Ohio State's offense finally had its breakout game.
Sure, it took eight weeks, and sure it was against lowly Indiana, but the Buckeyes will take it. They piled up 603 yards of total offense – by far the most of the Jim Tressel era – and might have picked up some much-needed confidence for the stretch run of the season.
The Bucks are now averaging 318.9 yards per game (196.8 passing, 122.1 rushing), good for 99th nationally. That's up from 114th last week.
In the win over the Hoosiers, quarterback Craig Krenzel had his best game of his season. He was 19 of 26 for 272 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
Tailback Lydell Ross had the best game of his career with 23 carries for 167 yards and three TDs.
"I just think we were doing a lot of things right from the offensive line to pass protection to passing the ball," Ross said. "I think we can build off all the success we had this past weekend."
Ross didn't consider the IU game an awakening for himself. Although he seemed to do a much better job of making the right cuts and finding the right holes, he says it was more about the offensive line playing well.
"That starts at the offensive line," he said. "They were doing an exceptional job Saturday, and it was just easy to read the holes. I felt like I kept my shoulders square a lot more Saturday, and I felt like I could see the whole field just from the movement I was getting up front on the line."
As for that O-line, the ever-improving group was led by tight end Ben Hartsock.
"The offensive lineman of the game was Ben Hartsock," head coach Jim Tressel said. "He continues to block extremely well, does a good job in our passing game as well, and Ben Hartsock, I think, for at least the third time, was named our offensive lineman of the week. Ben is at the tackle a lot. We like to run the ball off tackle, and he had – I forget what his grade was, 86 or – it was pretty darn good. And, again, occasionally, we have to remind Ben that he's a lineman. He gets these catches occasionally, but he's done a good job."
For the first time this season, Tressel noticed that his O-line was controlling the line of scrimmage. It dominated Indiana's undersized defensive line, but Penn State will not be such a pushover.
"I thought, as Lydell mentioned, I thought we got movement," Tressel said. "And you know, I can remember Earle Bruce saying it a million times if he said it once, ‘If you get the good running back's feet to the line of scrimmage, that good running back is going to make something happen.' I thought our offensive line did a great job of taking care of the line of scrimmage. Now, (Indiana) was a younger group, not nearly as talented a group as the one we're going to face this weekend, so we're going to have to raise a notch, but our guys believe they can do that. You have to take care of the line of scrimmage in the run and the protection in the pass. It doesn't matter who you have handling the ball."
Unfortunately at wide receiver, the Bucks will be without senior Drew Carter for the remainder of the season. Carter, who was proving to be a reliable playmaker, suffered a torn ACL against Indiana. He will finish his season with 25 receptions for 410 yards.
Holmes had his breakout game against Indiana with six catches for 153 yards and two scores. Childress also had a career-best game with four catches for 41 yards. But, you have to think that Gamble is going to be the guy that gets the most opportunities. There isn't the "warm weather" excuse to use anymore and he has more experience than Holmes, Childress and Hall.
Tressel was asked why Gamble hasn't played more on offense up to this point.
"One, he was a little bit banged up," he said. "Two, in those early hot weather games, I was very concerned that you could overdo a guy and all of a sudden, he just didn't have enough left for the Big Ten season. I think early, those early games, people were throwing it 50 times a game, and that's a lot of work out there, and there was a lot of pressure being put on the secondary. And, fortunately, a decent amount of those 50 passes, we're getting pressure on those guys, and they needed to throw it a little sooner than they should have, but still you need to be breaking it up and making tackles and so forth.
"But if you add all those things up, I think that's why we didn't see Chris as much. I think I could safely say we will see him more in the last four league games than we saw him in the first four because I think we only saw him three plays."
Although Gamble seems like the obvious choice, how will the coaching staff decide which of the receivers will play the most in Carter's place at Penn State?
"I think you begin moving toward that in practice," Tressel said. "I would say going into this game, if you asked me right now, I would say all of them will see some time, and we hope that there's an emergence of production from all of them, or if there happens to be from just one or two of them, that that's who we would go with."
Coming off its best game of the year, the offense is obviously feeling pretty good about itself. But, Tressel warns that the good feeling can end real quick with a lackluster performance against Penn State.
"I think we have to sustain it this week," he said. "We have to go out and practice that way, and we have to go out and play that way against Penn State. Lost in the 600 yards and all that stuff is the fact that we still turned the ball over three times and that won't win at State College. We still had too many penalties, which you cannot get behind the count. We were fortunate, I thought Craig did a nice job when we were behind the count dropping the ball off to Lydell and Branden Joe and a couple guys that made some third and longs that really the route called design to throw for it wasn't there, but Craig took what they gave them and hit some plays."
Nothing bothers Tressel more than turnovers. He reiterated what we all know: the job of Ohio State's offense is to not lose the game for its defense.
"We always talk about the fact that you have to believe that the most important thing we do as an offense is contribute toward the team by not erroring," he said. "I just think that's crucial. Why did we have turnovers? I think you could look at the one interception and say that you don't throw late over the middle. You just don't. And it might work once out of six times, but the other five times is not going to be a good thing. And then the other thing, I think, the two times we had the ball stripped out when we had it in our hands was you have to believe that there's nothing more important that you do that play, whether it's gain more yards and catch it or stretch for the end zone, whatever it happens to be, nothing is more important than handing that ball to the official. And we have to believe that and we have to do that if we're going to make the contribution that our offense needs to make."
So, what to expect from the Buckeyes against the Nittany Lions? They will of course try to establish the run – especially against such a porous rushing defense – but the passing game will be a big key. The last two weeks, the Bucks have used a lot of three and four-wide sets and that should continue in Happy Valley. Teams will continue to load the box against the Buckeyes, so the deep ball will almost always be there.
Ohio State has done a much better job of play calling the last two weeks and if it continues to mix things up, the offense should get the job done. Krenzel is going to keep playing better, the offensive line is improving and Ross has finally emerged as the featured back. The parts are in place to have a decent offense. Not great by any means, but decent (99th is not decent).