star defensive tackle, Marcus Thomas. That showed in the Vanderbilt game, as they allowed their most yardage of the season, 391 yards and Leak struggled, throwing three picks. They still escaped the Commodores with a 25-19 victory, but Thomas' loss was clear.
The following week, the Gators played host to former coach Steve Spurrier and his South Carolina Gamecocks. The Gators were just able to move closer to the national championship game, as they blocked three kicks, including a field goal as time expired, to take the victory and close out the SEC regular season. A non-descript pasting of Western Carolina followed, and Florida State was unable to stop the Gator train as UF won another tight one, this time in Tallahassee as they downed the Seminoles.
Florida's final game was against Arkansas in the SEC Championship, and despite a few costly mistakes, UF was able to advance to the national title with a little help from UCLA. Again, the Gators failed to distance themselves, but they defeated another tough opponent as they staked their claim for an appearance in the BCS National Championship.
Florida's season followed a path blazed by past national champions Ohio State and Oklahoma - close games and defense were the order of the day. At times pedestrian, the Florida offense did not carry them in any victory as the Gators finished a very solid 12-1 against great competition. Although there are a few teams that can stake their claim to appearing in this game, the Florida Gators have a very solid case and certainly deserve to be there.
How They Got Here: Ohio State
After finishing #4 in last year's poll after an absolute crushing of Notre Dame, Ohio State, returning senior quarterback Troy Smith, junior wideout Ted Ginn and senior defensive tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson, were ranked #1 to begin the season. Most agreed that Ohio State had the offensive talent to go all the way, but replacing nine defensive starters (including first round picks AJ Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Donte Whitner) would leave Ohio State vulnerable on defense. This theory was put to the test first against Garrett Wolfe and his Northern Illinois Huskies in the season opener. Many of the questions on defense weren't answered, as while Ohio State held the Huskies to 12 points, Wolfe was able to gash the defense for a combined 285 yards on the day. This matchup of course lead into the huge game at Texas, where #1 Ohio State would be hosted by the #2 Longhorns. Most Buckeye fans were convinced that the defense they showed on the field would not be enough to get it done, but their fears were shot down as the Buckeyes handed it to the Longhorns, holding them to 7 points after a bogus helmet-to-helmet call. This game featured the coming out party of linebacker James Laurinaitis, who would anchor the defense from his position in the middle.
The Bucks followed that trip by hosting former defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio and the Cincinnati Bearcats in a warmup for the Big Ten season, easily dispatching UC 37-7 after some early trouble. Next, OSU had the chance to avenge their loss last season to Penn State in the Big Ten opener. The Nittany Lions hung close for quite some time, aided by terrible conditions, but Ohio State pulled away late on a beautiful, on-the-run deep touchdown bomb to Brian Robiskie and two late pick sixes from their starting corners, Malcolm Jenkins and Antonio Smith, to take the victory 28-6. The following weekend, Ohio State travelled to Iowa City, Iowa to take on the Hawkeyes. Although Iowa was able to score the most points against the Buckeyes to that date, 17, Anthony Gonzalez lead the Buckeyes with two of Troy Smith's four touchdown passes as most agreed that Ohio State dispatched the biggest obstacle in the way of an undefeated showdown with the Michigan Wolverines.
Those who believed that were correct, as OSU steamrolled its next four opponents, downing Bowling Green 35-7, Michigan State 38-7, Indiana 44-3 and Minnesota 44-0. Those who would assume that trend would continue were wrong, as OSU visited Illinois and came away with only a 17-10 victory. The Fighting Illini came to play, and even though starting QB Isiah 'Juice' Williams was unable to get anything going, the Illini defense kept them in the game. It wasn't quite as close as the score indicated, as Illinois only late had the ball with the chance to tie or take the lead, but it was still a closer call than many Buckeye fans had hoped for. Luckily, a trip to Evanston, Northwestern went quite different as the Buckeyes pasted the Wildcats, 54-10, heading into a showdown with undefeated #2 Michigan. The match was hyped as 'Game of the Century' by multipe sources, as #1 OSU downed #2 Michigan in a game not as close as the score indicated, 42-39. Ohio State gifted Michigan most of their pounts as they sustained a drive with bogus pass interference call on a long fourth down, a 'roughing the center' penalty, and turned the ball over three times to Michigan's 0. Still, OSU was able to move the ball at will on the Wolverines and gain the help of a few big plays to take home the victory and lead them to the national title. Ohio State's regular season ended with a Heisman Trophy for quarterback Troy Smith, the school's seventh.
When Florida is on Offense:
The Florida offense is absolutely underachieving. This is due in part to several units:
Quarterback: This is where the root of Florida's problems stem from. It's not their weakest unit on the offense, but Urban Meyer's offense relies on having a quarterback that has complete command of what he needs to do, like Alex Smith at Utah or Josh Harris at Bowling Green. Meyer's senior QB, Chris Leak, is not quite mobile enough to run this offense and he doesn't have the confidence necessary to run this offense. On the option side, they often bring in Tim Tebow, the freshman phenom, to run the option. Tebow hasn't passed much but he is quite the runner, and with experience, will be the perfect QB for Meyer's offense. For now, he's not trusted upon to be 'the man', and Leak's confidence issues lead to some mystifying plays that could cost the Gators.
Running Back: Florida has some very talented backs, but none of them have stepped up and staked claim on the starting spot. They don't have a go to guy and this hurts Florida, as their lack of run game often makes them one-dimensional.
Offensive Line: The Gators have been hampered by injuries here, but even when they've been healthy, they haven't been consistently good. The line is underwhelming - they can't get a good push in the run game against anyone, and their pass blocking has been inconsistent, due to the lack of cohesion. The weakness up front will hamper any team.
Florida has had consistent trouble moving the ball, even against much weaker defenses than Ohio State's. They often rely on trick plays and reverses run to their electrifying freshman receiver, Percy Harvin, to gain yards. While the Gators have the ability to break a big play at any time, they put their defense in a bad spot often by failing to connect on three straight plays and punting. Meyer may be an offensive genius, but this is a relatively anemic offense. However, to their credit, they have shown a knack for big plays late in games, and that can't be ignored.
Tebow could be a factor. Until now, Tebow has hardly thrown any passes, and his entry into the game usually implies run. With the time off between the Arkansas game and tonight, Tebow may have been working more on his passing game in an effort to catch the Buckeyes off guard. Knowing his tendencies, I think OSU will be expecting run when he's in, but I don't see them being unaware of that possibility. If Tebow plays even a third of the snaps, it's likely because he's on a roll and that could be trouble for OSU, but if they attack, hit and confuse the freshman with their schemes and coverages, he will likely be a non-factor.
This matchup greatly favors Ohio State. They're a very disciplined defense, and likely won't be hurt by trick plays as much as a freelancing D like Oklahoma can be. OSU is vulnerable to screen and swing passes, which is where Florida could get the bulk of their yards, as Harvin, Jarred Fayson and Andre Caldwell all have the speed to take it the distance. However, OSU has one of the top defenses, in terms of points allowed (even after giving Michigan 39), while Florida's offense is ranked in the middle of the pack in I-A. This means that in the red zone, the Gators will have trouble coming away with points and that could be the difference. Florida's receivers don't offer much in terms of red zone scoring beyond Dallas Baker, and their running game has had trouble pounding it in. Against Ohio State's fast and physical defense, they will be able to move the ball but that stops in the red zone, and that could be the difference.
The best matchup here for Florida is their cadre of talented receivers - Jarred Fayson, Percy Harvin, Dallas Baker and Andre Caldwell - against Ohio State's defensive backfield - cornerbacks Antonio Smith, Malcom Jenkins, Donald Washington and Andre Amos and safeties Jamario O'Neal and Brandon Mitchell. With the dimuntive Smith banged up and questionable for tonight's game, OSU could lose a lot in terms of tackling and coverage ability. The DBs are athletic enough to hang with anyone, but as Michigan showed, they are beatable. If OSU hasn't tightened their coverage scheme since the Michigan game, these receivers will eat them alive, if Leak can get them the ball.
The best matchup for the Buckeyes is their fast and physical defensive line - lead by ends Lawrence Wilson, Vernon Gholston, Jay Richardson and Robert Rose and tackles David Patterson, Quinn Pitcock and Joel Penton - against Florida's offensive line - from left to right, Phil Trautwein, Jim Tartt, Steve Rissler, Drew Miller and Carlton Medder. Florida's line is tough and versatile and has been a good unit at times this year. Against Georgia, with their two All-World ends (Charles Johnson and Quentin Moses), the Gator line was impressive, shutting them down, but against Vanderbilt, they looked slow and not cohesive. In the SEC title game, they were very inconsistent. They have the ability, with the month of practice time, to have developed more continuity, but I get the feeling they aren't ready for a DL as relentless and physical as Ohio State's.
One of OSU's starting linebackers, John Kerr, will likely not play in the game, and my guess is that will send OSU into a lot of nickel, which Florida's formations will likely force them to be in, anyway. This is good for the Bucks. With Florida having a less than stellar run game most of the time, they will be able to drop all-everything linebacker James Laurinaitis and great pass coverage 'backer Marcus Freeman to help defend some of Florida's 800 WRs. This is absolutely an advantage for OSU, as both Freeman and Laurinaitis have a knack for interceptions and big plays. I would bet on Leak hitting one of them for a completion.
If Ohio State controls the line of scrimmage and pressures Leak, the senior QB will likely make a few mistakes, as he hasn't been exactly possessive of the ball. This could be the difference.
When Ohio State is on Offense:
Ohio State's offense is really something to behold. They're so deep, so talented and so savvy that when they want to do something, they are going to do it. Michigan's defense was listed as being an even stiffer run defense than Florida's, and OSU had no problem lining up and running the ball on them. I think that Michigan's D may have been a bit overrated, but the point stands. OSU can run the ball.
But that's not the most impressive facet of their game - their passing game is absolutely incredible. OSU runs five wide receivers deep that could start on almost any team in the nation, and most plays, all Smith has to do is find the open one, which he does with alarming consistency. The Michigan game was an indication of how the Buckeyes tend to do business - Smith gets the ball to the open man. They're superb in running the right routes, too. Every play is past the marker that they need - rarely do the Bucks run patterns that are less than the first down on second or third. This is key.
OSU's gameplan absolutely should be to line up in four wide and do whatever Florida's defense wants them to. If the Gators remove a linebacker or two to help in pass coverage, run the ball. If the Gators keep their base D, throw on them. The Gators may have fast linebackers, some of the fastest in the country, but they are not going to be utilized their best if they're stuck guarding WRs. The matchups in this game are going to be incredibly interesting.
OSU's Offensive Line vs. Florida's Defensive Line: For both teams, these units have to be considered the foundation of their respective side of the ball. Ohio State's offensive line is so equally versed in pass and run blocking (lead, left to right, by Alex Boone, Steve Rehring, Doug Datish, T.J. Downing and Kirk Barton) and sets the tone for every game. The Buckeyes want to run? These guys get NASTY. Throw? They kept Michigan's attacking D and their All-American DE Lamaar Woodley off of Smith, giving him time to throw whenever he wanted. They're cohesive, intelligent and just plain tough. The Florida DL, however, lead by ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss and tackles Ray McDonald and Joe Cohen, is both stout and speedy and could cause problems for the OSU offense. Moss' length and quickness create problems for any lineman, but he's slight and not a huge factor in run defense. In addition, Ohio State has handled strong edge rushers without too much trouble this season, and as good as Moss and Harvey are, they are on the level of Michigan's Tim Jamison and Lamaar Woodley, and while they weren't kept completely in check on November 18th, they were neutralized for most of the game. Keying in, the true matchup is on the interior, where the game may be decided. If OSU's guards can't handle McDonald and Cohen, they lose a lot of their advantage.
Ohio State has been excellent this year about installing their blocking schemes. Even against Michigan's great DL, they didn't have too much trouble neutralizing the best playmakers. They have their hands full with Florida's DL, but if any team in the country can handle them, it's the Buckeyes, who boast the nation's most cohesive offensive line.
OSU's Running Backs vs. Florida's Linebackers: Florida has one of the quickest linebacking units in the country, lead by standouts MLB Brandon Siler and OLB Earl Everett. I'm not sure any unit in the country is better at running to the ball and making plays. This is key if they want to neutralize Ohio State's impressive stable of backs, containing junior Antonio Pittman and freshman standout Chris "Beanie" Wells. Siler can play sideline to sideline and is the leader of the Florida defense. He's a hitting machine but a solid tackler, and a heady player. Florida's 'backers are all solid in coverage, too. Still, they haven't met a back like Chris Wells. As good as Antonio Pittman has been, Wells may be the key to the Buckeyes running the ball, as the Florida LB corps is not particularly big. Neither Pittman nor Wells will be able to keep away from any of Florida's linebackers, but if OSU is able to open some holes, they may be able to block the undersized, aggressive Gators. Similar to games like the Texas and Michigan game, the Buckeyes have a shot at being able to run the ball if they go right at Siler and company.
OSU's Wide Receivers vs. Florida's Defensive Backs: This is where I think OSU has a great advantage. I know it's odd to say that, considering Florida's DBs are lead by two of the nation's best in Reggie Nelson, their outstanding safety, and Ryan Smith, a near shutdown corner, but it really boils down to Florida's fifth and sixth defensive backs vs. Ohio State's third, fourth and fifth receivers. Brian Hartline, Roy Hall and Brian Robiskie, Ohio State's awesome trio, are the best set of reserve receivers in the country. They showed this by absolutely shredding the talented Michigan secondary. If OSU lines up in five wide, sure, Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez will be dangerous, but it's Hartline, Robiskie and Hall that will make the tough catches. There isn't a good player to double team against the Bucks, as any one of their receivers is capable of beating one on one coverage. While this point is moot if Troy Smith doesn't have time to throw, the receivers will not let Ohio State down. Couple that with the fact that Urban Meyer has stated they won't double team any receiver, this is where OSU gains their big advantage.
Florida's DBs are very talented - but the Buckeyes won't shy away from throwing at their best. Sure, OSU picked on Morgan 'Toast' Trent against Michigan, but they didn't shy away from All-American DB Leon Hall. Hall is considered by many to be the best cover corner in the nation, and Ohio State scorched him, using his press coverage against him and repeatedly burning him (most notably in a Ted Ginn touchdown and a huge Brian Robiskie catch and run), causing many to laugh at his All-American status. I'm not sure doing this against Reggie Nelson is a smart decision (he will certainly end of the life of anybody he can get his hands on), but I don't see them avoiding the talented Florida DB's at all.
Florida's D is probably a little bit better than Michigan's, but OSU had their way with the Wolverines, and although I don't expect quite that much of an offensive explosion, I think it's going to be hard for the Gators to contain this offense. There have been many positive comments about the trick plays from Florida, but OSU can run them with the best of them, and they usually prey on weaknesses more than the average trick play. I can see, just like in the Michigan game, OSU will prey on Florida's over aggressive defense, letting the Gators take themselves out of plays. One on hand, the aggressive, attacking nature of the Florida D is stifling to most teams, but if they don't maintain their responsibilities, they will give up big plays and it will be the difference in this game.
This is going to be an interesting matchup. Florida's kick coverage is the best in the country - their athletes get after it and they never outkick the coverage on punts. However, with the nation's most dangerous return man, Ted Ginn, playing in likely his last game, and Ohio State's emphasis on special teams, do not be shocked if they exploit Florida's speed and trick them into overpursuing on a return. OSU has shown a tendency to run a few 'trick' returns and one easily could be broken, but just as easily, the Gators' speed could neutralize the OSU return game.
OSU's coverage units have played great this year. The Gators are blessed with a return man that's nearly as deadly as Ginn in Brandon James. James is capable of taking it the distance on any kick. However, in the dome, look for nearly every one of OSU's kickoffs to be downed in the back of the end zone - this is a Tressel trademark. James won't get a chance in that respect. He could have the ability to break one on a punt, as OSU's punter, AJ Trapasso, has been very inconsistent this year. If Trapasso plays as he did in some of the biggest games, the punting game will be fine.
The kicking games absolutely could be the difference. The Buckeyes have had some ups and downs with kicker Aaron Pettrey, but it's hard to guess what he will do if he has to win the game. He has a strong leg and has been accurate for most of the season. This is where OSU holds the advantage, as Florida's kicker, Chris Hetland, is only 4 of 13 on the year. His confidence, at the end of the year, was gone, although the time off may be good for him. If I'm Florida, and it comes down to a Hetland kick, I won't be feeling very good. This is why the Florida offense MUST not settle for field goals. If they do, there's a good chance they'll be leaving with 0 points.
I'd say the special teams have a slight edge to Florida, because of their coverage units and return scheme, but Ohio State's kicking game is just light years beyond the Gators', to what we've seen now.
Florida's attitude could be an issue here. Reports out of the Gators camp say that the Gators practices have been sluggish, and that the team is enjoying themselves in the atmosphere too much. I'm not speculating on that - I'm only going off what has been said. If that's the case, they will lose. Ohio State is too focused, too workmanlike and too poised of a team. They will handle their business if the Gators aren't prepared. Realistically, I feel as if the Gators are feeding the media misinformation. I think Meyer is a great coach and I can't see him having his guys unprepared, so I wouldn't panic, Gator fans. But the possibility exists. An underprepared team will lose this game.
Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel are both unbelievably successful in big games and rivalry games - both are known for that. So, while the usual bowl game mantra for the Bucks is simple - "Tressel wins big games", I don't think you can necessarily give that edge to him. Meyer may not have been in a game quite like this, but he's shown himself to be a pretty damn good big game coach himself.
Arizona has been great for the Bucks, and with the fans having two extra weeks to purchase tickets, I expect it to be around 60-40 Buckeye fans. This can make a difference and has in the past. It's like a second home for Ohio State, and having gone through nearly the same ritual (staying in the same hotel and getting out there with plenty of time for acclimation and then practice), that certainly can't hurt.
I would say the intagibles favor OSU, but the 'underdog' factor, if Florida buys into it, is a powerful one. I don't know if that's the case. I've heard comparisons between this year's game and the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, with OSU this time playing Miami, but let me discuss two interviews, one featuring a Buckeye, one a Gator. One was on Ohio's 1460 The Fan and featuring Ohio State safety Brandon Mitchell. In this interview, Bruce Hooley repeatedly threw Mitchell softballs - questions like "What do you think of Florida's offense?" Mitchell, a senior, answered the question in an unbelievable fashion. He knew the name of every receiver, back and QB on the Florida offense and what they were good at. He didn't give the Ohio State strategy away, but he mentioned what he had to watch for, and you KNEW he was watching film and breaking them down. The next is with Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss - his comments, while not necessarily disrespectful, called into question the speed issue again, stating that Florida was just so much faster than the Bucks. I beg to differ, but if Moss wasn't being facetious, then the preparation is potentially an issue.
It's not necessarily a deal breaker, but in 2002 when Kellen Winslow was stating that #2 (Mike Doss, for those playing at home) was a good - but not great - player, and that Ohio State wasn't ready for Florida's speed, it showed the perception. I'm not saying that Florida is underprepared, but upsets tend to happen when teams are overlooked, and I don't see the Buckeyes doing that.
The intangibles are too hard to judge from an unbiased perspective, but that's what's out there to discuss.
I think the overall speed issue is overblown. Florida is certainly fast, but they may not be faster than Ohio State. Speed doesn't win football games, but with Ginn, Gonzalez and Hartline in the receiving corps for the Buckeyes, and some of the speed and physicality they have on defense, OSU can hang with anyone in that respect.
I think the difference in the game is going to be OSU's comfort level. They've been there before, they've done this before, they know what it takes. Florida, meanwhile, is a very talented team and is very well coached. They honestly remind me a lot of the OSU team (when Clarett was injured) in 2002 - great defense, underachieving offense, savvy head coach in his second year. There's a lot to like about them, stemming from their speed, overall athleticism, and intensity. They certainly can and maybe even will win this game.
One thing I always feel in big games is that what really makes the difference is the QB. Not necessarily that the QB is more talented, but more poised. Smith is the definition of poised, and the offense feeds off of that. Leak is the opposite. If he needs to win the game, I don't think he will, and in all honesty, I think if it's a close game he could easily cost them it. The Florida D will be ready, but I'm not sold on that offense and I think that could be the difference.
I won't make a score prediction, because I'm too superstitious, but I think that the Buckeyes are certainly in position to take home the victory. Will they? I don't know, but I'd place my faith in Troy Smith over anybody playing right now in the college game.