To the ire of Buckeye Nation, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel has come to epitomize a style of grind-it-out, conservative football that nowadays seems like a relic from a bygone era when Woody Hayes strolled the sidelines in Columbus. Formations and the quality of athletes out on the field may have changed, but the general tenets of the “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” philosophy still apply: be the more physical team, emphasize the run, play for field position and don’t beat yourself.
“Tresselball” worked pretty well for the Buckeyes during their 2002 national championship run, but now message board Monday morning quarterbacks are attributing OSU’s recent struggles in big games to the Senator’s hesitancy to turn his team loose. However, the heartbreaking loss to USC on Saturday night offered a pretty strong counterargument to those clamoring for Tressel to open things up.
He isn’t very good at it.
(As an aside, Chris Brown of Smart Football wrote a scathing critique on Monday of Tressel’s coaching performance in the USC game that is an excellent read from an X-and-Os perspective.)
One go-for-the-throat decision by Tressel at the conclusion of the first half turned the game in the Trojans’ favor.
With about two minutes left in the first half and OSU possessing the ball deep in its own territory, it looked as though the Buckeyes were headed for the locker room with a three-point lead and the momentum after a missed USC field goal try. The Trojans had no timeouts left and no way to stop the clock.
If ever a situation called for a heavy dose of the Sweater Vest’s beloved off-tackle plays or quarterback draws, this was it. Shockingly, however, Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor, whose passing skills clearly remain a work in progress, came out throwing on first down. It was like watching George Costanza do the opposite of his every instinct, except there wouldn’t be any hot dates or jobs with the Yankees awaiting Tressel in the end.
After an incompletion on first down stopped the clock, it appeared as though Tressel had come to his senses, running Boom Herron for a short gain on second down. Another running play would have bled the clock to well under a minute. OSU still would be forced to punt, but chances are USC would have had such little clock left that the Trojans would have no shot of mounting a drive ending in points. Instead, Pryor misfired on another pass attempt, forcing the Buckeyes to punt with more than a minute left. Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley calmly engineered a 77-yard drive that was just long enough to put Southern Cal in field goal position. This time, kicker Jordan Congdon nailed his 21-yard attempt as time ran out on the half. USC headed into the break having stolen away the momentum in what had become a tie game.
Tressel’s decision to go into the two-minute drill seemed even more out of character when you consider that he had ordered his team to kick a field goal when facing fourth and goal from about the half-yard line earlier in the quarter. With points at a premium in this slugfest, eschewing the possible touchdown for an easy three at least seemed defensible. (Homerism would have gone for it.) Yet, it made airing it out late in the half even more befuddling.
Barkley’s poise and Joe McKnight’s heroics on USC’s final drive of the game will dominate the postgame analysis and live on forever in Trojan lore. The late drama, however, will overshadow the reality that USC won—or OSU lost—the game when Tressel unwisely rolled the dice in the first half.