There must be a special connection between Glendale, Arizona and the Ohio State Buckeyes. How else can you explain that for five of the past eight years Ohio State has been one of the teams that the Fiesta Bowl has featured?
The Buckeyes will once again return to the desert, two years removed from an embarrassing 41-14 drubbing in the BCS championship game at the hands of Urban Myer and the Florida Gators. This time they hope that they will depart from Glendale in a more triumphant fashion than the night of January 7, 2007.
The Buckeyes seniors, outgoing juniors, and coaching staff alike will come into this game with a chip on their shoulder as they try to shake the burden of not being able to win a big game against an elite team. That is something that they failed to do twice this season vs USC and Penn State.
They are anxious to finally get the respect they deserve. And while a win on Monday night will not completely shut up all of the national media pundits and Buckeye haters across the country, it could silence them for a while. If nothing else, it would be something for them to hang their hat on. It would not be the national title they came back to win, but it would be a great consolation.
They face a very formidable opponent, however, in the Texas Longhorns. This is a Longhorn team that is firing on all cylinders, and has a point to prove to the people who bought into Bob Stoop's hype of his Oklahoma Sooners, left them out of the Big 12 title game and dashed their hopes of another national title. For the Longhorns, the Buckeyes are a very welcoming sight. Finally the "chump" team they need to take out their frustrations on!
National media naysayers and Buckeye haters alike are hoping after this game is over that Buckeye fans will finally settle down, and that the supposed "truth" about their team will be exposed. Not to rain on anyones' parade, but this could actually be a very good game and closer than you think it will be. After all let's not forget what happened the last time a team received 50 days of praise and what they looked like on game day.
Here are my keys to the game:
Ohio State on Offense:
It will all start with Jim Tressel and his coaching staff. How well will they be able to manage this game? One thing is for sure: they must be innovative. They will have to score early and often if they want to keep up with Colt McCoy and the rest of the Texas offense. I am not talking field goals either. The offense will have to find a way to get into the end zone.
No one is expecting the Buckeyes to win this game, or even do well. So why not open up the playbook and have some fun? Whatever they do, they will not be able to let up. Because once the Texas scoring machine gets going they will not let up.
I like the talk about having Terrell Pryor and Todd Boeckman on the field at the same time. It should give the Longhorns D something to think about, and could add some much need extra speed to the offense. It's a creative idea for sure, but will it be effective?
Let's face the facts: it won't be like having the combination of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow that was so effective for Florida in the 2006 title game.
Chris Wells should get his share of looks; he bounced back admirably from his injuries and performed well over the last six weeks to produce another 1,000-yard rushing season. Unfortunately for Beanie, he will have a challenge ahead of him. Texas is strong up front. The Longhorns only gave up 2.8 rushing yards a game. Not encouraging news for Beanie at all. He will have to fight for all the yards that he can get. But if he does break a long run, don't expect it to be until late.
If Ohio State is going to be successful at all, they will need to try to get things done through the air. The good news for the Buckeyes is that Texas will be bringing the 109th ranked pass defense into this game, surrendering an average of 266.3 yards through the air.
Now for the bad news: the Buckeyes wide receivers have seriously underperformed this season. They have trouble getting open, and lack the ability to make big plays. Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie have been big time play makers in the past, but they have been lackluster this season. That will have to change.
If it doesn't, it will put a lot of pressure on guys like Dane Sazenbuagher, Diver Posey, and Defoe Torrence. These are good kids, but they lack experience. Most of Texas' opponents got things done through the air, and the Buckeyes will need to as well.
The Buckeyes' pass attack depends on Terrell Pryor's ability to throw the deep ball. If he can't, the Buckeyes need to give Todd Beockmen a look when they need to move the ball downfield through the air.
They also need to get tight ends Rory Nicole and Jake Ballard into the game. They are both regarded as NFL talent, and they have both made plays for the team in the past. The coaching staff and quarterbacking crew did not look their way much this season, but they could use the extra option in the passing game.
Finally, the offensive line has to stay healthy and be consistent. This unit was banged-up for most of the season, which contributed to the problem on the line because some guys had to play out of position. They need to stay healthy, and make sure they stick to their assignments. As stated before, Texas' defensive front and linebacker corps will be coming, and they will win the war up front if the Buckeyes are not up to the task.
Texas on Offense:
The last time the Buckeyes saw Colt McCoy, he was a young freshmen who had never played in a NCAA Division-1 game of this magnitude. Ohio State was ranked #1, and Texas was ranked #2 in week 2 of the 2006 season. The Buckeyes defeated the Longhorns 24-7.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, this is a much different McCoy. This season, he was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, and arguably should have won. He owns a passer rating of 179.2, ranking third in the nation. He also completes 78.1% of his passes. Cameron Heyward and Thaddus Gibson the Buckeyes defensive ends will have to be on top of their game to apply pressure on him, certainly no easy task.
McCoy was also the Longhorns top rusher. He has the ability to be slippery and wiggle his way out of tackles, and avoid defenders completely. James Laurinaitis, along with Marcus Freeman, will have to be stronger and explosively fast to ensure McCoy does not get into the second level, or else it will not fare well for the Buckeyes.
As good of a rusher as McCoy is, I would expect that Texas will use their running backs as much as possible so that McCoy can use his receivers Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley, both of whom caught over 70 passes this season. They will be especially dangerous on third and short or even fourth down situations. You can bet McCoy will test Malcolm Jenkins and company to see if they can actually get themselves off the field in situations where a stop is critical.
How will it shape out?
I would expect Texas to come out and attack the Buckeyes from all angles. I think that they will most likely tire out the Buckeyes defense early, and even get on the board before they can. They will set the tone early on both offense and defense, and it will be up to the Buckeyes to follow suit.
I would expect the Buckeyes to play to their strengths by running the ball their first few possessions. When they have trouble, I would expect that they will try to balance the offense a little more. What will be very critical for them is how they respond if the defense gets them good field position due to a turnover, because they will create some. They will need to be aggressive, especially if the game is within reach.
I think that Ohio State will do their best to capitalize on what is given to them, and even have a chance to win the game with a late drive. Ultimately, though, I think Texas will prevail.
I'm a big Buckeye fan. But I like the Longhorns in this one, 31-24.