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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Guest post from Jon Chait here on the field conditions, which I overlooked in the game recap. They were pretty awful in person, where you could see the downfield coverage try not to fall over. I neither endorse or un-endorse Jon's viewpoint.

It's astonishing to me that all the commentary about the Michigan-Ohio State game has missed what seems clearly to be the dominant factor of the game: the shoddy field conditions, which crippled both defenses.

Before anybody accuses me of simple Michigan homer-ism, let me concede a couple points:

1. Ohio State made its best effort to create a playable field
2. Ohio State outplayed Michigan and won fairly
3. There are plenty of good reasons to avoid a rematch in the title game - for one, it's impossible to know with any precision which two teams are best, so providing an interesting match-up ought to be an important consideration, and rematches are generally less interesting.

Nonetheless, the most popular argument against a rematch is that Michigan "had its chance." That argument loses much of its force if you consider just how badly the field distorted the game November 18.

For those who don't know, Ohio State had had to completely re-sod its field twice this year, including once in November. The latest re-sodding obviously did not take root, which should not be a surprise for the Midwest in November, and the result was a loose carpet of grass that provided very little traction. It was a lot like running on a rug that sits on a hardwood floor. You can run straight pretty well, but if you try to change direction quickly you're likely to fall.

Why did this hurt the defense? Because offensive players know when they're going to cut, and they can get their bodies under control before planting. Defensive players, who have to react instantaneously, can't keep up. The result was a farce. Neither team could cover anybody. Neither defensive line could get any penetration against the run, or generate any pass rush. (If neither lineman can move quickly, the result is a stalemate, which benefits the offense.)

Most sports reporters and fans missed the full extent of this distortion for a simple reason; it produced lots of scoring, and most sports fans think high scoring means a great game. But the results make it pretty clear that the scoring was grotesquely inflated by the field. These were pretty universally regarded as the two best defenses in college football. Yet Ohio State scored more points against Michigan than it did against all but three opponents. Michigan scored more offensive points against Ohio State than it did against anybody. Mike Hart averaged more per carry against OSU than he did against all but two opponents. And so on. That wasn't a football game, it was a video game.

There were some ways in which offensive players were hurt. Chad Henne overthrew a sure touchdown pass to Mario Manningham because Manningham couldn't get out of his break at normal speed. It's probably no coincidence that the shifty Anthony Gonzalez, OSU's leading receiver, had less yardage than straight-line speed demon Ted Ginn.

Did the field benefit Ohio State vis a vis Michigan? I think it probably did, though you could argue the point. The Buckeyes had more experience playing on a shoddy field (and Michigan's 11 point second half margin would suggest that getting used to the field helped.) Turning the game into a shootout probably suited OSU's style more comfortably than Michigan's.

But the point is not which team benefited over the other. The point is that the game itself was massively distorted by the field conditions. For a comparison, in 1950 Michigan and Ohio State played a famous game in a blizzard, and Michigan won 9-3, with a blocked punt for a touchdown, despite not gaining a first down. As Ohio State's alumni magazine recalled, "The snow, wind, and insecure footing made the game a mockery - an imitation of football only by a stretch of the imagination."

Now, the terrible Ohio State field last Saturday did not distort the game as much as the 1950 blizzard did, but it distorted it quite a bit. The fact was simply obscured because it was the defenses rather than the offenses that primarily suffered. Michigan certainly deserved to win the Snow Bowl in 1950, but you can't say the game proved a lot about its superiority to Ohio State.

The same is true, to a lesser but still very significant degree, of last weekend's Turf Bowl. If Michigan and Ohio State were to play on a decent field, the game would like nothing like the one that took place on November 18. Ohio State would have an even chance - perhaps a slightly better than even chance - of winning. But there would not be anything like 81 points or 900 yards of offense. It would be, in other words, a far more fair contest of which team is better.