Two years ago, Southern Cal and Ohio State were universally regarded as being two of the elite programs in all of college football; both were on a roll of consecutive shared or outright conference titles. Two months ago, they met in a Clash of the Titans in Columbus, with one seeming like a lock to spend another January as a BCS darling; the other destined for the “next-best” layer of bowl games.
But somewhere along those twelve steps that are the college football season, both these teams fell off the wagon. Southern Cal somehow wandered off the road, finding a way to parlay the momentum coming off the dramatic last-minute win against the Buckeyes into a loss against Washington. A few weeks later, Ohio State did its best impression of a back-yard fraternity well into its third keg of beer; stumbling into a seal-clubbing in West Lafayette at the hands of Purdue. Could it be that for the Trojans and the Buckeyes happy hour is over? Southern Cal seems destined for the fate assigned to the third-place Pac-10 side; New Year’s Eve in El Paso against a middle of the pack Big-12 team (Missouri…I’m looking at you…)
“But, wait a minute,” you might say…Ohio State beat conference leader Iowa this past weekend, all but assuring the Buckeyes a trip to the Rose Bowl. “How can they be on the way down?”
It is rather simple. Sometimes, it is obvious when you’re heading for rock-bottom. Take the Trojans as the plain-as-day example. When Stanford stud tailback Toby Gerhart led the Cardinal through the Trojan defense like the Greeks that sprung from Odysseus’ famed horse, they not only made Southern Cal head coach Pete Carroll into a modern-day Laocoon, but they flattened a bunch of recent college football certainties as well.
Look at the mythic status Southern Cal has enjoyed over the past few years. Three Heisman trophy winners, two of whom don’t currently suck on Sunday. Seven straight BCS bowl games. Seven straight 11-win seasons. Seven straight top-four AP poll finishes and their dominance over the Pac-10…all finished.
Look at Stanford’s 55-21 victory in a historical perspective. 55 points represents the most ever given up by a Trojan team. Saturday’s loss was the worst since a 51-0 defeat at home against Notre Dame in 1966. A Carroll-led Trojan squad lost in November for the first time after 28 consecutive victories. Not to mention for the second time in three weekends, Carroll endured the worst loss of his nine seasons.
Worse yet, roll the clock back to 2007, when Stanford’s 24-23 victory as a 41-point underdog shocked the college football world. However, in what may be the biggest indicator of the Trojans’ downward slide, this drubbing hardly even rates as an upset. After all, for the first time since 2001, the Trojan campaign will end with a minor bowl berth and more than two losses.
That makes it pretty apparent that something is wrong in Trojan land. But if you peel back the layers of the Buckeye onion, you can see some similar warning signs.
The first came in the season opener against Navy. The Midshipmen were outsized by over 40 pounds per man in the trenches, and even though they lost in Columbus, they were able to push the Buckeyes all over the field.
Flash forward to an October afternoon on the banks of the Wabash, where Ohio State committed five turnovers on its way to being man-handled by a Purdue team that has managed only two nine-win seasons since 1980 and hasn’t put double-digits in the win column since the Carter administration.
Then came the conference-clinching Iowa victory; one that may be the ugliest big win ever. In a word, it was disgusting. Even though they won the game and the Big Eleven Ten, they may have lost the respect of all real college football fans.
People don’t want their big conference champions blowing two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter. People don’t get that championship whiff off a team that genuinely looked afraid to go for the win late in regulation. People don’t associate winning character with resorting to a long field-goal by a replacement kicker in overtime.
The most disgusting thing about this game – it is one of the few times I can remember a team winning a championship by rolling over and quitting. Luckily for the Buckeyes, Iowa also quit, making possible Ohio State’s first trip to Pasadena in 13 years.
I can understand Iowa tossing in the towel. After this was a team that surprised everybody being in contention for a conference title in November. It all came down to Iowa having the ball on their own 33-yard line with 52 seconds and two timeouts left. They are on the road in one of the toughest venues in which to be a visitor and they had already had missed a 22-yard field goal. When Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz called a run up the middle on first down, only to have it stuffed down the Hawkeyes’ collective throat, it was clear Iowa didn’t think they could win in regulation. Hence, they ran out the clock.
Vomit-inducing, yes…but also understandable. But what Ohio State did was just unforgivable for a supposedly championship team.
First, they let Iowa’s Derrell Johnson-Koulianos roll right through them like the Red Army did in Berlin in 1945 for a 99-yard kickoff return. Then, they let the Hawkeyes pull off a 70-yard scoring drive during which Iowa looked more the Greeks at the battle of Thermopylae than an over-matched conference foe, and during which Ohio State butterfingered two tailor-made chances for interceptions.
Even after getting the ball back, Ohio State found itself on their own 18-yard line armed with 2:37 and multiple timeouts. It was at this point that OSU head coach Cheatypants McSweatervest Jim Tressel decided to get more conservative than a love-child borne of a 1970’s Joe Paterno offense and Ann Coulter. The Buckeyes ran three ultra-bland running plays, followed by two lackluster passes; all of which gained exactly nothing. Worse yet, the Buckeyes showed no sense of urgency; fiddle-farting around wasting valuable time between these go-nowhere plays. It really seemed as though Tressel thought his team was ahead at this point.
Now for the moment of my own extreme personal nausea…I found myself agreeing with the steerage-class rabble of college football fandom; those 105,000 genetic tragedies that inhabit the Horseshoe on a football Saturday in Columbus. Don’t try to deny the full-throated boos you unleashed on Tressel’s play-calling. We all heard it, whether in person or via television. You rained disapproval all over your own sideline at the sheer gutlessness Tressel displayed in that final 2:37. And I was right there with you.
To make matters even more unpalatable, Tressel’s strategy remained sans testicles in overtime. The Buckeye defense put a clamp-job on the Hawkeyes, driving Iowa backward and ultimately forcing an inexperienced Iowa QB James Vandenberg to toss the ball up for grabs on 4th-and-26 from the 41-yard line. Still the Buckeyes didn’t try to win the game; rather Tressel calls three more go-nowhere running plays straight into the teeth of the Iowa defense, leaving the ballgame to the foot of a 2nd string kicker who had already missed from 47 yards, and posted a less-than-stellar 3-for-6 since being pressed into service following an injury to the starting place-kicker. When one stops to consider that this replacement kicker had only managed to make kicks of 37 yards or less, playing for a 39-yard field goal doesn’t really seem like the move of a coach confident in his offense’s ability to move the ball in crunch-time.
Of course, now that I’ve had that bonding moment with Ohio State fans, I feel confident that I now can expose the dirty little secret nobody in Columbus is willing to admit…Jim Tressel has no faith in his quarterback, the previously much bally-hooed Terrelle Pryor.
Being an ardent Penn State fan, I have to admit when Tressel stole Pryor away from the Nittany Lions, I was flaming pissed. After all, at the time Pryor was compared to Vince Young (when that was still a good thing). However, now that Pryor can still be compared to Vince Young in the current era when that isn’t such a positive makes me want to send Coach Cheatypants McSweatervest a giant “Thank You” card.
The fact that Tressel doesn’t trust his quarterback anymore is really the only reason that explains such gutless play-calling in what amounted to a conference championship game. Why else would Tressel play for a second overtime rather than take a shot at the end-zone or at least move his offense to within chip-shot range? Tressel can’t shake the vision of Terrelle Pryor gagging at the hint of pressure, because he’s seen it too many times. Last months’ debacle at Purdue may have been the last straw.
The fact that Tressel won’t put the ball in Pryor’s hands with the ballgame up for grabs isn’t the only sign that Pryor has lost the trust of his coach. Even though Pryor is just a sophomore, Tressel has signed a quarterback in each of his past two recruiting classes. Perhaps he is just getting ready to officially give up on Pryor.
The only wrinkle in all of this is for some reason, Tressel keeps playing Pryor. It is clear that Tressel has no faith in him, and it is equally clear that Tressel is already looking to replace a “stud” with two years of eligibility left. Perhaps McSweatervest is hoping that Pryor can face Oregon in the Rose Bowl and get sucker-punched into a redshirt by the recently-reinstated LeGarrette Blount.
Yes, the signs of the Southern Cal Trojan demise are far more obvious. But ruin can be hidden inside a Trojan Horse as well…the fall of Troy came about because its leader stole Helen away from Menelaus, and tried to hang on to her despite the obvious signs that she would bring ruin. While Terrelle Pryor may not have the face that launched 1,000 ships, he certainly threatens to bring ruin to Columbus.