Is it just me, or are most pundits and a great many fans still operating on assumptions about Jim Tressel's offense that do not hold true in 2003?
Take a look at the Ohio State drive to a touchdown in the third quarter against Northwestern. In that drive alone, there were a wide variety of plays and formations that belie the labels attached to the Buckeyes and their head coach. There were two slant passes to wide receivers (Jenkins and Carter). There was one deep pass to Drew Carter (incomplete). McMullen hit Ben Hartsock twice for 18 yards. The coaches, seeing something upstairs, called for a quarterback draw that gained another 16 yards on a critical third down. The Buckeyes brought in Brandon Joe at the goal line to see if he could bum rush his way to pay dirt. Finally, on third and 1, they tossed the pigskin to Hamby for the touchdown.
If Tressel were really as much a Neanderthal as some seem to believe, Ohio State would never have passed the football with 3rd and 1 on the goal line. The Buckeyes have literally lost multiple national championships because previous coaches tried to force their way down the field with three yards and a cloud of dust even when it was clear they could not run the ball.
Tight ends and Drew Carter
Lost amongst some of the grumbling about the offense have been two exciting developments.
First, there is the rediscovery of the tight ends. In the last three games, Ben Hartsock and Ryan Hamby have found themselves in the thick of the passing game. Hartsock has 13 receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown. Hamby has come up with 6 catches for 45 yards and two scores. That may not sound impressive, but it should. Consider that in 14 games last season, Hartsock only had 17 receptions for 137 yards and two touchdowns and Hamby played the whole year without a catch. By passing the ball to the tight ends, quarterbacks are allowed a high percentage completion to a large target that normally will gain anywhere from 3-25 yards. Not only that, but it forces the defense to account for more men at the line of scrimmage.
Second, Drew Carter has begun to emerge as the key second wide receiver the Ohio State offense has lacked since Dee Miller and Kenyon Rambo roamed through hapless defenses. Considered a project with serious potential coming out of high school, Carter was showing flashes of brilliance in 2001 before a serious knee injury curtailed his development. Though he was optimistic at media, he admitted that he was not fully healed even in 2002. "I was just coming off of an injury also so I was just coming back, and it was kinda touchy-feely," he said. "Coming through the season I developed so much better. I have strength in my legs again and my speed is definitely back. I can't really tell you one single thing that kept me off of the field. I just feel like I am going to make good plays and just have to wait for when my number is called."
Making good plays is exactly what Carter has done thus far. His 11 catches for 92 yards and a touchdown rank him as the third highest receiver (behind only Jenkins and Hartsock). What is tremendous about his performance however is that he appears to be improving with leaps and bounds as long as those he took during the Big Ten track season. At this pace, with the return of Chris Gamble to spot duty, the Buckeye offense could become positively explosive.
How in the world could any potential defensive recruit not look at Ohio State and just drool? At most top echelon football programs, the starters play and second stringers get mop-up duty.
What is happening under the guidance of defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio is truly special. He and his staff are creating a rotation as deep and varied as the Yankee pitching staff.
The starting defensive line might be Darrion Scott, Tim Anderson, Simon Fraser, and Will Smith, but they are not the only ones who see significant playing time. In fact, Joel Penton, Mike Kudla, Quinn Pitcock, David Patterson, Jay Richardson, and Marcus Green are all seeing the football field. As a direct result, everyone seems to be getting a piece of the action. Seven different defensive linemen have sacks (they total 11.5 as a unit), and two (Fraser and Patterson) have recovered fumbles.
At linebacker, the Buckeyes are rotating personnel packages almost as frequently. Depending on the down, distance, strategic situation, and the offense's package, Dantonio is switching up his players. On one play, Hawk may line up at MLB with Carpenter and Reynolds flanking him on either side. On another, Reynolds and Hawk are the only two in the game. Just when the offense thinks they have it all figured out, Fred Pagac comes in and lines up in the middle. Or, maybe the coaches want to put in Mike D'Andrea to line up at outside linebacker, a rush defensive end, or middle linebacker. Against NC State in the final play of triple overtime, the Ohio State coaches had four linebackers and four defensive linemen in the game. Oh yeah – one of those defensive linemen, Will Smith, is sometimes dropped back as a linebacker as well. Confused? Imagine what it is like for an offense.
Finally, multiple players are seeing the field in the secondary as well. E.J. Underwood, Ashton Youboty, Chris Gamble, and Dustin Fox have all played at cornerback. Donte Whitner, Will Allen, Nate Salley, Tyler Everett, and Brandon Mitchell have all played at the safety positions.
Sure, other teams might be able to claim they have rotated players in and out with early pre-conference blowouts, but the amazing part of this story is that these players have all logged minutes in critical situations.
·What is it with 17 points? For a third week in a row, Ohio State led at home by just 17 points with less than 10 minutes remaining in the football game.
·Turnovers and poor ball handling. It took Ohio State only four minutes to put the football on the grass. After the team spent all week emphasizing the need to hang onto the football, Maurice Hall fumbled in the first quarter. McMullen added an interception with an ill-advised pass over the middle late in the second quarter. Granted, it did not help that the intended receiver tipped his pass into the air, but that ball should probably never have been thrown back against his body, over the middle, while he was on the run. Later in the game, referees gave Ohio State a gift when Northwestern appeared to have forced a third miscue but it was ruled an incomplete pass.
·Red Zone results. The Buckeyes may puzzle people with their propensity to pull out victories, but a key part of this streak is the ability of Ohio State to score points in the red zone. Coming into the game, the Buckeyes led the Big Ten in Red Zone percentage, scoring on 15 of 16 trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line. Saturday did nothing to change that. On the day, they were 3 of 3, bringing their numbers up to 18 of 19 with 12 touchdowns. In 2002, they finished with points in the red zone 51 out of 61 opportunities.
·Defense in the Red Zone. Where the Buckeye offense is excelling in this area, their defense is as well. They entered the game only allowing scores 12 of the 17 times opposing offenses trespassed near the OSU goal line. After Northwestern's self destruction with a hold deep in Ohio State territory, followed by a failed field goal attempt, the Scarlet and Gray now have only given up points 12 out of 18 times. In 2002, opponents scored only 21 out of 38 for the season, and 10 of those were field goals.
·A.J. Hawk is still a stud. Really, the coaches should get a license and a permit to play this young man. It is my understanding that you have to take care of such legalities when you prepare to demolish anything of note within city limits. Northwestern tried out A.J. early in the contest but appeared to think better of it after he wrecked their offense in the first half. At the conclusion of the game, he added another 13 tackles to pad his team lead to 17 better than his nearest competitor. He now has 7.5 tackles for loss – almost double the amount of those in second and third place.
·Near misses on deep passing routes. Sooner or later the Buckeyes are going to hit one of these. Of course, that has been the mantra all year long. Saturday it was a failed connection between Zwick and Irizarry that looked like a sure touchdown. The pass was just inches too far and Louis could not pull it back into his body. However, all was not for naught. Did anyone else notice Irizarry's speed on that play? No wonder Coach Conley was so excited when talking about Louis' potential several weeks ago.
·Headhunting safeties. In this game, Nate Salley delivered a couple of crushing blows. Meanwhile, Tyler Everett opted to take out not one but two Northwestern player in hot pursuit of Chris Gamble on a punt return. The only danger here is one of missed tackles if the offensive player being mugged is not knocked senseless by the force of the blow.
Disturbing Big Ten Numbers
·Ohio State sits at –1 in the turnover margin. In 2002, they were +9 and rarely (if ever) put their defense in a pickle by giving an opposing team the ball with a short field.
·With all of the mediocre teams that might hold the dubious honor, the Buckeyes are in 9th place in average rushing yardage. The most frightful part of this is that prior to this week, they were dead last. Only Indiana trails Ohio State in average yards per carry (3.1 compared to 3.3 for OSU).
·The Buckeyes are dead last in overall offense. They are the only team in the conference averaging less than 300 yards per game. Currently, Michigan is averaging 156.6 yards more per game than OSU.
·OSU is 10th in the number of first downs. Only Purdue trails the men in Scarlet and Gray. The kicker is that Purdue has one less game than Ohio State. When that is factored in, the Buckeyes move into dead last with a commanding lead.
·Ohio State is second in the conference in the number of penalties committed per game.
·OSU is next to last in third down conversion percentage. They are averaging less than 1/3 of the third down plays resulting in a new set of downs.
It might have been missed, but the Ohio State offense has had real trouble sustaining any lengthy drives in 2003. The longest scoring drive up until Saturday lasted only 3:52, and only six times out of 20 has Ohio State even held onto the ball three minutes before getting points. Their longest drive of the season resulted in possession of the football for 7:15 against Bowling Green, but it ultimately stalled and ended on downs. Against Texas Tech alone in 2002, OSU had 3 drives resulting in touchdowns that lasted over four minutes and five scoring drives of three minutes or more.
The biggest reason for this is likely the lack of a consistent running game that allows the Buckeyes to control the clock.