Chris Williams/Icon SMI
Ohio State suffered through its third mega-game loss in its last three tries on Saturday as USC handled the visiting Buckeyes 35-3. Ohio State continually produces boatloads of NFL talent, routinely wins the Big Ten and has one of the best programs in the nation. Yet losses in the national championship game to Florida and LSU, plus Saturday's performance against USC, have caused the college football world to view the Buckeyes as either vastly overrated or big-time chokers.
I decided to examine all three of these losses to see if there was a common thread that helps explain Ohio State's inability to come through on the biggest of stages. There appear to be four factors that pop up among the three games.
1. Running the football. Clearly, the competition in the national title games and vs. USC is superior to a regular-season schedule, but even taking that into account, Ohio State's inability to run the ball effectively has hurt it in all three cases. Here are the numbers for each season heading into the big game, and then how OSU performed. (The 2008 stats will obviously be skewed since OSU played Youngstown State and Ohio prior to USC.)
2006 rushing yards per game: 181
vs. Florida: 47
2007 rushing yards per game: 201
vs. LSU: 145
2008 rushing yards per game: 207
vs. USC: 71
2. Stopping the run. Again, the battle in the trenches went to the opposition in all three matchups. Ohio State was unable to shut down the ground attacks as it did against other opponents.
2006 rushing yards allowed per game: 94
vs. Florida: 156
2007 rushing yards allowed per game: 77
vs. LSU: 152
2008 rushing yards allowed per game: 67
vs. USC: 164
3. Turnovers. Always a big factor in championship-level games, and predictably, Ohio State has not been able to protect the ball, coming up with a -6 turnover ratio in the three games.
2006 turnover ratio: +11
vs. Florida: -2
2007 turnover ratio: -1
vs. LSU: -2
2008 turnover ratio: +4
vs. USC: -2
4. Second-quarter meltdowns. Ohio State actually scored first in all three games, so pregame jitters do not seem to play a part. It has been the second quarter when things have gotten out of hand. Against Florida, the Buckeyes gave up 21 straight points at one point during the first half and were outscored 20-7 in the second quarter. Against LSU, the Buckeyes endured a 31-point run against them and lost the second quarter 21-0. On Saturday night, USC outscored Ohio State 14-0 in the second quarter and scored the game's final 32 points. The poor second quarters have left OSU trailing by at least 14 points at the half each time.
Why the second-quarter problems? It's hard to point to one specific area, although an inability to run the ball certainly contributes. The bottom line is that Ohio State has not been able to put together a momentum-turning drive or play when these games start to slip away early. That could be coaching schemes, adjustments or a mentality of not being able to step up when things start to go south. Once the deficit gets big enough, the Buckeyes are put in an unfamiliar situation and have not played catch-up with any effectiveness.
Ohio State clearly belongs among college football's elite and will win double-digit games for the fourth year in a row. But if the Buckeyes want to take the final step, they will have to play better along the offensive and defensive lines, take care of the ball and not tighten up when facing adversity the next time they are playing a national power.