A week to forget…
This week, the Buckeye defenders have their work cut out for them. Philip Rivers and the high octane NC State offense are coming to town, and they are ready to use this as their statement game that they have arrived as a football program.
A week ago against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, however, a different sort of statement was made. With a cunning game plan, Jim Grobe and his assistant coaches confused and harried the normally cool and collected Philip Rivers. They swatted down Wolfpack attempts to rev up their running game like one would an annoying fly. They intercepted two Rivers passes (one on a tip and the other outright). They chased Philip around in his own backfield, forcing him to improvise and find receivers while on the run.
How bad was it?
After the Wolfpack managed a field goal in their second offensive possession, NC State did not make another first down in the red zone until only 8:19 remained in the game. That is a span of almost 45 minutes, an eternity in football.
Yet like Tressel, Amato and his crew are not panicking. They are savvy and experienced. They recognize that it is quite possible and probably likely that this was simply an off day for their offense. They recognize that their team might have had issues executing because they looked past Wake Forest with all the hype focused on this game.
"I think you're going to see two football teams that are going to be two very, very good teams that don't feel wonderful about their performance this past weekend that will come with great passion and intensity and get after one another. NC State has great talent. They've got youth in some areas just like we have youth in some areas, and every experience is a new one, and the mark of the teams will be how can they now learn from the experiences that they've just had."
So, NC State, like Ohio State, will be looking to execute better. If they do, then look out because they have the athletes to be as dangerous as Imelda Marcos in a shoe store.
"Everybody is explosive," said Will Allen. "They have a lot of fast and explosive guys from Florida, and you know how those guys are. They have T.A. McClendon, he is a good running back even though he did not play last week. I believe they did that in preparation for our game. They have Tramain Hall. I played against him in high school. We have other guys from Florida he played against. They have #82 their receiver (Jerricho Cotchery), a big time receiver. We can't take these guys lightly."
Does this team sound intimidating? If not, then consider that Allen had not even gotten around to mentioning the best offensive player of them all for the Wolfpack. That honor goes to none other than senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Philip Rivers. Rivers, the son of a coach, is the consummate signal caller.
So far this season, Rivers is hitting 81% of his passes.
E-i-g-h-t-y O-n-e P-e-r-c-e-n-t.
When a quarterback is hitting 60% of their targets, that is considered good, but hitting 81% is like shooting 98% on free throws in basketball. It is simply unheard of for anyone to hit four out of five with their passes.
Not only that, Rivers has shown a remarkable ability to buy time when pressured and even scramble when necessary. "He is definitely a good runner," said Joel Penton. "He is very elusive. Much more elusive than I think you can tell. He is a big, strong guy – hard to bring down."
At wideout, Rivers has enough weapons to make any defensive coordinator nervous. First there is Richard Washington. Washington, who was once verbally committed to Ohio State, finds himself in the rotation this season after missing 2002 due to academic deficiencies. Against Wake Forest, he caught 9 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. Then there is Brian Clarke; a big bodied possession receiver who can go over the middle without being afraid. He is averaging over 16 yards per reception. Tramain Hall, who served as a wide receiver/running back against Wake Forest, also has a number of receptions. To be exact, Tramain has 11 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown. However, the final receiver is without question Rivers' favorite target. Jerricho Cotchery has 14 receptions for 235 yards and two touchdowns, and his statistics would have been even gaudier had Philip been granted his wishes. There were another half a dozen passes against Wake Forest alone where Rivers was trying to hit him to no avail.
Lining up for NC State at the tailback position will probably be T.A. McClendon. While he has been listed as injured, the Buckeyes expect him to play. Joel Penton seemingly speaks for the defense when he says he believes, "He (McClendon) is going to do everything he can to get in the game."
Of all the running backs in the country last year, the one who probably ran the most similar to Maurice Clarett was this young man. Before getting dinged up (sound familiar?), McClendon tore up the ACC for 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns. He has exceedingly good vision and can punish would be tacklers. Despite a fairly compact body, he can squirt through a small hole and then accelerate to daylight. If healthy, T.A. will give the defensive front of the Buckeyes something to worry about and a true threat to break off large chunks of real estate. Look for Cotra Jackson and Tramain Hall to share the tailback duties if McClendon cannot play Saturday. Neither have his vision, and Jackson lacks speed to turn the corner, averaging two yards per carry on the season.
Though they lost only 17 lettermen as a team, NC State finds itself replacing three starters on the offensive line. Derek Morris, expected to start this year, is still trying to get into football playing shape. Chris Colmer, their top lineman and left tackle is out indefinitely with nerve problems in his neck and shoulder. Last week, the line struggled to protect Rivers against the Demon Deacons even against three-man fronts. They will have to do better this week or Rivers will not be able to hit his receivers.
How will all of this work?
Will Allen commented, "If you watched Wake Forest, they (NC State) like to do a lot of diagonal curls and a lot of switch routes and a lot of different things schematically just to find that weak link; and when they find it, they attack it, they attack it, and attack it. They do a little trick play here and there, and they do things to catch you."
Who better to find a weak spot in the Buckeye defense than Philip Rivers?
Jim Tressel commented, "There's not a blitz he hasn't seen, there's not a coverage he hasn't seen, there's not a situation that he hasn't been in. He's been ahead, he's been behind, he's been beside. He gets the job done, and he's got a group of receivers and skilled people that are very, very good and they do a great job of changing things up."
NC State is going to come out and be aggressive offensively. Against Wake Forest, the Wolfpack found themselves down 28-3, and they never were able to close the gap enough to seriously threaten the Demon Deacons. Rivers will look for Jerricho Cotchery first, last, and in between because he is without question as important to their offense as Michael Jenkins is to Ohio State's.
Thus far, the Wolfpack have not established the running game. This is likely in part due to the loss of three starters on the offensive line and also the loss of McClendon. If he is back and healthy enough to play extensively, look for them to try and get him the football. They will seek to exploit the middle of the defense with draws much like San Diego State.
Even if they cannot run the football, NC State is more than willing to put the game in the capable hands of Rivers. He can carry this team. If the defense comes after him, he will dump the ball off to tight ends, tailbacks, and other hot reads. Expect him to test the new safeties and Buckeye secondary early.