"Let's say this: we're not unhappy," he said Wednesday night. "I think we've got good people and there's great potential there. We popped a couple the first week and the last two we haven't but I think we'll show up more again."
No topic has sparked more conversation on the message boards at BuckeyeSports.com this week than OSU's rushing attack. Through three games, the Buckeyes rank 25th in the nation in rushing offense with an average of 206.3 yards per contest. That figure ranks fifth-best in the Big Ten.
One season ago, OSU finished the year third in the conference and 18th nationally after averaging 195.4 rushing yards per contest. However, the Buckeyes paved their way to a Big Ten title by heavily relying upon their run game in the final three games of the 2009 season.
In a season-opening win against Marshall, the rushing attack looked every bit as reliable as it had down the stretch last season. Senior Brandon Saine broke a 45-yard touchdown run and finished the day with nine carries for 103 yards. In relief, redshirt freshman Jaamal Berry had seven carries for 80 yards, junior and fellow starter Dan Herron had seven carries for 44 yards and sophomore Jordan Hall had five rushes for 32 yards.
Add in junior dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes amassed 280 rushing yards in the 45-7 victory. It was the second-most prolific rushing day in the last two season, eclipsed only by a 310-yard outburst last season during a 45-0 victory against hapless New Mexico State.
But since then, things have become more difficult for OSU's stable of backs. Pryor rushed for a career-high 113 yards in a week two victory against Miami (Fla.), but Herron – who goes by "Boom" – and Saine combined to carry the ball 26 times for 73 yards. A week three victory against Ohio saw the Buckeyes take 41 carries to amass 158 yards – an average of 3.9 yards per carry.
Saine in particular has seen a drop in production. After being named the team's offensive player of the week in the victory against the Thundering Herd, he has carried the ball 24 times for 55 yards – an average of 2.3 yards per carry. His position coach said he has not noticed Saine looking tentative with the ball.
"I would say if you watched the tape closely there were a couple times I said ‘why didn't you go straight ahead when you turned right?' " Tressel said.
No Buckeyes feature among the top 10 rushers in the conference. Pryor leads the way with an average of 55.0 yards per contest. Adding to the situation is the fact that opponents continue to stack the box and dare Pryor to beat them with his arm.
"I think it's just because we've been a running team," sophomore tight end Jacob Stoneburner said. "I don't think teams believe Terrelle can throw yet, which I don't understand. Obviously they're baiting Terrelle to throw and that's why we're beating them by throwing. I think teams eventually are going to have to take some guys out of the box but if not, we'll just keep on throwing."
Pryor's average of 238.3 passing yards per game ranks third in the Big Ten. Last season, he averaged 161.1 yards per contest.
Some of the struggles have come due to OSU's offensive line. Following the Ohio game, senior right guard Bryant Browning said the Bobcats did some things on the defensive line that confused the Buckeyes and caused some problems. Junior left tackle Mike Adams, the lone offensive lineman made available for interviews this week, reiterated the line's love of running the ball.
Wednesday, Tressel defended Saine and Herron, saying they are ahead of their backups in three key areas.
"They're not going to turn it over," the coach said. "You've going to have to mug them to get the football away from them. That would be No. 1. The next critical thing becomes understanding that you do what the team needs. They've been around here long enough to understand that's what the running backs do: they do what the offense needs to help the team win. That's not an issue for them.
"That really takes them to the top, and then to throw in talent and they're hard to beat out."
Tressel said Hall comes next on the depth chart, followed by Berry depending on the situation. Both are proving their wares on special teams, which Tressel said gives the coaches confidence that they can be trusted toting the football.
Both have shown some quickness while primarily playing in mop-up duty, but Tressel said it is nothing that his top two backs do not possess.
"There's not many people that have a spark that is above and beyond Dan Herron," the coach said. "He's sort of a spark. He's energy. Nobody's faster than Brandon Saine. I think they have very similar bursts available to them. Probably Jordan's overall football play makes him really a quality person to have back in the backfield and I think the ability for Jaamal to make someone miss is really going to be an advantage for him."
So while rushing numbers might be down, the Buckeyes are 3-0 and second in the Big Ten and 20th in the nation in total offense with the capability to improve. That total package is good enough for Tressel.
"It's much more (about) the bottom line," he said. "I haven't heard anyone say we haven't been running it effectively. We see when it's not effective, but I don't think we've felt it's structural or incapable personnel. It's been more of an assignment/technique situation."