Florida-Ohio State: Is It a Game of No Chance?

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007

GLENDALE, Ariz., Jan. 7 -- During winter break, Dallas Baker visited a Florida mall and overheard a teenager wearing Gators gear tell a friend, "I can't wait for the game to watch Ohio State beat up on Florida." To Baker, a Florida wide receiver, the scene illustrated that even some Florida supporters feel Monday's national championship game will be a coronation for Ohio State.

Perhaps the only relevant question this college football season was who was No. 2, because the Buckeyes held the top spot from the beginning of the regular season to its end. After a season in which Ohio State often looked unbeatable, it remains to be seen whether any school has a blueprint to deny the Buckeyes their second national title in five years.

"We are facing a consensus from point A to point B or point A to point Z," Florida Coach Urban Meyer said, "that they are the number one team in the country."

Ohio State (12-0) has a coach, Jim Tressel, who is 3-0 in Bowl Championship Series games; a quarterback, Troy Smith, who is the undisputed best player in the game; and a defense that has allowed as many as two touchdowns in only two games this season. What's more, the Buckeyes have already defeated two No. 2 teams, Texas and Michigan, and look to become the first to beat three in a season when they meet the second-ranked Gators (12-1) at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The last team to look omnipotent entering the BCS title game was Southern California, which entered last season's Rose Bowl against Texas riding a 34-game winning streak. The Trojans' three-point loss to the Longhorns was preceded by glimpses of vulnerabilities in narrow victories against Notre Dame and Fresno State. Ohio State, on the other hand, has won all but two of its games this season by at least 17 points.

One hope for Florida is that Ohio State's offensive timing is off, particularly early. The Buckeyes' coaches and players have downplayed the effect of a 50-day layoff, but the fact is the Gators have played two games -- against Florida State and then Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference title game -- since Ohio State's regular season finale against Michigan on Nov. 18.

"We haven't sacked our quarterback in 50 days," Tressel said. "We haven't splattered our receivers as they catch the balls for 50 days. How we protect will have more to do with our timing."

If anything can be plucked from Ohio State's last loss, a 17-10 defeat before a hostile Penn State crowd on Oct. 8, 2005, it is that opponents have to play mistake-free football to have a realistic chance. In that game, Smith uncharacteristically threw an interception in the first half and fumbled in the final minutes, ending Ohio State's hopes.

In this season's rematch between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, Ohio State's opportunistic defense capitalized, returning two interceptions for touchdowns in the final minutes of a 28-6 victory. And instead of turning over the ball late, Smith authored his defining Heisman highlight in the fourth quarter. With his team leading by four points, Smith scrambled, paused at the 48-yard line, then set his feet and fired a 37-yard touchdown pass to Brian Robiskie.

In this year's back-and-forth classic against Michigan, the Wolverines managed to stay in the game in large part because they did not commit any turnovers. Ohio State has 21 interceptions this season and is led in the secondary by Malcolm Jenkins, a shutdown cornerback who has four interceptions.

Florida may have more playmakers on the perimeter, including speedy wide receivers Andre Caldwell and Percy Harvin, to test Ohio State's defensive backs. The onus will be on Chris Leak to make wise decisions while on the move. The senior has thrown more interceptions (13) this season than any year of his career.

Meyer expects a "street fight" Monday, which is similar to what the Buckeyes found when they met Michigan.

"Ohio State had the momentum, lost it and got it back and held on to it and finished the game," Meyer said.

Much of the attention given to Ohio State's offense has focused on Smith and talented wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. But the rushing attack, specifically long touchdown runs by Antonio Pittman (56 yards) and Chris Wells (52), proved a critical factor in the 42-39 victory over Michigan. Florida's rushing defense will be tested against Pittman, who has 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

"To think about us on defense, they are going to move the ball on us," said Charlie Strong, Florida's co-defensive coordinator. "We can't jump out and think we will shut them down."

If Ohio State does win, it will mark a wire-to-wire season at No. 1, a possibility the team has not addressed since Gene Smith, the school's athletic director, mentioned it to the players before the season.

Florida's Baker said the Gators, in a sense, are playing against Ohio State as well as "everybody" who feels the outcome is a foregone conclusion, including the opinionated teenager in the mall.

As one would expect, Tressel praised Florida's credentials, saying, "I think that is why we are having the game."

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