Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Aftermath: Fiesta

So that’s what it feels like to get out-coached.

It wasn’t a Belichick-on-Cowher, Spurrier-on-Fulmer or Anybody-on-Mack Brown level of embarrassment, but our demi-god at coach and offensive coordinator was clearly outsmarted by the genius of a sweatervest. It was the first time it had happened all season, and it’ll probably be the last time it happens for some time, but it doesn’t make the shock or pain any less.

Of course, to put this all on Charlie Weis would be a mistake. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter managed to unwind a gameplan that didn’t pressure the quarterback or cover the receivers, which is really saying something. Obviously, we were in trouble considering our corners are generally incapable of stopping anybody out on an island, cramping any strategy. However, the fact we weren’t blitzing yet were still playing fifteen yards off the Buckeye receivers gave Troy Smith and company all the time they wanted to get open or run trick plays, like Ginn’s touchdown run where absolutely nobody was in position.

(The question of Charlie going for it after Smith’s fumble at the fifteen can be debated, but I’ll go with his decision because A) We’ve gone for it on 4th down all year and B) As seen by DJ’s missed extra point, our kicking game was on par with those great folks at the Pennsylvania and Florida State Universities. I’ll question the play-calling of three straight runs with big receivers and Brady’s accuracy left on the table, but not the call to go for it.)

To blame it all on Minter’s scheme would also be a little unfair, considering you could see the talent and speed differential in a lot of instances. On both offense and defense, with the exception of Zbikowski flying all over the field, Ohio State showed what a national championship-caliber athlete looks like. Smith, Holmes, Ginn, Gonzalez, Hawk; they were all over the place. This gap will be closed more next year, and by the time Charlie gets a couple recruiting classes of his own into the Bend, we’ll be on par athletically with the best in the nation But for now, you just have to agree that Ted Ginn and Santonio Holmes equal crazy delicious.

On offense, it wasn’t Brady’s finest hour. In a move just out of Weis’ former colleague’s Belichick and Crenel’s playbook against Peyton Manning, the Ohio State defense took away the deep throws we thrived on all season and gave up the underneath routes, knowing that their team speed trumped the Irish’s and they would be able to contain the yards after catch. The Buckeye secondary wasn’t that tall, and we had a few deep balls early, but the combination of solid coverage later in the game and the pressure they were getting on Brady meant that we stopped dancing with who brought us: the deep fade routes and jump balls to Samardjiza and Stovall.

In a throwback to last season, Darius Walker and Matt Shelton were the best players on offense. Shelton underneath – again, nobody was getting a shot deep – and D-Walk somehow finding his way through Ohio State’s stout run defense, blowing through arm tackles and turning upfield on every opportunity. In a game I thought we might need Travis Thomas – ala USC – it was D-Walk showing us that James Aldridge will not be replacing him by the end of next year. With or without Fasano returning, the Irish offense will be top-notch as long as Charlie performs an offseason surgery on Quinn, permanently removing those happy feet that flair up occasionally. The defense, and more specifically, the pass defense that has plagued us for two seasons now? Well, just like last season coming into this one, it can only get better with the new talent infused with the greater experience for the rest of the defensive backfield.

Probably the biggest problem I had with the game, other than the SEC officials never calling what looked like blatant holding on a number of plays, was the overall coverage. I’m a Brent Musburger guy, but he was terrible in this game, and if you had not watched any college football all season, you’d have wondered why Notre Dame was even bothering to show up with the way he and Gary Danielson gushed about Ohio State. Considering you’ve already heard more about Laura Quinn dating AJ Hawk then any person alive would care to hear about, I’ll just leave you with EDSBS’s poll, which contains a bevy of links to less-than-flattering pictures of the semi-mentally handicapped older sis.

All in all, the Fiesta experience was both inspiring and depressing in one fell swoop. While the two touchdown, probably should have been worse, loss definitely hurt, the fact the general optimism around the program didn’t take a larger hit makes you feel good. We tip our hats to a fantastic Ohio State team that played a great game, but can smile and look forward to next year, where we’ll be a top five team with a potential rematch with the Buckeyes scheduled for the early part of January 2007. Just like the USC game, we lost to an incredibly talented team, but showed that unlike previous seasons, we deserved to be on the same field as them.

We’ll always wonder what would happen if we’d tried a few more deep balls or if Ambrose Wooden didn’t just randomly stop running when Troy Smith ducked his head, but in the words of nearly every fan of every team every year:

Wait ‘til next season.

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