Justice Is Served

November 16, 2009 9:55 AM

Tressel-ball: Dull road to Rose Bowl

3425532320_c40d170fde_m.jpgI hate it when my alma mater loses, and my hatred jumps two niches in intensity when the Ohio State Buckeyes lose a game they're supposed to win (think Purdue).

But, man, does victory need to come wrapped in such ugly packages?

I exhaled in relief Saturday afternoon after walk-on kicker Devin Barclay, a one-time professional soccer player, sent the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl with his 39-yard field goal in overtime. Barclay's kick sailed into OSU folklore, the difference-maker in what surely was a Big Ten game that the Buckeyes should have won handily.

They squandered a 24-10 lead, and when Iowa tied the game in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, coach Jim Tressel made no effort to win in regulation; he turned to his no-mistake brand of football to wind down the quarter. He refused to allow Terrell Pryor, the magical talent Tressel recruited to lead the Buckeyes to a national title at some point, to play the gambler.

That title won't come this season, of course. Tressel's Buckeyes have one loss too many to get into that conversation, and their 27-24 victory over Iowa didn't create the impression they were an elite team.
For elite teams beat into submission a flawed team like Iowa. The Hawkeyes started freshman quarterback James Vandenberg, but they let him play football. Coach Kirk Ferentz didn't put chains on Vandenberg, and in return, he had the Hawkeyes in position to win a game they had no business winning.

His masterful use of the fourth quarter wiped out a two-touchdown deficit and forced Tressel to tighten the reins on Pryor, as if the reins weren't a chokehold already. The coach didn't loosen them even in overtime. His conservative nature made sense then. His defense had stopped Vandeberg and the Hawkeyes on downs, which left the Buckeyes a field goal away from their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1997.

No mistakes now -- none. Just hold on to the football. Three runs up the gut of the Iowa defense and out came Barclay. Amid the eerie hush inside Ohio Stadium, a place filled with 105,445 Scarlet and Gray partisans, he made the kick, touching off a celebration at midfield.

I understand Tressel's thinking, a perspective that leans farther right than Ann Coulter's, about no mistakes. A mistake late could have ruined his team's season, so the fewer risks that he allowed Pryor to take the better for every OSU fan who prefers wins over exciting football. I put myself in that group.

Yet this was the kind of dull football played nowhere else but in the Big Ten. A game of this sort brings a program national contempt. No-risk football might work in the Big Ten, but it would be hard to imagine it having much success against teams like Florida, Oregon, Alabama and Texas, programs with offenses that can pile up points like a basketball team.

Under Tressel's watch, Buckeye fans have seen that happen in the two National Championship games. The Buckeyes were outscored, and his caution never put the team in position to mount a comeback.

His philosophy will have to change - for Pryor's sake. He didn't come Columbus, Ohio, just to beat Iowa, Penn State and Michigan, although the latter win is always welcomed.

Pryor came for the ultimate glory, to win what few quarterbacks anywhere ever win, and to carry home a Heisman Trophy with him. He can't win the Heisman if Tressel doesn't free him to make plays, and if Pryor can't make plays, he and Buckeyes will just be a team that settles for the Big Ten title, a goal too easily reached in any so-called football conference that can ever see an Iowa team like this one as a serious player on the national stage.

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