Sports Nut

Urban Renewal

The Florida Gators and their genius coach maul Ohio State.

Florida Gators players celebrate

Both coaches in last night’s BCS Championship game, Ohio State’s Jim Tressel and Florida’s Urban Meyer, grew up in Ohio, in the shadow of Woody Hayes. But only Meyer has shrugged off the spell of three yards and a cloud of dust and embraced his inner mad scientist. Meyer’s innovative spread offense and a tyrannical Florida defense that held Ohio State to a microscopic 82 yards of offense keyed a shocking 41-14 rout of the supposedly invincible Buckeyes.

The pregame buzzword was speed, and Florida definitely made the Buckeyes look like they were wearing anchor chains. More important than mere speed was scheme, and how Florida used all those burners. Meyer deploys a fleet of quick players to engage the defense, spread the field, and keep the other team off-balance and unsure of itself. As Fox analyst Charles Davis aptly put it, “cloudy minds equal slow feet.” OSU looked slow because Florida’s multiple formations and plethora of playmaking options made the defense have to react rather than attack. So fearful were the Buckeyes of Meyer’s ability to get his burners one-on-one with slower defenders that they played a conservative zone all night, and were slowly bled to death.

This Ohio State team was really an unusual product. Tressel’s standard approach to the game might be called “Punt Your Way to Victory”—play for field position, concentrate on defense and turnovers, and find a way to win the game in the dying minutes. That’s how the coach fondly known to rivals as CheatyPants SweaterVest won a championship in 2002-2003 (with the considerable aid of referee myopia).

This season Tressel abandoned his usual style, thanks to the dynamic duo of quarterback Troy Smith and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. All looked well for the Buckeyes when Ginn returned the game’s opening kickoff for a stunning score. But he left the game for good soon after with a sprained foot, and Smith turned in a forgettable performance, becoming the latest in a long line of Heisman Trophy winners to struggle in their final game. (Troy Smith, meet Jason White.)

Folks in Columbus will argue that the loss of Ted Ginn, his favorite target, left Smith unfairly handicapped. But Ginn doesn’t block, and the game was decided up front—by Florida’s front four, specifically ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss. Harvey turned in the game’s definitive play in the opening quarter, hurling an offensive tackle five yards backward and running down the fleet-footed Smith from behind for a sack. Ginn couldn’t have saved the Buckeyes, because Smith never had a chance to drop back and throw a deep pass. Strangely, Tressel never went to draws or screens, jujitsu plays designed to slow the upfield rush off the edge. There was a glimmer of this on the Buckeyes’ lone TD drive, which pulled them to 21-14 early in the second quarter, but it never returned as Florida pulled further ahead.

After the basketball team cut down the nets last spring, Florida is now the first school to pull off the (Division 1-A) grid-hoops double dip. The football Gators’ run to glory was similar to that of their hardwood counterparts. Both teams underachieved during the regular season, failing to pick up any style points during conference play. But when the postseason arrived, both turned it up a few notches and blew away their opponents with breathtaking displays of speed and power.

The fact that Florida never looked this potent during an often-bumbling 2006 is what made this result so unlikely. Much was made of the epoch of time between the end of the regular season and the final game. Ohio State went a ridiculous seven weeks between games, and indeed, the Buckeyes looked sluggish. Florida, by contrast, used its time off to shore up trouble spots like pass protection and the kicking game, both of which were up to snuff last night. And while the disrespect card is the most overused one in the deck, the Gators were clearly irritated by the lack of ardor thrown their way and worked themselves into a frenzy during the downtime.

Fox Sports had the entire season to gear up for the BCS games. The results approximated Ohio State’s sluggish effort. Incredibly, Fox’s standard lineup graphics failed to note which class a player belonged to, so the casual fan wouldn’t know whether one side started a team full of freshmen or a more veteran team. Lead voice Thom Brennaman, like Joe Buck and Chip Caray and Kenny Albert, is an unremarkable product of nepotism that pales next to the old man. His worst moment actually came last week, in the Fiesta Bowl, when he stumped for a playoff system as Boise State came to the line before the game-deciding two-point conversion. Right argument, wrong time. Last night, he couldn’t resist a lame attempt at synergy, pointing out that 24’s Jack Bauer “would be most pleased with this Gator effort tonight.” Ugh. Boothmate Charles Davis, a relative unknown, was much more impressive, showing a nice command of personnel and matchups. Someone should take note and give the man a more prominent regular-season gig next year.

The big winner of the night, though, was Meyer. He is on the vanguard of a wave of successful coaches (including Pete Carroll and Bob Stoops) who aren’t afraid to play superb athletes right away. That courage has a feedback effect in recruiting—highly sought-after players have started coming to Florida in bunches, knowing there is a chance to contribute immediately. Case in point: Tim Tebow. Florida’s battering ram is poised to take over as ringmaster of Meyer’s thick playbook, one that favors a running quarterback who can both dole out punishment and fling the ball deep. In Utah two years ago, Alex Smith rode that system to an undefeated season and the No. 1 spot in the NFL draft.

Tebow is Alex Smith on Nandrolone. He’s far better suited for Meyer’s offense than Chris Leak, who often struggled to adapt to Meyer’s system. Leak played by far his best game under Urban last night, but by this time next year he might just be a faded memory.