Don't look now, but the team that took the 2003 Ohio State Buckeyes to triple overtime, North Carolina State, is up next on the schedule, and the Wolfpack has not forgotten how the last match up between the two teams ended. Leading by a healthy 17-point margin in the 4th quarter, a questionable fumble call against Santonio Holmes helped Philip Rivers lead his team on an offensive charge that sent the game to three overtimes. After exchanging touchdowns and extra points the first two extra periods, the Buckeyes could not convert their two-point attempt in the third. That left NC State with an opening to win the game.
With a first and goal and TA McClendon ready to stuff the ball in the end zone, it looked like the Wolfpack would certainly score and go for the victory. Instead, like Miami of Florida, they found themselves stopped short. On 4th and a couple feet, Amato called for a pitch to McClendon, hoping he could cross the line.
"I saw the toss sweep or handoff sweep," said A.J. Hawk. "I think I might have gotten a piece of him and Will's (Allen) the guy that topped him off and really stopped him from getting in…once I heard that he didn't get in, it was great because it was finally over. We had been playing all day it seemed like." Hawk continued; "To tell you the truth I wasn't sure if he got in or not. I didn't think he got in, but I didn't know what the refs saw."
The loss was a bitter one to swallow for the Wolfpack, who had circled the Buckeyes on their schedule and even worked other preconference games around them to gain an advantage.
NC State's Offense
Tomorrow, NC State and Ohio State will face one another again. What will this game look like?
Offensively, NC State has tremendous speed. Skill players like Tramain Hall, Richard Washington, and DaJuan Morgan are a threat to turn a 5-yard screen into a 90-yard touchdown – at least if the game is played on a dry field.
With the last gasps of Hurricane Ivan heading toward the Carolinas, the Buckeyes defense is thrilled with the possibility of inclement weather. A.J. Hawk opined, "Obviously they have great athletes, and they're real fast. So yeah, if it rained, it's harder on offensive guys to catch the ball when it's raining."
If the field is not sloppy however, the Buckeyes defense must find a way to deal with the talented roster they face.
"I know they have great athletes," said Hawk earlier this week. "They had great athletes last year and a lot of them return. We need to make sure we come out and really fly to the ball to make sure we take care of a lot of their speed."
Bobby Carpenter added, "Even without Philip (Rivers) it's going to be a tough game. They have their whole offense back. Any time you lose a trigger man, it will hurt you a little bit, but they still have all the weapons. Their quarterback this year is in a good situation with a better offensive line and better receivers."
How many return? To be exact, the Wolfpack have 17 starterd returning. That does not count DaJuan Morgan or Derek Morris, who were both Ohio State commitments before the coaches and/or university ruled them ineligible to play in Columbus. Clearly, the Wolfpack would dearly love to dish out a bit of revenge for more than one reason.
The Wolfpack will start a new quarterback in redshirt junior Jay Davis. While that might sound promising for the Ohio State defense, Davis has every appearance of becoming an excellent signal caller. In his first start against Richmond, he went 16-22 in limited duty. Marcus Stone, a redshirt freshman, was also inserted in the game for 25 snaps. When the game was over, ten wideouts had touched the ball for NC State in a 42-0 blowout that featured a spread offense, and this is probably exactly what Ohio State's defense should expect.
"I think they're going to come with the Marshall game plan and inch their way down," said Ashton Youboty.
"They're going to have some wrinkles in for us, but they're basically who they are," Carpenter commented. "They are going to throw some short stuff and make us tackle down the field."
However, it would be a serious mistake to believe the short passing game was the only way NC State moves the football. With tailback T.A. McClendon, the Wolfpack has arguably one of the top talents in all of college football. When healthy, he is only a shade less talented than one Maurice Clarett who set the world on fire his freshman season at Ohio State.
According to A.J. Hawk, McClendon is "a great back. I've seen a lot of film on him. He runs hard. He's a big, physical back. We have a lot of respect for him as a running back. I know he's had a hamstring problem, but I'm sure he'll be fine for the game. He's had two weeks now to rest it…We know we have to stop him first if we want to be successful as a defense... When you have a back like him, you should try to run the ball as an offense…If I was a coordinator, I would give him the ball."
Probably one of the reasons the Buckeyes had such success shutting down the NC State offense for three quarters in 2003 was the lack of a healthy McClendon. The problem is that McClendon does not look to be healthy this season either. Slowed by a nagging hamstring injury, there have been reports McClendon was taken off the field on a cart Thursday after practice.
If McClendon is not able to go, expect freshman tailbacks Andre Brown, Bobby Washington, and Darrell Blackman to tote the football. Blackman is highly regarded although Washington might have the most talent of the three. An unexpected bonus of sorts, he was a late addition to the NC State recruiting class when Miami decided he did not meet their academic standards. Like Morgan and Morris, he has found a home at Raleigh and could be a future star.
Ohio State Defense: Improvement Needed
Despite only yielding 20 points in the first two games (13 of those after offensive turnovers), Ohio State defensive players do not feel their play has been up to recent standards.
Ashton Youboty, expected to start in place of injured Dustin Fox commented on the rushing success of Marshall, "I think everything they earned was because of our defensive mishaps. We're working on correcting all of that."
One source of yardage for Marshall was missed tackles on the part of Ohio State.
"These last couple of games, we have missed more tackles than we should obviously," said Hawk. "We never like to have any missed tackles, but we work on that every day. The big thing is you can correct all those mistakes if you just have pursuit to the ball. If one guy misses you have three or four more guys coming to try and tackle him and make sure you get him down. We definitely work on it every week – open field tackling – so we have to try to get the guy down. I don't know, hopefully each week we can go down in missed tackles."
Instead of wrapping Marshall and Cincinnati tailbacks and wideouts, the Buckeyes have simply been hitting them hard and hoping they would fall over.
Hawk continued, "We can't let teams run on us like Marshall. We take pride in trying to stop the run. That's the big things this week – trying stop the run and definitely turnovers and better tackling…If they are in a bubble screen like they did all last week, and you run down there and try to kill the guy, that might not be the best way to get him down on certain plays."
If the Buckeyes don't focus on their tackling, expect the Wolfpack players to break of large chunks of yardage and possibly several early touchdowns.
The other area in desperate need of improvement is creating turnovers. For the season, the Buckeye defense has yet to come up with the football, and the team is in the hole 0-7 for turnover ratio. Only one team in all of college football is worse.
Carpenter stated, "Turnovers do come in bunches, and we have to start getting some right now."
Granted, the first two teams have featured short passing attacks and an offense designed to keep defenses from pressuring the quarterback. Even so, there have been opportunities.
Hawk is still kicking himself.
"I didn't help with dropping a pick last game," he said. "For me, that's really frustrating. I thought I saw what was going on in the play, reacted to it, and just didn't come up with the ball and just dropped it. I feel like if I have my hands on it I should catch it. That's two on the year."
Two additional items to watch in this game are the impact of the loss of Dustin Fox on the Ohio State defense and the advantage gained by NC State's creative scheduling.
Said head coach Jim Tressel, "We have to assume we have no idea what they'll do, and that's kind of the case in the first three or four games anyway. Certainly when you're coming off a preseason, you don't know what someone's doing. You don't know if a team like Marshall withheld some of the things thinking they could get by Troy, might have happened. And certainly NC State was not going to have to do a whole lot in the Richmond game. So we have to assume we don't know."
Tressel also indicated he felt the bye week undoubtedly didn't hurt their cause either.
"That helps in preparation, I'm sure," he said. "I'm sure if there was anyone nicked up. McClendon didn't play, I understand, in the Richmond game, which gave him two weeks to heal and he's a great player. So I would imagine in their case it helped."
"They've had two weeks to prepare for us so that definitely gives them a huge advantage," said Carpenter. "There's not much we can do about it. They played Richmond the first week and didn't show much of their hand."
Virtually every other player agreed. Even Kyle Turano, the starting punter for Ohio State, commented that this could turn out to be a huge advantage. Not only has the Wolfpack been able to rest their players, but also they probably have been able to hide virtually their entire offensive package while facing a division I-AA opponent.
Ohio State meanwhile has played two games against decent division I-A foes. Marshall and Cincinnati have both won their conference championships in recent seasons, leading Carpenter to point out, "On the other side of the coin, they are also untested. We've been in two pretty good games, with Cincinnati played well against us and Marshall took it right down to the wire. Experience playing in close games helps you out."
The Buckeye secondary will not be the same without Dustin Fox. This season's best cover corner, a team captain, a special teams contributor, and a sure tackler, Fox is going to be missed on the field. NC State is known for razzle-dazzle trickery, and when Cincinnati tried a trick play, it was Fox who went up for the football to knock it away.
Tressel discussed the impact of losing Dustin Fox.
"You lose a veteran," he said. "You lose a guy that is always under control. A guy that is going to communicate well and help other people get lined up and he's going to make plays."
Teammate Bobby Carpenter added, "More even than his ability is his leadership. He's a captain, a four year starter, he's played in a lot of games and stays cool in crunch time…"
In his absence, the Buckeyes will turn to others to fill the void.
"Ability wise – this is the most depth I have seen at Ohio State since I've been here," said Carpenter. "We have great players back there. Ashton Youboty stepped in, and I didn't see them picking on him too much. He made some great plays down the stretch. He just has to continue to do that this week."
How the Game will Play Out
To be honest, there are so many factors (weather, injuries, sandbagging by NC State) that it is difficult to tell. Only one thing is certain: this will be a serious test for a young Ohio State team on the road for the first time in 2004.
Three big IFs
IF Ohio State's offense does not turn the football over, they have a chance to really put up some points. Despite losing the football seven times in two games, they have scored 48 points, and Justin Zwick became only the second sophomore in Ohio State history to throw for 300 yards in a game.
IF T.A. McClendon and Morris are healthy, the Buckeye defense will have its hands full. They will have to play the Wolfpack honestly. Given the defensive line's inability to stymie the Marshall rushing attack, they might even have to crowd the box and take chances that NC State cannot consistently throw the ball over their heads. McClendon is a game changing back and there is a reason Morris was recruited by every university in the nation two years ago.
IF Ohio State has three critical components to their offense returning – namely fullback Brandon Joe, tight end Marcel Frost, and tailback Antonio Pittman – this could unbalance what appears to be an extremely tight game. The Buckeyes might then have an advantage on what looks to be a sloppy field.
With a healthy McClendon but OSU missing their trio: NC State 27 – Ohio State 17
Without a healthy McClendon but a healthy trio for OSU: Ohio State 27 – NC State 17
With everyone playing: Ohio State 26 – NC State 24