2003 was supposed to be the season that the offense carried the defense. It was supposed to be the year when the offense had finally matured and would use four returning starters on the offensive line to dominate the line of scrimmage. It was supposed to be the year when two highly recruited junior tailbacks and a pair of sizeable fullbacks would hammer opposition defenses until they weakly submitted.
It has not worked out that way.
Last week's contest against North Carolina State was perhaps the ugliest regulation performance on offense yet for the Buckeyes. Sure, Ohio State won the game in triple overtime, but prior to that the numbers were embarrassing.
NC State managed 25 first downs to a woeful 9 on the afternoon for the men in Scarlet and Gray. Ohio State was held to under 200 yards passing. They fumbled the ball twice (losing both) and Krenzel tossed three interceptions.
Worse was the rushing yardage for Ohio State. The offense netted 44 yards on the afternoon with 32 attempts. Craig Krenzel had 37 of those yards and Brandon Schnittker 5. That means that after accounting for a -1 yard attributed to the team, Buckeye tailbacks combined for 3 yards on 17 carries.
Coach Jim Tressel stated the obvious. "We've got to be a better running team if we are going to make the offensive contribution to the football team that we would like to make," he said. "We've got to run the ball better. Right now, we're not good enough."
Just how bad is the rushing attack right now? At the current clip of 102 rushing yards per game, it would take the 2003 squad 41 games - more than 3 full seasons - to reach the Buckeye record for yards on the ground (4,199 in 12 games) set in 1974.
That leaves the Buckeyes searching for answers. Where will they find them? By looking in the mirror according to running backs coach Tim Spencer.
"Everybody has had a rough game," he said. "We can't put the blame on Maurice Hall. He's just one person. It's a combination of everybody. He's aware of that. We have to get some things corrected and get the job done. We aren't hitting on all cylinders. But it's not just one guy. We all have to do our jobs. Plain and simple, we have to execute."
The rushing offense was so putrid Saturday that the references by Spencer on execution cannot help but prompt remembrance of the famed quote by the late former Tampa Bay coach John McKay. When asked about his team's execution, he replied, "I think it's a good idea."
The Buckeye offensive line currently finds itself undermanned and under whelming. With Alex Stepanovich still out with a high ankle sprain, sophomore Nick Mangold (6'4", 280) will get the start in his place. On his left will be senior Adrien Clarke (6'3", 330) at guard and sophomore Rob Sims (6'4", 305) at tackle. Senior Bryce Bishop (6'3", 312) will start at right guard and senior Shane Olivea (6'5", 320) at right tackle. Last week, only two of these five players performed well enough to merit a winning grade - Clarke and Mangold. If the Ohio State offense is to be successful this week, then this trend must change. The offensive line must begin holding its blocks and smashing people in the mouth.
The offensive line will be the key component not only in dominating the line of scrimmage but the football game as a whole. "The tempo of the game is controlled, in my mind, by the success of the offense," said Jim Tressel at his Tuesday press conference. "If the offense is struggling, if they're not getting first downs, they can't control the tempo. I don't care how fast they come off the sideline and line up. If they are getting first downs, absolutely. One of the goals we have for our offensive team is we would like our offense to control the tempo of the game and keep those -- keep our defense on the sideline and keep their defense on the field and keep their offense on the sideline kind of losing maybe a little rhythm. So offensive tempo is something that's darn important."
Also considered a part of the offensive line are the tight ends. Senior Ben Hartsock will start. He caught 7 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown against NC State. Ryan Hamby will back him up and play alongside the rest of the linemen in two tight end sets. Hamby snagged a touchdown in the second overtime to help the Buckeyes stay alive. Stan White, Jr. and Louis Irizarry could also see the field. Stan plays the role of the H-back when called upon by the coaching staff. True freshman Irizarry was a highly touted recruit who is already a threat to catch passes out of the backfield but is still developing when it comes to his blocking technique and assignments.
At running back, Ohio State will be playing the usual suspects. Despite his performance last week, Maurice Hall will start at tailback because quite simply, the Buckeyes have few other options. Lydell Ross is still recovering from various and sundry nagging injuries plaguing him this season. Maurice Clarett is out for the season. Ira Guilford is a true freshman recruited as a defensive back. Brandon Schnittker will like up as the starting fullback with first string fullback Brandon Joe still on the mend from a torn pectoral muscle.
Starting at quarterback will be Scott McMullen. This will be his second career start at Ohio State, the only other one being the ill-fated Illinois contest in 2001. Though the team will certainly miss Krenzel, McMullen is not exactly chopped liver. In spot duty last season, he threw the ball 31 times and completed 25 of those passes (for an 80% completion rate) for 315 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. While he has little game experience overall, he is a fifth year senior and probably will be more difficult to rattle than the average backup quarterback.
At wide receiver for Ohio State will be a number of players. Michael Jenkins will start. Jenkins, a.k.a. ‘Mr. Clutch', was named offensive player of the game for the Buckeyes because of his performance on Saturday. Coach Tressel praised Jenkins; "Michael had seven catches for 129 yards or 120 yards, a couple touchdowns, made big plays when we needed them made, obviously caught the game-winner, had the best blocking day that he's had."
At the flanker position will be senior Drew Carter. Even though he totaled only 39 yards, Carter probably had his best day as a Buckeye last week with 6 receptions. He appears to be developing the consistency necessary to provide the quarterback with another reliable target. Santonio Holmes, Roy Hall, and Bam Childress will certainly see the field extensively as well. Holmes in particular has shown flashes of brilliance, but his one drawback - and it is a big one - has been his propensity to fumble the football.
What the Buckeye offense must do
With a new starting quarterback, the Buckeye offensive line must have its best game of the season. Ben Hartsock commented, "I think we've got to develop consistency and dominance as an offensive front." At this point, most fans and perhaps even the coaches might just be happy with consistent mediocrity, let alone dominance. If the line does not perform better, then the Falcons will use their quickness to disrupt plays and overload the line of scrimmage. As a result, they will garner sacks, quarterback hurries, and tackle the running backs for losses.
Since it is a given that Bowling Green will employ their attacking style of defense, the Buckeyes must be prepared to take several steps. First, McMullen must make quick reads and be ready to go to his hot receiver. He cannot afford to hang onto the football for more than three seconds when it is clear the Falcons are sending everything flying into the backfield including the kitchen sink. Second, if the offensive line cannot handle the blitzes, the coaching staff must call a variety of plays designed to burn a defense charging as quickly as a chocoholic in a Godiva shop. Draws, screens, misdirection, deep routes, and designed quarterback runs are all possibilities. Whatever plays are chosen do not have to be fancy, but they do need to be effective. Third, the running game must emerge from its current status in the dungeons of torment. It is worse than humiliating that Ohio State, whose bread and butter is its rushing attack, could only muster 44 yards against NC State. This week the running backs must find their holes and run behind their blockers and/or find the open hole and squeeze through. Finally, Buckeye wide receivers must be willing to fight for positioning and the football. They cannot expect the benefit of good calls when defensive backs clutch and grab them to slow them and disrupt the timing on pass plays. They must be just as physical and be willing to scrap if necessary. If McMullen can connect with Carter and Jenkins on a couple of long bombs, then BGSU will have to change its defensive schemes.
How it will all work
I expect Ohio State to come out with a truncated offensive package. With a new quarterback under center, the coaching staff will likely try and settle his nerves by running the ball early. Lydell Ross (if healthy) and Maurice Hall will probably get more than their fair share of carries. So long as the defense is holding and the running game is at least allowing the Buckeyes to play the game of field position, the passing plays will probably be relatively low risk (sideline routes, short dump passes, and some deep throws that amount to punts in the case of an interception).
As the game progresses, if McMullen proves he is up to the challenge, Ohio State might join up for some frequent flier miles. One thing McMullen does possess is a great arm. This works out well for the men in Scarlet and Gray since Jenkins, Carter, Holmes, Hall, and Childress all possess fabulous speed. Expect to see McMullen attempt to hook up on deep routes with these receivers from time to time. If he is successful in his early attempts, the coaching staff may relax and give him carte blanche to go downtown.
The Buckeyes will also seek to wear down the defensive front of Bowling Green. Though they will rotate fresh bodies in and out, the Falcons' line is smaller than any Ohio State has seen in quite some time. The Buckeyes would be foolish not to at least attempt to wear them down during the course of the afternoon with sustained drives. If successful, scoring in the second half will become much easier for the Buckeyes and the game could get out of hand late in the third quarter.
Bowling Green does have the ability to upset Ohio State. Do not think for even a moment that they cannot pull this game off. The Buckeyes are wounded right now and are missing three of their top five running backs, their starting center, and their starting quarterback. Additionally, it is anyone's guess as to how many players on the Scarlet and Gray defense are actually nicked up given that the injury status for college players is seemingly more secretive than the North Korean Nuclear weapons program. Josh Harris may not be Philip Rivers, but he is yet another quarterback in a long line of fine signal callers. The Bowling Green defense may not seem all that intimidating, but they did march into West Lafayette, Indiana and frustrated Joe Tiller's offense enough to emerge with a victory.
Still, I believe that with the game in the Horseshoe, Tressel and his players will emerge victorious. The noise and the size of Ohio State will wear on the Falcons, leading to turnovers and big plays for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State 38 - BGSU 17