The Broken Record…
The dates on the calendar and the opponents may change, but the questions about the Ohio State offense remain. In the Big Ten rankings, only Iowa is below them in passing yards and the Buckeyes sit at ninth in rushing offense. Once again, the Buckeyes are dead last in total offense…
Last week, it was Ben Hartsock being grilled by a media in search of answers. His theme was frustration. Frustration at himself for not being as consistent as he would like. Frustration with the unit because they are as he phrased it, "the slow wheel," once again. Frustration trying to find the answers because it seems to never be the same problem over and over but rather different ones on successive plays.
This week, it was Craig Krenzel answering many of the same questions. For his part, although he undoubtedly shares in that sense of frustration, he also believes the offense is becoming more proficient.
"I think we definitely improved," he stated matter of fact tone. "There's still a lot of room for improvement between now and Saturday, in terms of when we finally get the game plan and exactly what we're going to want to do on Saturday to make sure that our guys mentally and physically are ready to meet the challenge against a great defense, a great run-stopping defense and a talented secondary. I think from my standpoint, as I mentioned, having some more opportunities to get throws, getting timing back with some of the guys, I think that was a big benefit of the week off. And I think our guys up front have done a good job of becoming more focused on their assignments in the running game and the passing game and physically going out and carrying on those assignments."
However, instead of simply rehashing all the struggles and the tired comments by players and coaches about the need to improve (though they are all true), it might be more profitable to simply talk about what is expected to be different for the Buckeye offense against Wisconsin.
Change for the better?
To begin with, the offensive side of the football gets a boost with the return of three weapons this week. Center Alex Stepanovich, wide receiver Chris Gamble, and starting quarterback Craig Krenzel will provide the offense its most potent lineup to date.
Krenzel, fresh off an injury to his throwing arm, insists he is feeling well. His arm strength and health are good and the time off allowed his body to heal. The only concession he sees for the injury right now is that he will be wearing, "an elbow sleeve to get the joint warm, to stay warm and not tighten up in the game." While the passing game was ably managed by fellow redshirt senior Scott McMullen in his absence, it never hurts to return a starter who is 18-0 when allowed to start and complete the game.
Center Alex Stepanovich, sidelined for multiple weeks with a high ankle
sprain, is expected to come in almost completely healed according to Coach
Tressel. He commented, "I would say Alex is probably back to well over 90%,
and I would like to think that he'll be at 100% come Saturday. You know, the big
difference between doing your rehab, running, and on a bike and in the weight
room and all that, is all of a sudden now you're hitting against someone who is
hitting against you, and I think you need to make that transition. So I expect
him to be ready to go."
For an offensive line still struggling to maintain a push up the middle at times, the return of a preseason Rimington candidate should be tremendous. To make room, when Nick Mangold rotates into the game at center, Stepanovich will slide over to guard.
With the weather starting to cool and Ohio State not facing a spread offense, Chris Gamble is likely to see more time on offense. According to Krenzel, that cannot do anything but help.
"Any time Chris Gamble is on the field, he adds an extra dimension," he said. "He is the kind of guy, like a lot of our other guys, that can make something happen if he has the ball in his hands."
When those three are added to the already returned Branden Joe, Brandon Schnittker, and Lydell Ross – who have all spent time recovering from injuries this season – the offense figures to have perhaps the most weapons it will possess all season.
The Game Plan…
The Ohio State offense must first and foremost fix its anemic rushing game. For the Buckeyes to last through the game this weekend and the rest of the Big Ten schedule, solutions must be found. That Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross are not averaging 100 yards per game combined is the best barometer to indicate the sheer depth and systemic nature of the problems. What is most likely to happen is that Alex Stepanovich and Nick Mangold will both play for the majority of the football game in the hopes of creating a better blocking unit up front. Lydell Ross will start, and so long as his body holds up, will be allowed to be the workhorse.
Even if it is hard sledding in the early going, the Buckeyes cannot afford to ‘pull a Michigan' and abandon the run. To do so would be tantamount to ritual suicide for the entire team for three reasons. First, the rushing game is one of the greatest indicators of who will win a football game. Those who have the most yards in this statistic most often claim victory. Last year, Ohio State out-rushed Wisconsin. Guess who won? Thus far, despite the putrid statistical numbers, Ohio State has out-rushed every opponent. Guess who won?
Second, a passing offense that does not eat up extensive clock time will allow Wisconsin to dominate time of possession and pound at the Buckeye defensive line. While that does not necessarily mean doom, it does increase the risks that the Badgers will begin ripping off long runs late in the game either to win the contest or to eat up the clock and prevent a comeback if Ohio State trails. Finally, the Scarlet and Gray offense uses rushing formations to set up the play action pass and slow/burn the rush. Without the threat of the run, Wisconsin will simply be able to rush the quarterback and knock him back into the stone age. Considering Krenzel is just returning from injury, that is not the way to keep him healthy for the stretch run.
Expect the Buckeyes to rush Ross, Hall, and Ira Guilford in excess of 30 times even if they average less than three yards a carry between them.
The passing game will also be expected to improve in several areas. First, they have to begin hitting more long passes over the top of the Badger defense. Penn State had moderate success against a Wisconsin secondary that is not only nicked up but was borderline undermanned from the beginning of the season. Drew Carter, Santonio Holmes, Bam Childress, Michael Jenkins, Chris Gamble, Roy Hall and even Louis Irizarry all have the speed and ability to burn a defense for a long touchdown. They must get on the same proverbial page as Craig Krenzel this weekend. One or two big plays will force Wisconsin to back off of the line of scrimmage and allow the Buckeye rushing attack a greater chance of success. Second, if the timing is still not present for the long range passing attack, Krenzel must continue to find his tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Tressel noted, "If you study the evolution of football, people are throwing more; but not necessarily all the throws are way down the field. And I think that (the tight end) has doubled at times as part of the run game attack that offenses have integrated into their system. But we've been pleased with their understanding of where they need to be, why they need to be there, how they need to get there. And that's -- that's important. If we can continue to spread the ball out distribution-wise and improve our run game, I think we can become a good offense."
If possible, the Ohio State coaching staff will limit the responsibility given to Krenzel in his first game back in the hopes of protecting him from taking too many hits. If the rushing game falters and Ohio State falls behind, they will likely move to plan B and try to win the game through the air.