Thursday, January 11, 2007

Mr. Bucknuts

Mr. Bucknuts:

I'm emotionally adrift right now. I had my reservations about facing this Florida team, but I told myself all was right in the world — we'd beaten Michigan, gone undefeated in the Big Ten, and anything else would be a bonus. And of course, the Vest would have this team prepared to play. They'd pick up right where they left off: on the edge, snapping the bit in two with angry jaws.

Now what the hell was all that on Monday night?

I have to say I gnawed on a nail after that first pass play to the sideline, when the Florida defender bit on the out play but still recovered in time and closed on the receiver (was it Ginn?) to break up Smith's pass. Troy's cannon arm had been working those passes through all year long. It had been said that the Florida secondary was better than any we'd faced all year. That first play was the first sign — the flare gun fired in the air to say EMERGENCY.

That and Chris Leak dinking, dunking, doinking us to death with the quick outs to Harvin and third-down short passes over the middle. We'll adjust, I kept telling myself. WE'LL ADJUST. Won't we?

At 21-14 I felt comfortable. I felt like we'd taken Florida's best punch square in the gut, then got off the mat, marched down the field for a TD, and actually made a defensive stop. Our receivers might not be getting an inch of separation, our pass protection might be abominable ("it's harder to get into Michigan State right now than it is to get in our backfield," I observed late in the second quarter), but dammit, we can run Pittman Big Ten-style, right down their throats.

And then what was the payoff there? Three ill-conceived and poorly-executed pass plays. And down the road the running game failed as well, on 3rd and 1, then 4th and 1 on our own 30 just before the half. I don't fault the Vest for going for it there. If anything, I fault him for failing to call a drive-sustaining play under those circumstances. Why not run a bootleg? I suppose JT's logic was that if we can't run up the middle for a yard on this team, the game is over anyway. And maybe that was right.

I could talk about the second half, too — but why?

So here's what I'm left with, analyzing this game to death all day long, looking for answers.

*Was all this a result of losing Teddy to injury, and the tumbledown effect that flowed from it? The Florida defenders could concentrate almost exclusively on Robo and Gonzo. They could blitz more comfortably. No more deep threat, and
certainly no more bubble screen plays to stretch the field laterally. Gonzo's not a shake-and-bake kind of guy to take those passes, and Ray Small — well, would it be fair to have him get potentially killed again?

*Was it a failure on our coaches' part to make adjustments on both sides of the ball? Why didn't we send the house at Chris Leak? Why didn't we make him throw the ball downfield? Why the sense of urgency after we made that first defensive stop? Why throw the three passes instead of running right at them?

*Was it the long layoff that led to all the undisciplined play — personal fouls on kick returns, false starts, etc. — putting Florida in a position to succeed?

*Was it just bad karma? Something has to explain the sudden, startling transformation of Chris Hetlund into Morten Andersen, and the absurd turn of events wherein we lose our most talented player to a freak end-zone celebration injury. Did OSU somehow offend the football gods, and that's what caused this unmitigated disaster? Was Lloyd Carr sitting in his bedroom with a set of pushpins and voodoo dolls?

Or am I just making excuses? Maybe this Buckeye team was never all that. Maybe we grew fat on mediocre opponents — maybe the teams we routed in celebrated matchups of "titans" (Texas, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan) weren't really that good. Maybe Florida really was gobs better than us at every single stinking position, and if this game were played 10 times, they'd beat us by an average of 27 points.

I'm reluctant to believe that, but I'm not any more interested in believing that my stout and beloved Buckeyes, under the tutelage of Jim Tressel and the captaincy of Troy Smith, just failed to show up.

I need answers, Mr. Bucknuts. I'm looking at a long, miserable stretch of basketball and hockey (no, I can't bring myself to give a third of a crap about NCAA basketball — sorry), plus a long summer of disappointment — if not exasperation — at my 3rd-level market Cleveland Indians, before I get my next dose of Buckeye football. I need to know what to believe and whether to believe it.

What the hell happened on Monday night?