Maybe it was not as impressive as hoped. Maybe there was more drama than expected (again). Maybe it left room for more to doubt Ohio State's skill level. Whatever the case, the Buckeyes still managed to pull out another victory last week by topping Bowling Green State University 24-17.
Tressel noted, "The ball game against Bowling Green was a tough ball game. Both teams played hard. We gave them some opportunities. They earned some opportunities. And it turned into a whale of a game at the end of the day."
In fact, it turned into too good of a game for the tastes of many. The offense once again misfired on multiple opportunities, allowing BGSU to hang around until the fourth quarter. Most damaging to the ability of Ohio State to put the Falcons away were the turnovers, and it has the coaching staff and players concerned.
"We're trying to establish the fact that we can run it and that we can throw it efficiently, but maybe most important is that we need to establish the fact that we don't turn it over," Jim Tressel said in his weekly press luncheon. "That's, to me, more of a discussion item than how's your run game or how's your pass pro."
Speaking of which, just how did the offense perform this past week without Craig Krenzel for the first time in almost two years?
According to Tressel, "Scott (McMullen) graded just under 80%. We feel we need our quarterback to grade around 85% to get what we call a winning performance, which I think is pretty solid for not having played a 67-play game since he's been here. There are a couple of plays that he would tell you that he wishes he had over, and likewise, we feel the same way. I thought he did some good things. I thought he was in command of what we were trying to do, and he played solid. And I think he gained some confidence, and as I watched the film, he looks like a guy that can contribute what we need from that position."
While McMullen had his hands full with his first complete game, the rushing attack was the real key to Saturday's victory. The Buckeyes piled up over 300 yards offense in part because they were successful running the football.
What made them so effective?
For Lydell Ross, much of the difference between the results in the first three games and the last had to do with play selection and effort. The pitches to the running backs were definitely a hit with him.
"I think it helped us out in the running game a lot. I think we the bulk of the yards running to the outside, and I think it is good to run the ball," he said.
Spoken like a true running back.
Maurice Hall, who broke 100 yards last Saturday added, "I think it was a combination of the offense and the running backs being on the same page – chemistry and us just working harder in practice and (being) ready to play."
This Week's Opponent
On Saturday, Ohio State will kick off its Big Ten slate with none other than a pesky Northwestern team. Not too many will forget the difficulty the Buckeyes had in putting away Randy Walker's squad in 2002, and this year, the Wildcats appear to be improved.
"They played a lot of guys last year because they had some injuries, and while you have to suffer through that at that moment, all of a sudden you've got a lot of veterans," said Tressel. "The challenge beating Northwestern, last year at this time, if you look back at their games leading up to us, the teams were similar, the scores were different. Air Force beat them 50 to something. This year they should have beat Air Force. They had them 21-9 and threw an interception for a touchdown and ended up losing a heartbreaker 22-21. They played Duke a year ago, and it was fairly even. They dominated the Duke game on Saturday. It was 28-10. Never in question. There's no doubt about it who was the better team.
"And then, of course, we all know that when we went there to play for game five, it was a battle. It was one of those ones that had to be 60 minutes. It ended up 27-16, but it was tighter than that, and probably the thing that was most apparent as you studied that game, Northwestern did an extraordinary job on the special teams against us - long kickoff return, long punt return - they did an outstanding job. And I think we all know or at least we better know by the time we take the field is that when you play in the Big Ten, forget about what you've seen on film. Forget about whatever it happens to be. We've got to worry about us becoming a better team and understanding what it takes to win the Big Ten conference."
If a team's record means anything at all, the Wildcats are 2-2 with only one point separating them from a 3-1 mark. This opponent is no joke.
With only five players who started on the 2002 Buckeye offense suiting up to gash the opponent, the Buckeyes have understandably struggled thus far. However, this week they will get a boost to their running game when first string fullback Brandon Joe returns. According to Ben Hartsock, "I think Brandon's been working some in practice and starting to test out his shoulder and peck and feel how that feels, and he is going to be a huge asset for us I think."
At quarterback will be Scott McMullen. The fifth year senior played his first complete game last Saturday and faired well enough to emerge with the victory. He threw 16 passes, completing 10 for 118 yards and a touchdown. The Buckeyes were able to overcome his two turnovers and the luxury of a solid rushing attack allowed McMullen to not be pressured into either winning or losing the game. Look for Ohio State to come in with a similar plan this week as well. McMullen will be trusted to run the offense but not put in situations where he can lose the game.
At the running back position, Ohio State will enter this game in its best shape since the Fiesta Bowl. Not only will they have the services of their first and second-string fullbacks, they also have Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall starting to gain some yardage. If the game goes according to play, the Buckeyes will try to run these two enough to gain 100 yards a piece.
The wide receiver corps, though still missing Chris Gamble while the weather is warm, has been improving in increments. All of the attention focused on Michael Jenkins has not stopped him. He had his typical workmanlike performance last week with three catches for 62 yards. Beginning to emerge are fellow receivers Roy Hall and Drew Carter, whose size and speed create all sorts of match up problems for defensive coaches. Particularly impressive in last week's game was the blocking of the wideouts. Their ability to get physical with defensive backs and even linebackers created space for the offense to succeed.
On the offensive line, matters are improving but are still inconsistent. The bright spot here is that Hartsock, Ryan Hamby, and Louis Irizarry are all seeing significant playing time. In both blocking and passing, these three are standing tall, and Hartsock is playing with a chip on his shoulder. Upset that the offense is not clicking, one could sense the tension as he stated, "It bothers me. I know our main goal coming into the season was to become much more of a dominant offense, and we haven't done that by any stretch of the word. It is frustrating. We are still searching to try and figure out what it is. One week it is somebody screwing up. Another week it is turnovers. It is just something where we've got to come out and get everything firing on all cylinders to become consistent. When we get the ball – whenever the ball gets the offense moving it seems the flow of the game changes and everybody seems to get comfortable and then we really get rolling and that is what we need to do."
Shane Olivea knows that the game will turn on the success (or failure) of the line. He has a recipe for success if the Buckeyes can simply cook the dish properly. Olivea feels OSU must "continue the running game as productive as it was (last week). Give Scott time to make decisions because we do have the athletes."
In short, he simply wants the offense and entire team to "Just play 60 minutes. That is one thing. We just have not been able to put a whole game (together) as far as all aspects – offense, defense, and special teams. If we do that, I think we should get this thing going in the right direction."
The first thing Ohio State will seek to do this week is eliminate the turnovers. No matter how well a team runs or passes, if it does that only to turn over the football in their opponent's territory they have failed. This week, the Buckeye's kryptonite meets Lex Luthor with the Wildcats having a reputation for stripping the football from inattentive offensive players. The coaches are preparing the Scarlet and Gray for just this danger.
According to Maurice Hall, "The scout team has really been hitting at the ball. Everybody that runs the ball - quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs, everybody that runs it – the scout team is making sure they are hitting the ball rather than even tackling them."
They better. Another week like the last several and Ohio State might find their winning streak ending abruptly. The offense cannot keep putting the defense in bad situations.
The next step will be to establish the running game. Rarely is a team successful if they cannot rush the football. Though their opponent has out gained them in passing yardage every game of 2003, the Buckeyes have managed more yards rushing and as a result are 4-0. Expect to see more pitches, tosses, sweeps, fullback isolation, two tight ends, reverses, draws, naked bootlegs, and other variations on the rushing attack in order to keep the Wildcats' defense off balance and hesitant to commit. Look for Ohio State to try and give the ball to their tailbacks at least 35 times and even more if they are having consistent success.
Finally, Ohio State will try to create an effective passing attack as icing on the proverbial cake. McMullen will be utilized in accordance to his talents. Quick missiles fired to the sidelines, dump offs to the tight ends, and the occasional crossing pattern underneath to match Jenkins or another speedy receiver on a linebacker will likely be staples. McMullen will not be asked to win the football game, but he will be asked not to lose it with careless ball handling. If they get a chance, the coaching staff will call vertical passing plays. They were there last Saturday, but the Buckeyes simply could not hit them.
For their part, Northwestern will seek to strip the football, stuff any holes created by the offensive line, and pressure McMullen into poor decisions.
Whose game plan will win?
The Buckeyes are going to come out in this game with a chip on their shoulder. You can bet that they have not forgotten the below the belt punches Northwestern players were handing out last year in their meeting. You can also rest assured that Ben Hartsock and others on the offense are sick and tired of hearing about how they are the weak link on this team for a second consecutive year. With players starting to get healthy and the backups improving every week the Buckeyes are likely to have their most complete showing yet. The Wildcats are no joke when it comes to stopping the rushing attack, but they will not last the entire game without giving up some chunks of yardage in key situations. Finally, Scott McMullen will likely improve immeasurably. Considering last week was his first start since the disaster of the Illinois game in 2001, nerves, timing, and just getting used to the speed of the game probably hampered his ability to perform to his potential.
In the end, I look for Ohio State's offense to put up enough points to win. It might not be a blowout, but it will be a win and that is what matters.
Ohio State 27 – Northwestern 13