OSU broke the 300-yard barrier for the fourth time in five games, netting 311 yards in total offense in Saturday's 20-0 win over Northwestern. But that performance left OSU a distant 106th nationally (out of 117 teams) in total offense at a scant 298.4 yards per game.
The numbers are slightly misleading, as they are skewed by OSU's dismal 196-yard "effort" against San Diego State. But the most important number surrounding the Buckeyes these days is five, as in 5-0.
"I feel good that we have some time to get better at some things," Tressel said after the win over Northwestern. "I think we are seeing a little bit of incremental improvement in some things, but probably not as much as any of us would like. We really haven't had the same cast very much here over the first five games and yet we're still surviving and doing what we need to get done to win football games.
"But we need to get much better before we go to Camp Randall. We do need to get better on offense. I think we're headed in a better direction than we were a couple of weeks ago."
OSU has played the last three games without starting center Alex Stepanovich (ankle) and last two games without quarterback Craig Krenzel (elbow). And, it helps, obviously, that this offense is backed by one of the country's top defenses. OSU is ranked 12th in total defense (273.0 yards per game) and first in rushing defense (43.4).
"It feels good to come out as far as a Big Ten game and get a shutout," noted split end Michael Jenkins, who had five catches against NU. "The offense has a little bit more work to do going out to Camp Randall. But it's a good thing to start out with a shutout. It's a long season for the Big Ten. Anything can happen any given Saturday, so it was a good feeling to get a win."
Redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Zwick enjoyed his first extended playing time, completing 3 of 7 passes for 20 yards against the Wildcats.
"We're 5-0, so we really can't complain about things," Zwick said. "If it was the other way around, maybe we could get upset or wonder what's going wrong. But we're winning ballgames. Our guys are doing a good job working hard all week long and coming out on Saturday and doing a good job."
In one regard, the Buckeyes did better. They had turned the ball over an average of three times per game in their first four outings. OSU lost just one turnover -- an interception by quarterback Scott McMullen late in the first half -- against the Wildcats.
"(Taking care of the ball) was one of the points Coach Tressel brought up to this week," said senior tight end Ben Hartsock. "He said we were leading the Big Ten in turnovers and we were last in total offense and last in rushing offense. We can't be successful if we do that, no matter what conference you're in, especially the Big Ten and the style of football they play. You have to be able to run the ball so you can open it up for the pass.
"The offense is taking baby steps, but the defense had a really good day. The offense needs to work on consistency. Our offensive coaches talked about it halftime and again after the game. Coach Tressel said we have two weeks now and everybody knows here we are 5-0 and we haven't even scratched the surface of what we're capable of. There's a lot of work that needs to be done on that."
The Running Game
After breaking loose for 205 yards rushing against Bowling Green, many believed OSU's troubles in that facet of the offense were over. But it reverted to more of the same against NU, with the Buckeyes netting 125 yards on 35 attempts.
Things might have been different if Lydell Ross had been able to finish the game. Ross had 43 yards on nine carries before leaving the game in the third quarter with a sprained knee.
"I think I ran well," Ross said. "I was seeing the holes. As the game was progressing, I was getting better."
With Ross unavailable and Maurice Hall (nine carries, 12 yards) experiencing another tough game, Tressel used fullback Branden Joe, seeing his first game action of the year after recovering from a torn pectoral muscle, and true freshman Ira Guilford at tailback. Joe got 4 yards on three carries, while Guilford provided somewhat of a late-game spark with 29 yards on eight attempts.
"We need to say, `OK, here's the personnel that we have and what can we do to maximize what they can do?' " Tressel said. "And I think Branden Joe has always been a guy we've thought of as a short yardage back. He didn't get to practice until a week ago, so he missed 40 some practices, 50 practices, maybe. We didn't expect him to be in there more than 10 or 12 plays today. But we did want to get him some carries.
"We also wanted to get Ira Guilford some carries. I thought Ira did a good job. We need everyone to contribute on both sides of the ball and on the special teams."
Guilford, who ripped off an impressive 15-yard run, is eager to have a larger role on offense.
"I am going to keep on studying, keep getting better," Guilford said. "I am going to keep doing what I've been doing and a little bit more because I really want to be a factor in this offense. Whatever the coaches see fit as my role, that's what's going to be. But I want to put myself in a good position."
According to Hartsock, OSU found some success outside early against the Wildcats.
"We saw from Northwestern previously that they really tried to stop (the off-tackle play)," he said. "They walk a guy right up to the tackle. So we ran a lot of outside zones and had some success with that. We kept going at that until they started adjusting to do that play. Then, we went back to the off-tackle. We had some success on that early in the game, but then we got bogged down in the fourth."
But all it takes is one blocker missing his assignment to ruin a play. Unfortunately, that has been a recurring theme this year, Hartsock said.
"We just have one person or one assignment that gets missed," he said. "That one thing can have a huge impact, whether it's a backside guy or a frontside guy at the point of attack. With an offensive line, everything has to go smoothly. One guy having a missed assignment can have a big impact. There can be a huge hole, but with one guy standing in it it's not there. We have to develop that consistency."
Finding The Tight Ends
Hartsock and fellow tight end Ryan Hamby came up big in the win over Northwestern. Hartsock hauled in five catches for 50 yards, while Hamby had two grabs including a 1-yard touchdown pass from McMullen in the third quarter.
"I'm anxious to hear what Coach Tressel has to say," Hartsock joked about Tressel‘s penchant for lumping the tight ends in with the offensive linemen. "I'm sure he'll talk about bringing us back down to square one."
Hartsock made a nifty over-the-shoulder grab of a 17-yard pass from McMullen to set up a first-half field goal.
"I don't know if there is a better blocker in America than Ben Hartsock," Tressel said. "I think he made some great catches. That one long one today, that was pretty impressive. He's 258 pounds flying through the air. We had to fix the field when he landed."
How important are the tight ends? Jenkins leads OSU with 23 catches. Hartsock is next with 14 (for 118 yards). Flanker Drew Carter is next with 13 and Hamby is fourth with eight catches for 97 yards. In five games, Hartsock is close to approaching the 17-catch total he had in 14 games last season.
For much of the day, NU played eight men in the box with man coverage on the corners. They committed extra men to stop the run, leaving the tight ends almost unfettered.
"The way it's working out is with our play calling and the defensive coverages, there are little holes in there that we've been able to find," Hamby said. "McMullen and Krenzel have done a good job of finding us this year."
Hartsock credited McMullen for waking his way down the receiver tree to the tight ends.
"A couple of times today, I was the third or fourth option," he said. "Scott was able to go through his progressions and find me. That's a credit for him."
The Next One
After opening with five straight home games, OSU's next game at Wisconsin figures to be a rough one for a couple of reasons.
First, the Badgers (4-1) are ranked 35th nationally in both rushing and total offense. Second, the game will be a rare night game at raucous Camp Randall Stadium, one of the Big Ten's most imposing environments.
"It's going to be a little different, especially playing at Wisconsin," Hartsock said. "That is one of the most hostile environments, I think, that we play in. They've got great fans and a great tradition. It's one of the loudest stadiums we go to. Especially offensively, we will need to work on our communication. Every Thursday, regardless of home or away, we have loud speakers at our practice to simulate crowd noise, to the point where it's really pretty painful. But we work on that on offense where, if you've got to huddle up and get within ear shot of one another, you can still communicate."
Hamby said the Buckeyes need the extra time they will be afforded to get healthy and get the offense in order.
"We haven't put our game together yet," he said. "We have a lot more to prove. We need to come out against Wisconsin and put it to them. We have a bye week this week. We need to take advantage of that and get Craig and Alex healthy. We need to get rested up."
Ross, for one, could also use some extra days to get a clean bill of health.
"We are definitely going to take advantage of the two weeks we have to rehab and get better," he said. "We keep the momentum going on the practice field."