Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Examining Jim Tressel's Approach To Big Games (Kinda)

Of everyone who covers the Buckeyes for a living, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises is quite obviously the best of the lot. He puts more thought into his columns than his competition and finds a way to slide his opinion in without beating you over the head with it. And as far as I can tell, he never goes through the motions; he never mails it in. I'd never heard of the guy before February but he's made an impression on me in same way Rob Neyer did a few years ago - maybe not as strong, but still. I wouldn't expect Lesmerises to be on the beat for the rest of his adult life.

Anyway, I bring this up because Lesmerises wrote an interesting article about Jim Tressel on Friday, and I haven't had a chance to give it recognition or comment on it until right now. Here's his opening line: "What's more to blame for Ohio State's loss to USC - a talent deficit or the way that talent was deployed?"

It sets the table for Lesmerises, in so many words, suggesting that Pete Carroll might be a better big-game coach than Tressel because Carroll doesn't approach every week the same (1.e., Stanford week is a little different than Ohio State week.) Tressel, on the other hand, is legendarily even keel. But is that a detriment to the team? Quote:

"I think that helps you avoid upsets, but maybe it doesn't put you in the best frame of mind for the huge games. And if Pete Carroll is firing his guys up with tribal war chants before each game, or having more fun during practice, maybe that gets you ready for big wins but leaves you more susceptible to upsets.

Since 2005, in this little time period of OSU discontent, the Buckeyes have six losses, and only one of those teams - Illinois last year - finished its season with more than two losses. In that same span, USC has five losses and four of them came to teams that finished with four losses or more (though Oregon beat USC with Dennis Dixon last year when it looked like a national contender and then later collapsed after Dixon's injury). Remember that USC cost itself a spot in the national title game in 2006 with a terrible last-weekend loss to a UCLA team that finished 7-6; and fell short of the title game last year because of a loss to 41-point underdog Stanford, which finished 4-8."

Lesmerises even goes so far as to break down OSU and USC's losses since 2005:

USC losses since 2005

13-0 Texas (05)
10-4 Oregon State (06)
9-4 Oregon (07)
7-6 UCLA (06)
4-8 Stanford (07)

Ohio State losses since 2005

13-0 Texas (05)
2-0 USC (08)
13-1 Florida (06)
11-1 Penn State (05)
12-2 LSU (07)
9-4 Illinois (07)

While the evidence speaks pretty loudly, I would like to chime in and disagree a little with Lesmerises here. The 2005 home loss to Texas does not apply to this theory at all - and I will argue this to the death. The 2005 Texas Longhorns, in case you forgot, won the national title in the most exciting game of my 28 years on this planet. From the hype, to the level of play, to the highest of high's never been better.

But Texas didn't beat Ohio State that September night because they were more fired up, or had more talent. And it wasn't simply a matter of Texas having Vince Young on their side, either - it goes much deeper than that. Ohio State was the better team that night, and again, this is something I'll argue to the death. Sometimes the better team doesn't win, which was the case three years ago. It was a combination of bad luck (Hamby's dropped TD), bad timing (two weeks later and Troy Smith would've had the keys to the team on a full-time basis) and yes, a poor decision by Tressel (sending Justin Zwick out there in lieu of Troy Smith for the critical drive of the game).

It's sour grapes, for sure, and Texas was a great team, but it doesn't mean I'm wrong. Ohio State had six scoring drives that night--and missed a field goal--and came away with only 22 points. AJ Hawk and Co. dominated Vince Young from the end of the 1st quarter until the latter half of the 4th, but still came up short. OSU was handling Texas so easily during the majority of the game that I was compelled to call my friend Chris, who was on his honeymoon (and isn't even a Buckeyes fan), at halftime and left a voice mail: "Assuming Troy Smith gets his MoJo back, this is your 2005 national champion." That's how confident I was of the end result. The Buckeyes only led by three at half but it was clear who the better team was.

Sorry about the rambling...I do have a point that ties all of this together.

While I agree that Carroll's mentality in the weeks leading up to big games is the best recipe for success, it hasn't really been a major issue with Tressel until recently.

(Did Ohio State lose to Penn State in '05 because of Tressel's frighteningly calm demeanor - or did they face a really good Nittany Lion team before Troy Smith regained his stride?)

Not to throw salt on the Laurinaitis/Freeman/Jenkins/Boeckman/Boone/Robiskie group another time, but this particular group lacks the collective Eye of the Tiger that is mandatory for title teams in every sport.

So while Lesmerises makes interesting points--most of which I agree with--I'll let a few years pass before I rush to judgement on Jim Tressel in big games. And I'll spend my nights hoping Etienne Sabino, Brian Rolle and Jermale Hines get a chance to become Rob Kelly, Antoine Winfield and Mike Doss in the Psycho Department.

And of course, it would be nice if Terrelle Pryor became Vince Young.

(Two other things...

1. Doug Lesmerises is also funny, as this line illustrates: "I think you could ask some coaches "What's a bigger threat to the future of humanity - the erosion of morals and values in society, global warming or dragons?" and they'd say "A little bit of everything.""

2. I still think, at their peak, the 2005 Buckeyes--despite losing twice--were better than either the '98 or '02 squads.)

Agree? Disagree? Email me.

-Brad Spieser (