No Longer ‘Northworstern'
Entering Northwestern as the No. 6 ranked team in the land, the Buckeyes had their helmets handed to them in every phase of the game. Special teams, offense, and especially the defense all disappointed in Evanston. The meltdown resulted in a 33-27 overtime loss.
Players and coaches took turn, but all seemed to blame themselves.
Head coach Jim Tressel followed the age-old coaching (and leadership) strategy of taking most of the credit, saying, "As I sit back and analyze and think what can we do better, I think it's important that we be able to make it crystal clear what the difficulty of the challenge is, and I don't know that we did as good a job of that. I think Northwestern can be a very, very good football team and proved that on Saturday night and I'm not sure that I did as good a job of getting the point across as to how difficult that challenge was going to be as we took the road against a good, solid Big Ten football team."
Senior offensive lineman Mike Kne said, "I think everyone can put a little bit of blame on themselves…Last week it seemed like practice was dead…it was a little on everyone's shoulders."
Receiver Roy Hall attributed the loss to a combination of factors.
"I think at Northwestern it was a lot of – we made some crucial mistakes," he said. "We had a couple of turnovers. There are three steps Coach Tressel gives us to try and win these road games – special teams, offense, and defense. We didn't win the special teams game, made some crucial turnovers on offense, and the defense gave up 350+ yards. We made some mistakes on the road. You're not going to win football games when you get stats like that."
Santonio Holmes gave Northwestern credit, stating, "I just think they wanted it more…We come into every game ready. We just didn't execute the plays to the best of our ability. They did. They did that exact thing, and that's why they came out with the victory."
If Ohio State hopes to emerge victorious this week, they must first understand they will be facing a much stiffer challenge in a veteran Wisconsin squad that defeated the Scarlet and Gray and their 14 NFL draft picks at Madison in 2003.
"Wisconsin's got a tremendous veteran team," said Tressel during his
weekly luncheon. "I think 18 or 19 starters back, 12 or 13 of them are
seniors. They play well. They've played a lot of games. They've had a lot of
moments, both pros and cons in their careers and they play with a lot of
tremendous confidence and understanding of what needs to get done to win
football games and it will be a great challenge for us…"
Ohio State Offense
Despite Northwestern's proclivity to give up yardage in large chunks to previous opponents, the Buckeyes were able to score just 21 points and failed to move the ball in overtime. Their performance against the Wildcats netted only 308 yards - fewer than any other offense against Northwestern this season. Compared to the Buckeyes, only Kansas had fewer rushing yards (though they had 303 passing yards) and only Minnesota had fewer passing yards (though they had 251 rushing yards). A negative rushing play inside the 5-yard line on first and goal doomed a chance for touchdown while dropped passes ended multiple drives – including the Buckeyes' drive in overtime. Even worse for the offense were the fumble and interception that cost the Buckeyes at least six and possibly as many as a 10-point swing on the scoreboard.
What has to happen for this unit to reach its potential?
First, the turnovers have to end immediately. In every game but one, the
Buckeye offense has put the ball on the ground and thrown interceptions more
frequently than the opponent. Fourteen times they have either put the ball on
the grass or into the hands of the defense. In a word, this is simply
unacceptable. While a team might win a few games with such an ugly statistic, if
the trend continues the odds are stacked against their winning consistently.
Second, the rushing attack must improve. It is not enough to simply say, "This is Ohio State and we run the football here." This team has not managed to dominate an opponent on the ground all season. That is not conjecture; that is a fact.
Asked to pinpoint the problem, Jim Tressel commented, "I think that obviously we're lacking consistency there. We haven't had any of those breakout runs where all of a sudden outside of the first game, Cincinnati game, we were doing okay, but then all of a sudden we had one of those 68-yard runs that gets the ball rolling and gets the confidence going and I don't know that we've had that confidence bang on the run game side whereas we've had it on the pass game side."
While clearly the scrambling ability of Justin Zwick was a boon to the offensive ground production Saturday, what is truly needed is for a tailback to step up and find yards and an offensive line that opens up holes for those in the backfield. That's a tall order against Wisconsin. In games under Jim Tressel - without Maurice Clarett - they have stuffed the Buckeyes for only 190 total rushing yards on 76 attempts, an anemic 2.5 yards per carry.
What is the problem?
According to Kne, "I think the past couple of years they have done a really good job of bringing the strong safety down where the fullback goes, and that's just been messing us up a little bit."
The bottom line according to players Tuesday evening is that this team must put its mind to rushing the football.
"I know when we dedicated – in the second half we really put our minds to run the ball, and we got some drives going running the ball," explained Kne, "I think everybody has to pick it up…I think we just have to get in our minds regardless of how many are in the box, we have to get it done. We have to make things happen…I think everybody has to get in their heads we are going to run this ball for 4 yards at a pop or 5 yards at a pop and whether we get a messed up front or whatever, we have to make it happen."
Roy Hall said, "I think our offensive line and running backs have something to prove…we just have to get back to the basics and get it going up front."
Raising even more interest is the current rotation of senior tailback Lydell Ross and freshman Antonio Pittman. Both are expected to play again this week. Tressel noted, "I think there's good competition there and there's not enough production there, and that's not a slam at Lydell or at Antonio. Production happens to be a universal issue. And I think Branden Joe adds a little different dimension as we go forward. I hope that that competition leads to production. As long as the rest of us do our part as well, coaches and guys up front and receiver blocking, and there is no part of the game that isn't important, and that's what's difficult about – when you talk about this guy or that guy, it's all in relation to the rest, but I would characterize it as, should have some good competition there which we plan on leading to increased production."
Third, the Buckeye passing game has to be consistent.
For every spectacular grab Saturday night there was a dropped ball by Buckeye wideouts. Two particularly painful plays to watch for fans were the passes Santonio Holmes could not reel in late in the contest. While the long bomb to Holmes with 13 seconds remaining was a clear case of a defensive back getting away with grabbing a receiver's arm, the pass in overtime was one that Holmes generally catches in his sleep. He just didn't make it this time.
Neither Holmes nor the coaching staff are being overly critical with the dropped balls right now, with Holmes commenting, "Coach was telling me – ‘Hey! Things happen. You just have to get back out there and keep making plays."
Even so, execution must improve. There can be no more interceptions or dropped passes in the red zone. There can be no more fumbles on sacks. There can be no more cases of wideouts not finishing their routes or not fighting for the football.
This is not exactly the week for an ailing offense to face the Badgers. Jim Tressel summed it up succinctly: "Wisconsin's given up two touchdowns this year in five games, which is pretty darn good."
The biggest reason for that defensive domination has been the Wisconsin defensive line. While last year it was Ohio State with a fearsome foursome up front, this year the top line in the conference finds its home in Madison. Anttaj Hawthorne and Erasmus James form a dynamic duo, and Buckeye players are well aware of them as are the coaches.
Tim Schafer talked about James: "He looks like he's very quick. He has strength with that and so technique will be a big factor (for me)…I will have to keep my technique right, my hands up, and be quick."
Tressel noted, "James was out all of last year. We faced him two years ago. He's an outstanding player. He leads the team in sacks. He's a great player, a great defensive end."
He added, "Hawthorne, 77, a whale of a good inside player. He's good, fast, strong. He has a lot of confidence in the guys around him so he knows if he plays his job, the rest are going to do the same. That whole group, that whole front four, I think, is seniors.
Nick Mangold looks at the defense and sees not just a fantastic defensive line but much more.
"They have great players," he said. "They have great players who know they are doing. Their whole defensive line is all seniors. They're all great. They do a lot of things with their hands. They do a lot of things with their feet. They're big guys, but then they are just as quick as a 270 lb guy. They have great personnel, and they do everything to perfection."
Add to the mix the Badgers' play at defensive back where they will line up three seniors and a junior. Tressel has been particularly impressed.
"Number 2, is it Starks? He's a 40-some game starter," Tressel said. "Leonhard,
I love him, he's a great punt returner and a great safety. I don't know how many
career interceptions he has, but it's a bunch. And that whole group, they play
with good confidence. They're tough. They know what they do."
What they have done so far is yield only two touchdowns this season, neither of which put the game's outcome in doubt. UNLV, UCF, Arizona, Penn State, and Illinois have managed just 26 points combined against the Badger defense. For those keeping score at home, the once vaunted Ohio State defense gave up 33 Saturday and 74 on the season by way of comparison.
How it will play out
Holmes is spot on with his observation: "It's going to be a very tough game. Those guys are going to come out ready to smack us in the mouth. We have to do the same thing to them. It's all about who's going to execute the plays and not going to turn the ball over, and who is going to get after who first."
Given the Buckeyes' defensive inability to stop the run and their offense's lack of a rushing attack, there is little rational reason to be optimistic.
Unless the Ohio State offensive line plays its best game of the season, the Badgers will not have to blitz to force pressure on Zwick. This will allow them to throttle the passing and rushing attacks.
Meanwhile, Tressel has it right when he stated, "Wisconsin's going to do what they do. That's who they are and what they do and a big reason why they're 5-0 is that they've had a real solid run game, given up two touchdowns, which means they probably haven't turned it over. I don't have that number in front of me, but it's probably they haven't left the ball on the ground on their own end of the field a whole bunch, and they've made plays on defense."
The Badgers will look to play a game of ball control where they force Ohio State's defense to remain on the field for long stretches of time.
The only hope for the Buckeyes is for Antonio Pittman and Brandon Joe to emerge as credible offensive threats. They must combine for 150 rushing yards, keeping the Scarlet and Gray defense and Anthony Davis and the Wisconsin offense off of the field.
The Buckeyes have too many holes on offense, defense, and special teams for confidence. Their only consistent offensive statistic is their proclivity to turn over the football at least once every game. Against a defense playing like Wisconsin is right now, that will equal a loss – the first at home in three seasons.
Wisconsin 27 – Ohio State 13