January 6, 2008

Redemption in the basics for Buckeyes

NEW ORLEANS — A year ago, in preparation for the BCS title game, Ohio State didn't do a lot of weight lifting or hitting in practice. It did, however, spend time putting in some trick offensive plays (which mostly weren't used) such as having Ted Ginn Jr. take direct snaps.

The Buckeyes arrived in Arizona early, kept things laid back and then during the game did uncharacteristic things like go for it on fourth down in their own territory.

They lost to Florida 41-14.

Who knows what got into Jim Tressel a year ago. At the time, it probably sounded like a good idea. But the guy considered one of the great big game coaches in all of football stumbled and it has driven him relentlessly in the days since.

No matter what happens Monday as Ohio State seeks redemption and a BCS title against Louisiana State, the one certain thing is: Win or lose, the Buckeyes appear to have returned to the core values of their program.

Tressel, you could say, has gotten back to being Tressel, which is why Ohio State is back to being a very dangerous team. If it is going to beat LSU, it is going to do it the old way.

The Buckeyes program has been built on consistent, sustained excellence. It's not flashy. It's not varied. It simply goes out with an attention to detail and wins. It is how Tressel has led them to three title games in six seasons and how he took Youngstown State to six Division I-AA finals.

And it is what makes last year's BCS performance and preparation so stunning.

Tressel still hasn't gotten over the loss to Florida. During the offseason he set the security code at the team's facility to 4-1-1-4 (the score) and then 1-3-0-7 (the date of the loss) or 0-1-0-7 (the Bucks were now 0-1 in 2007) to serve as a reminder.

This season, where a national title seemed far-fetched, was bulldozed through with workmanlike efficiency, 11-1 on the strength of a tough defense and an emerging offense. And while much has been made about the Buckeyes' weak nonconference slate and non-vintage year in the Big Ten, it's not like it was that bad. Regardless, Ohio State looked good.

"Everybody says we didn't play any great teams, but we think our conference is great," Buckeyes offensive tackle Alex Boone said. "We beat Penn State at Penn State, Michigan at Michigan, Wisconsin. All of those teams were ranked."

Since being selected to the BCS title game, the team's practices in Columbus were often full contact. Intense weight training was again conducted. About the only "new" thing were speed drills that might help against the Tigers. Tressel's Christmas present to his team was a motivational DVD which strung together footage of TV analysts ripping the program.

Ohio State arrived here for a shorter stay and has been almost exclusively business. You know your mother's boring reminder that nothing good ever happens after midnight? Compared to Ohio State, she was as permissive as the laws on Bourbon Street.

"Coach Tress says, 'nothing good ever happens after 10 o'clock,' " Boone said.

Ten o'clock might as well be called "noon" in this city. But the players wanted it that way.

"Most guys are in way before that, they're down in the game room (at the hotel)," Boone said.

Tressel took particular care in trying to limit the possibility of motivational trash talk slipping out. The Buckeyes have mostly been on message here, repeating the basics to the media.

At the game's media day teams were asked to designate three or four top stars to sit at a podium, where they will get the most questions. Tressel made the groundbreaking move of putting his punter, a position so boring he was unlikely to say anything controversial, at one podium. A punter?

"Even I couldn't believe it," said the punter, A.J. Trapasso. "Coach Tressel is very deliberate in everything he does."

This is the old Tressel, risking nothing.

"I guess I could talk bad about the other punter," Trapasso said. "But he's actually a good punter."

The game will be won by the players on the field, whether Ohio State's offensive line can hold off the LSU defensive front, whether LSU's varied offense is too much to handle, whether the Tigers can stop Chris Wells.

But if nothing else, Ohio State fans have to appreciate the old-school approach is back, a return to doing what makes the Buckeyes great.

It's a new year and a new/old philosophy for the Buckeyes and a coach looking to regain his old reputation as a coach at his best in the biggest of games.

"It's time to play," Tressel said.

One year later, and he isn't screwing around.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.




 

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