Big Ten Chumps

Tonight the Nebraska Cornhuskers play the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten Championship game.  It’s a bit of a nightmare scenario for the conference. is not a bad team.  They’re 10-2 and have only lost one game in the conference — although it was a crushing loss, a 63-38 spanking at the hands of the Ohio State Buckeyes.  Wisconsin, on the other hand, is a different story.  The Badgers are 7-5 overall, and only 4-4 in the conference.  Wisconsin lost three of its last four games, all in overtime.

Wisconsin is not a bad team, either — but what does it tell you when a .500 team in the conference makes it to the championship game and has the chance to play in the Rose Bowl?  The reason, of course, is that undefeated Ohio State, easily the best team in the Big Ten, isn’t eligible to play due to NCAA sanctions. surprisingly, there’s not a lot of interest in the game.  Many tickets are for sale at a steep discount from face value, and organizers are expecting a number of empty seats.  I’m confident that the Rose Bowl organizers, too, are holding their breath and hoping that Nebraska wins, so the Granddaddy of all bowl games doesn’t feature a team that barely has a winning record.

I’m sure the Badgers will play their hardest and will be proud to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl if they win.  I’d feel that way if I were a Badger, too, but for the rest of us Big Ten fans this game is an embarrassment.  It’s a pathetic conclusion to a year that — thanks to the sanctions imposed on Ohio State and Penn State, weak teams, a less-than-stellar out of conference record, and uninspired play by teams like Michigan State that were expected to be powerhouses — has been an embarrassment for the storied Big Ten conference.

A Big Ten Bowl Day

Today five Big Ten teams play in bowl games.  The big game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Rose Bowl, but other Big Ten teams also will have a chance to strut their stuff on the national stage.  Northwestern matches up against Texas Tech, Michigan State plays Alabama, Michigan will break its bowl drought against Mississippi State, and Penn State and Florida will square off.  I’ll be rooting for all of those Big Ten teams — even Michigan.

In recent years Big Ten fans have paid careful attention to the conference’s bowl record.  They feel like the Big Ten is disrespected on the national level, particularly in comparison to the SEC.  (I regret to say that Ohio State is responsible for a lot of this perception.  The Buckeyes are one of the Big Ten’s flagship programs, and they have never beaten an SEC team in a bowl game.  That record unfortunately includes two national championship game losses.)  Bowl games are supposed to be fun, but for the Big Ten they are serious business, and not just because they produce significant revenue for the member schools.  Big Ten fans want everyone to recognize what they believe to be true — that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, with the biggest stadiums, the richest traditions, the greatest rivalries, and the most dedicated fans.  If you want to exercise such bragging rights, however, you have to earn them on the field.

This year the Big Ten has gotten off to a good start in bowl season.  It is 2-0, with Illinois and Iowa both posting bowl wins.  Today will tell the tale, however, particularly since three of the bowl games match up the Big Ten and the SEC.  Each of the games, moreover, poses intriguing questions and matchups.  How will Northwestern perform without their fine quarterback, Dan Persa, and will it be able to win its first bowl game since the Truman Administration?  Can Michigan State put a signature win over the defending national champions as a capstone on a break-through season that has seen the Spartans win 11 games?  How will Michigan’s Denard Robinson fare against the Bulldogs, and can the beleaguered Michigan defense keep the Wolverines in the game?  And which Penn State and Florida teams will show up for the Outback Bowl?

To me, the most interesting game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Grandaddy of them all.  I haven’t had a chance to see much of the Horned Frogs and their top-ranked defense, and there are lingering questions about the toughness of TCU’s schedule and the Mountain West Conference.  TCU will have a chance to answer those questions when its faces Wisconsin’s power running game.  If Wisconsin wins convincingly, on the other hand, it will quiet complaints about the BCS system by members of non-BCS conferences.

Big Ten, Big Wins

With Iowa’s win over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, the Big Ten ended its bowl season — and a pleasantly successful bowl season it was, for a change.  The wins by the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Hawkeyes meant that the Big Ten was undefeated in BCS bowls, and Penn State and Wisconsin also had marquee wins over LSU and Miami, respectively.

It would have been nice if Northwestern, Minnesota, and Michigan State had pulled out wins in their games, too, but I’ll take a 4-3 bowl record for now.  After all of the criticism of the Big Ten as “overrated,” “slow,” “unimaginative,” “boring,” and so forth, it was nice to see Big Ten teams step up in games against top-ranked teams and show what they could do.  I think the bowl games demonstrated that this year’s Big Ten had many strong teams with excellent athletes and coaches.  It should quiet the naysayers for a while, at least.

In my view, one of the reasons the Big Ten gets dissed is that key Big Ten games tend to be low scoring.  Pundits seem to focus on offense; this year they were excited about Cincinnati, for example, because the Bearcats scored a lot of points.  It didn’t seem to make a difference to them that, in many of its games, Cincinnati also gave up a lot of points.  Big Ten games often are low scoring because Big Ten teams usually emphasize defense.  The Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl, where Ohio State and Iowa were able to dampen high-flying offenses, shows that defensive capabilities shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Sweet Smell Of Roses

Yesterday’s Rose Bowl game was immensely satisfying for every Ohio State football fan and, no doubt, for the team and its coaches. 

Going into the game, Ohio State clearly was viewed as the underdog by just about everyone.  The “experts” in the pregame shows all predicted that Oregon’s high-powered offense would be too much for Ohio State to handle, and their predictions likely were influenced by the fact that Ohio State had lost three straight BCS games.  Fortunately for the Buckeyes, the experts turned out to be wrong.  The defense managed to control the Oregon offense, and Terrelle Pryor had a breakout game as the Buckeyes won, 26-17.

It’s clear that Jim Tressel and the Ohio State coaches played a much more wide-open offensive style for the Rose Bowl.  Pryor threw often, completed the majority of his passes for two touchdowns and more than 260 yards, was Ohio State’s leading rusher, and time and again came up with big plays when they were needed.  Pryor threw some fine touch passes — two to Devier Posey and a looping throw that hit Brandon Saine in stride along the sideline come to mind — and also threw some bullets with accuracy.  I think part of the emphasis on passing was due to the belief that Oregon would be able to put points on the board, but I also think part of the play-calling was dictated by Oregon’s defense, which seemed committed to stopping the Ohio State running game.  In any case, the game plan required the quarterback to perform, and he rose to the occasion in heroic fashion. Kudos to Terrelle Pryor for playing an excellent game on the Big Stage and to Jim Tressel and the coaching staff for coming up with a well-executed game plan.

On the defensive side of the ball, I think Ohio State just had more talent than Oregon expected.  Even though Oregon consistently had good field position due to poor kick return coverage by the Buckeyes — thanks mostly to short, low kickoffs and lost contain — it often struggled to move the ball and its quarterback was under pressure whenever he went back to pass.  Although Oregon clearly has speed on offense, they didn’t have the enormous speed advantage that the experts forecast and, as the game wore on, couldn’t come up with the big plays at crucial moments.  Oregon also had a crushing turnover on a blown handoff that stopped a drive and allowed Ohio State to get the ball back and run more time off the clock.

As a traditionalist, I thought the two most satisfying aspects of the game were Ohio State’s ability to respond after falling behind, 17-16, and then its ability to grind out the rest of the clock when it got the ball with about 5 minutes to go after Oregon missed a field goal.  Oregon knew that it had to stop the Buckeye offense if it wanted to win the game; it just couldn’t do it.

Finally, as someone who watched the game on TV, I was struck by the punky attitude of the Oregon players, who seemed to celebrate, scream, and strut after every play and, I thought, should have been flagged for at least one late on Pryor as he ran out of bounds.  In contrast, the Ohio State players were classy and composed throughout the game.  I like winning; I like winning with class even better.

Congratulations to the Ohio State players and coaches on a great win that should help to exorcise a few demons.

The Granddaddy Of Them All

Today the Ohio State Buckeyes complete their season by playing the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl.  Of course, every college football fan now wants his team to be playing in the National Championship Game, but if you fall short of that lofty goal the Rose Bowl is pretty good consolation.  It is in a beautiful and warm location, features the classic Tournament of Roses parade, and has all of the “color and pageantry of intercollegiate sports” that you could want.

For old-line Big Ten fans (such as me) the Rose Bowl will always occupy a special place because, for years, it was the bowl destination of the winner of the Big Ten.  It was the oldest and, for Big Ten fans at least, the most prestigious bowl game.  My college roommate and I actually went to the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1980, when the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes lost to the USC Trojans in a thrilling game.  We both were on the Ohio State Lantern at the time and got the Lantern‘s press box pass and field pass for the game.  Graydon sat in the press box, and I took the field pass and watched the game from the sidelines.  It is the only time I have watched a major sports event from the field of play, and it was awesome looking up at more than 100,000 cheering fans sitting in that big bowl.  Although the outcome of the game was not what I would have wished, it was an experience I will never forget.

I think this game also will be challenging for the Buckeyes.  Oregon has an explosive offense that can put a lot of points on the board.  Although Ohio State has a fine defense, I don’t think it has played any team (USC included) that has the kind of multi-faceted attack Oregon brings to the table.  Ohio State’s offense has progressed by fits and starts this season, and Buckeye fans are hoping that, with Terrelle Pryor, his running backs, and the offense line healthy for the first time in months, the offense will really find its stride in this game.  (The fact that two of Ohio State’s receivers are ineligible for the game won’t help in that regard, unfortunately.)  Offensively, I think the key will be whether Ohio State can run the ball effectively and score touchdowns when they get to the red zone.  Defensively, the test will be to keep Oregon’s quarterback in the pocket and turn him into a drop-back passer.  It should be an exciting game to watch, with two teams that play different styles.

Let’s go, Bucks!

Ducks And Beavers

Tonight the Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State Beavers play for the right to play Ohio State in Pasadena.  The two teams’ in-state rivalry is fierce — the game is known in Oregon as the “Civil War” — and for the first time in 113 games whichever team wins will play in the Rose Bowl.

I haven’t followed the PAC-10 closely this year and don’t have a strong sense about which team is likely to win.  I just think that one of the best things about college football, and one of the reasons why I prefer it to the pros, is the intense rivalries that exist in every conference, from sea to shining sea.  Oregon-Oregon State is one of those great rivalries.  Out in the Pacific Northwest fans of both teams no doubt are getting stoked for the game as I write this.

The strong feelings generated by rivalry games always make for exciting, emotional play, and in this game we have the added bonus of getting to do a little scouting of Ohio State’s opponent in the Rose Bowl.  Go Ducks!  Go Beavers!

Edited to add:  It will be the Ducks versus Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.  Oregon beat Oregon State 37-33 last night.

The Sweet Scent Of Roses

The Buckeyes pulled off a nerve-wracking overtime win over Iowa yesterday to clinch a share of the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.  For those of us in the stands, it was a roller coaster ride of delight and deep concern as Ohio State made big plays and then Iowa answered.  You could argue that the biggest play of the game from Ohio State’s standpoint was winning the coin flip in overtime, so the Buckeye defense could set the tone for the overtime — and they did.


The post-game celebration

It was a perfect day for a football game; warm when the sun was higher in the sky, then cooling off after it dipped below the western side of Ohio Stadium.  The teams were evenly matched, but with different offensive styles.  Iowa decided they were going to play a more wide-open game and they did so, effectively.  Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa probably had his worst day as a Buckeye.  Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg went after him repeatedly, with great success.  The Buckeyes, on the other hand, for the most part eschewed the pass in favor of an effective ground game that saw them break two long touchdown runs, a third, shorter burst around end for a score, and rack up more than 200 yards on the ground.  And when it looked like Ohio State had put Iowa away, Iowa answered with game-changing plays like a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 70-yard drive for the tying score.

In the end, though, it was the Ohio State defense that made four big plays in overtime — forcing a hurried incompletion by Vandenberg, a tackle for loss on a running play, a huge, crushing sack of Vandenberg, and then an interception in the end zone that turned Iowa away without any points.  That performance allowed the Ohio State offense to play conservatively on its possession.  Three running plays later, the ball was positioned squarely in front of the goalposts, Ohio State’s backup kicked booted it through, the Rose Bowl bid was assured, and excited fans flooded the field.

Some other thoughts about the game:

*  Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg looks like he has a real future in the Big Ten.  He has a good arm, the Iowa coaches had a good game plan, and when the Iowa line gave him time — which was most of the time — he threw accurately and well.

*  I think Terrelle Pryor is more banged up than the coaches have let on.  The Ohio State offensive game plan clearly focused on running backs Brandon Saine and Boom Herron, and they both played well.  Pryor did not look to be nearly as maneuverable when he went back to pass.

*  Ohio State’s two-minute drill needs a lot of work.

*  If you can keep the Ohio State defensive front from getting penetration — and that is a big “if” for most teams — you can throw the ball on the Buckeyes.

*  For all of the complaints about Ohio State’s conservative style, it has produced the team’s fifth straight Big Ten championship.

Now it’s on to the traditional rivalry game with the Michigan Wolverines, at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Playing For A Chance At The Roses

Tomorrow afternoon Ohio State plays Iowa at Ohio Stadium, with the winner of the game taking home the Big Ten championship and the invitation to the Rose Bowl. It’s been a tremendous season for Iowa. Until last week’s stumble against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes were undefeated and had pulled off a series of thrilling come-from-behind wins, including a last-second victory against Michigan State. The Buckeyes’ season has been a bit more up-and-down, with last week’s road win against Penn State being the high point so far.

I expect it to be a tough, hard-hitting game. Iowa’s offense is banged up and, at times during conference play, has struggled at moving the ball. Due to an injury they will be starting a new quarterback, so when Iowa has the ball Ohio State fans will look to make the Horseshoe as loud and intimidating as possible. Iowa’s defense, on the other hand, is one of the finest defenses in the Big Ten and in the nation. They are a gritty, ball-hawking group that thrives on turnovers and big plays. Iowa also has excellent special teams that have kicked and covered well and blocked field goal and punt attempts.

I’m worried about this game. Although Ohio State’s offense played extremely well against Penn State last week, they have been inconsistent this year and Iowa’s defense may well be the best defense they have faced to date. The Buckeyes’ running backs (especially Boom Herron) have been battling injuries, and Terrelle Pryor also has not been 100 percent since suffering an injury in the New Mexico State game. The two keys for the Buckeyes, I think, will be the play of the offensive line and avoiding turnovers against the aggressive Iowa squad. The offense needs to be able to move the ball on the ground with its running backs and keep the Iowa defense off balance with short passes and imaginative play calling. Avoiding turnovers will be huge, because the Buckeyes do not want to give Iowa a momentum-changing defensive score or a short field. Ohio State will want to keep Iowa bottled up and make the Hawkeyes and their redshirt freshman quarterback put together long sustained drives if they hope to score.

I expect Iowa to pass much more than Penn State did last week; they have nothing to lose by running a more wide-open offense. The keys for the Ohio State defense will be pressure from the line and solid play for the defensive backfield, with an emphasis on not giving up any big plays. The Ohio State defensive line has been terrific at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, disrupting plays in the backfield, and clamping down on opponents’ ground attacks, and my hope is that they can accomplish those goals tomorrow as well. A few turnovers from a harried Iowa offense would be most welcome!

UJ and I will be there for the game, with sister Cathy and niece Brittany. We’ll get down to the Stadium area early to take in the pre-game festivities on what is supposed to be a sunny, 65-degree afternoon and then root hard for the Buckeyes to prevail in their bid for the Rose Bowl.