Underdog Gators look to slow Bucks
By ROB TODOR
VINDICATOR SPORTS EDITOR
PHOENIX -- "We can't worry about what people say about us. We just have to come out, play hard and play our best game."
No, it wasn't a quote from a Ohio State player leading up to the Fiesta Bowl in January 2003, when the underdog Buckeyes -- make that heavy underdog -- shocked college football with a 31-24 double overtime victory over the seemingly invincible Miami Hurricanes.
No, that comment came from Florida defensive tackle Ray McDonald, as the No. 2-ranked Gators come into Monday's BCS championship game as seven-point underdogs to the top-ranked Buckeyes.
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Glendale.
McDonald, a fifth-year senior from Belle Glade, Fla., has started on the Gators' defensive line for four years. He's eager to prove Florida is a better team than the oddsmakers and most media think.
"We have great coaching and we have great players," McDonald said. "We really want to show the nation we can play defense."
That's easier said than done, considering the challenge the explosive Ohio State offense will provide the Southeastern Conference champions.
Starting with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith, the Buckeyes haven't been slowed this season, except in victories over Penn State (28-6, in which the defense returned two late interceptions for TDs) and Illinois (17-10).
Ohio State was held under 30 points only one other time (a 24-7 victory at Texas) and finished the season ranked second in the Big Ten and 16th nationally in total offense (409.8 ypg) and No. 1 in the conference and sixth in the nation in scoring offense (36.3 ppg).
"They probably will be the best offense we have seen all season," said Florida co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, of the Buckeyes. "You look at Troy Smith, you look at [running back Antonio] Pittman ... they have enough weapons on offense where they can move the ball around. They do a great job of sharing the football."
Pittman, a junior, led the Buckeyes with 1,171 yards rushing and scored 13 touchdowns this season, and backup Chris "Beanie" Wells added 567 yards and seven scores. Wells, a freshman, also seems to have solved the fumbling issues he had early in the season.
Smith completed 67 percent of his passes (199-of-297) for 2,507 yards and 30 touchdowns, with just five interceptions. Ted Ginn Jr. led Ohio State with 59 receptions for 781 yards and nine touchdowns, and Anthony Gonzalez added 49 catches for 723 yards and eight TDs.
"They are going to move the ball on us," Strong said. "We can't jump out and think we will shut them down. We have to be able to bounce back and not let one play lead to two."
The Gators finished 10th nationally in total defense (268.8 ypg) and sixth against the run (74.5). Six Florida players finished the season with 50 tackles or more, led by linebackers Earl Everett and Brandon Siler, with 78 and 73, respectively.
"They have great linebackers," Smith said. "Their front four is just as fast as their linebackers, their linebackers are just as fast as their safeties."
Of course, the Buckeyes faced a Michigan team on Nov. 18 that came into the game ranked No. 1 nationally in rushing defense. Ohio State came out with five wide receivers, spread the field, and Smith's success passing early in the game opened up the middle for Pittman and Wells to combine for 195 rushing yards and two 50-plus yard TD runs.
"They haven't shown many weaknesses," Pittman said. "A lot of teams haven't put any good yardage up against them except Auburn.
"As far as me and Beanie go, we make it a challenge to go out there and get the job done. His success is my success and vice versa."
The three best rushing performances against Florida came from South Carolina (135 yards), Auburn (133) and Arkansas (132).
Perhaps the best comparison to the Buckeyes' attack is South Carolina, which utilized a similar spread offense and quick, multi-talented quarterback.
The Gamecocks finished with 490 yards of offense and had a chance to win the game, but a 48-yard field goal attempt with eight seconds remaining was blocked.
"When I watch their defense, I feel like they say to themselves, 'OK, we feel like we have better athletes than you and we are just going to prove it,' " Gonzalez said. "Whether that's true or not I don't know. They have had a tremendous success going against some pretty talented receiving corps."
Florida coach Urban Meyer said the game is one of matchups.
"When you face a team that has balance that's the issue," he said. "The moment you start double-teaming people you are taking away from your own game."
Perhaps the most important statistic is the Gators' rushing game. They ranked only 37th nationally with 160.3 yards per game, and Ohio State was 15th nationally against the run (93.5).
Which team can be more balanced offensively will have a decided edge.
"Any time we go into a game we preach several things and one of those things is to win the rushing battle," Ohio State senior center Doug Datish said. "Any time we can do that, generally we will be successful. That's a huge emphasis for us going into any game, especially this one."
Two other numbers to watch will be time of possession and turnovers. Both teams want to control the ball, and despite their big-play offenses, both averaged more than 30 minutes per game offensively.
Ohio State has a decided edge in turnover margin. The Buckeyes were plus-11 this season, while the Gators were only plus-3. Florida quarterback Chris Leak was susceptible to interceptions, throwing 13 of them.
"We have won a lot of games the last two years because of field position," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "I'm surprised special teams haven't been a bigger storyline, because in championship games that's the X factor."