Ten Pressing Questions: Ohio State at N.C. State

We are back with our Ten Pressing Questions for OSU's first road game of 2004, Saturday's game at N.C. State (3:30 p.m., ABC regional telecast). We delve into matters involving Justin Zwick, Branden Joe, the running game, the young secondary, the weather and more.

As we all count down the minutes until kickoff, I came up with my usual game day theme, Ten Pressing Questions, to think about what we may look for during today's Ohio State game at N.C. State. As always, I'll come back on Sunday with my thoughts on how each of these questions were answered during my award-winning (in my dreams) Sunday Morning Quarterback column.

Without any further adieu, here we go:

1. How will Justin Zwick fare in his first road start as OSU's starting quarterback? You have to be impressed with this guy's moxie, even if you're wildly unhappy with his four interceptions to date. (He is on target to throw 24 picks in a 12-game season.)

He's already done things no other sophomore quarterback thought about doing at Ohio State. It is my feeling, though, that he needs to take a page from Craig Krenzel's book in this game. He needs to run an efficient offense, get OSU out of bad plays (NCSU blew the Buckeyes up way too many times last year), minimize his mistakes and, when he can, make big plays with the passing game. That's a lot to ask of a young guy. It looks like Zwick will have a nice career at Ohio State. But nobody said there would not be any bumps in the road along the way. Let's see how he handles one of his first real big ones.

2. What kind of role will Branden Joe and Antonio Pittman play in energizing the OSU running game? Lydell Ross will probably take his standard 16 carries for 80 or 90 yards. But OSU aspires to rush for 200 yards per game. The hopes are high that Joe has finally recovered from his high ankle sprain and he'll make the same kind of counterpunch (and we do mean punch) impact he made at the Fiesta Bowl. If anything, his blocking should be an upgrade in the I-formation.

Likewise, Pittman needs to get back in there and provide the speed component. He did a nice job in the opener before sitting out last week's game due to an injury. In a perfect world, all three of these guys would get 70 yards and – voila! – OSU would have its coveted 200 yards rushing.

3. Will Santonio Holmes be able to go deep on N.C. State's secondary? It's nice when you can score with a drive of one play covering 80 yards. Holmes has three receptions in excess of 50 yards already this year. But the NCSU secondary comes heavily recommended. I tend to doubt they are going to let Holmes get behind them. We know OSU will still try and go deep as often as once a quarter. If they can hit a couple of them, that would make the task much easier. But the Buckeyes need to be prepared for the very real possibility they may have to sustain drives. That is not easy in a hostile environment against an opponent that brings this much heat.

4. How will OSU's offensive line hold up against N.C. State's athletic front seven? The offensive line has played pretty much how I thought it would up until now: Dominant at times and not so dominant at others. Clearly, they are stepping up in class with this match-up with the athletic Wolfpack. They need to keep pass rushers away from Zwick and open up running lanes for Ross and the rest of the backs. If they can't do those two things, OSU will face a bunch of second- and third-and-long situations. In turn, that would put too much of the onus on Zwick.

5. Can the OSU defensive front contain N.C. State tailback T.A. McLendon? You heard the same things I did, that McLendon may have tweaked his hamstring in practice on Thursday. Nobody knows if this valid or just a red herring floated by NCSU coach Chuck Amato, who loves to play games with the media. With a young quarterback, it had to be Amato's plan to try and establish McLendon and the running game. Marshall's relative success running the ball against the Buckeyes a week ago gives all of OSU's opponents some hope in that regard. The defense needs to crush that hope beginning at 3:36 p.m.

The comments coming out of the Marshall game were that the Buckeyes were not lined up properly to stop the Herd once they went to the ground. It will be interesting to see how quickly the defense adjusts if something like that happens again in this game.

6. Will the Buckeyes get meaningful and constant pressure on N.C. State quarterback Jay Davis? Davis is not Philip Rivers. His experience is lacking. The Buckeyes need to give him a number of looks and constantly get in his grill. Sacks have not been prevalent and OSU will operate without starting end Mike Kudla, again sidelined with a neck problem. It is important that the Buckeyes pressure this young QB, sack him and pressure him into mistakes.

7. Will the OSU defense or special teams force any turnovers? This will be critical as the game unfolds. Nothing takes a rabid home crowd out of a game any more than a couple of costly turnovers. The defense has been strong overall. But the offense would appreciate a quick change giving them a short field and an easy scoring opportunity. It's time to get the turnover margin "problem" under control.

8. How will the revamped secondary hold up without rock solid corner Dustin Fox? I made the point in Buckeye Grove that Nate Salley has a year's worth of starting experience, but the other four men in the secondary – safety Donte Whitner, nickel back Tyler Everett and corners E.J. Underwood and Ashton Youboty – have a combined seven starts to their credit.

If they were going against Rivers, I would certainly be more concerned. However, if McLendon can't answer the bell, N.C. State will lean more heavily on Davis and the pass. That means these guys could face 40 or more pass attempts. Are they ready for that kind of business?

9. What impact, if any, will the weather have on this game? The rain started here today about 1:30 p.m. It is expected to taper off overnight. However, the aftereffects of Hurricane Ivan are expected to circle back over the region during the day on Saturday. The forecast is for thundershowers and a high of 75 degrees. I take that to mean off an on rain. I have no idea who this might favor. I do know in a rainy game it is important to maintain ball security, particularly in the special teams aspects of the game. Bad snaps and blocked punts just seem to happen under these conditions.

10. Is Ohio State, as a result of this game, a serious contender for the 2004 national championship? With a victory, Ohio State may continue its improbable rise up the charts and move toward being recognized as a top-five team as it heads into Big Ten play. A loss would deal any of OSU's national championship hopes likely a crippling blow. The Buckeyes would have to run the table in the Big Ten to have any hopes of reaching the Orange Bowl.

The Big Ten is always Ohio State's top priority going into the season. A loss is never acceptable at Ohio State. However, a loss in this game would not deny OSU a conference title. Moreover, the lessons learned in this game – win or lose – should serve the Buckeyes well as they prepare for conference play.

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