- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Florida might own official underdog status, but no unit will enter Monday night’s BCS title showdown with a bigger chip on its shoulder than the Ohio State defense.

The moment the championship matchup was announced more than a month ago, the national media brought out its broad brush and painted an outrageously oversimplified picture for Monday’s clash. The BCS behemoth, many reasoned, would come down to Big Ten brawn versus SEC speed.

Balderdash.

The Gators (12-1) are undeniably loaded with speed on both sides of the ball. And perhaps Florida freshman flanker Percy Harvin will be the fastest player on the field Monday night. But these aren’t your daddy’s blast-and-grind Buckeyes of the Woody Hayes era. Ohio State’s defense has seen a team this fast already this season … every day in practice.

“There’s no denying that they have some burners,” Ohio State cornerback Antonio Smith said of the Gators. “But I think the perception that they have an edge in that department has been overplayed. … We go against great receivers each and every day in practice. Ted Ginn, Tony Gonzalez, Troy Smith and Antonio Pittman aren’t exactly snails.”

True enough. It’s almost laughable that folks are trumpeting Florida’s superior speed, when the Buckeyes (12-0) counter with a far more proven cast of electric playmakers.

Ginn, the Buckeyes’ junior All-American flanker and punt returner, boasts super speed (10.5 in the 100 meters) and set the Big Ten record this season by notching his sixth career punt return for a touchdown. If the 6-foot, 180-pounder decides to enter the NFL Draft after Monday’s game, as most insiders believe he will, most draft analysts project him to go in the first round along with other elite wideout prospects Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech) and Dwayne Jarrett (Southern Cal).

And Ginn isn’t even the fastest Buckeyes receiver. That honor belongs to Gonzalez, a junior who caught 49 passes for 723 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He has sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash.

How about Smith and Pittman? Well, all Smith did was win the Heisman Trophy last month with the largest percentage of first-place votes in history. Not only did the senior from Cleveland pass for 2,507 yards and 30 touchdown passes against just five interceptions, he also ran for 233 yards. And both Smith and Pittman, a junior tailback with nearly 3,000 career rushing yards, are considerably faster than their primary Florida counterparts: Chris Leak and DeShawn Wynn.

So how can anybody claim that Florida has a speed advantage?

“That’s a good question,” said James Laurinaitis, Ohio State linebacker and Bronko Nagurski Award winner. “I guess we’ll all find out Monday night.”

Fact is, if Ohio State needed a rallying cry entering next week’s title game, the SEC-enamored national media certainly gave them one.

And the last thing the Gators need is an Ohio State defense feeling even more challenged and slighted than it did at the start of the season, when the entire college football world identified a defense that had lost nine starters and its top eight tacklers as the only weakness of the nation’s best team.

Incredibly, Ohio State’s defense managed the unthinkable given such personnel turnover, posting even better numbers than last season’s unit, which had six players selected in the NFL Draft, including first-rounders A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Donte Whitner.

In five of seven key defensive categories, this season’s Ohio State defense is statistically superior to last year’s more ballyhooed bunch, most notably allowing fewer points (10.4 a game), fewer total yards (273.0) and forcing more than twice as many turnovers (from 12 to 27).

“Last year, I think they sometimes got in trouble trying to make a big play to impress people for the NFL,” said Quinn Pitcock, Ohio State senior defensive tackle and Lombardi Award finalist. “This year, we got guys who were just trying to make the starting lineup. The team effort, us working together, is really what has made us a better unit this year.”

There’s little doubt that Ohio State’s defense will be challenged by Florida’s spread offense, which uses countless formations, personnel packages, motion and misdirection in order to isolate its playmakers in one-on-one situations. To that end, the Buckeyes have spent countless hours during the last month in the film room and on the field attempting to master their assignments against the many Florida offensive looks.

If the Buckeyes are able to contain the Gators, perhaps coach Jim Tressel will consider giving a game ball to a player who won’t even see the field Monday night — scout team flanker Ray Small.

“There’s a guy named Ray Small who will be the next great one at Ohio State,” defensive tackle David Patterson said of the true freshman who has spent the last month tormenting his teammates with various bits of nastiness from Florida’s playbook. “He plays Percy Harvin for us. He can do that cutting that Percy Harvin does. He can catch the ball. He can line up in the I-formation, line up in the shotgun, take the snap and do a lot of different things. He gives us a tremendous look every day.”

Monday night, the nation will finally get a look at the genuine article, and Ohio State’s response, and college football’s conference-based speed stereotype will either sprint to the scepter or be put to the sword.

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