Jim Tressel had to be encouraged with the leadership of his upperclassmen this past week. The media and fans may want more information than they received, but give credit to the players for stepping up to meet the crisis they are facing.
"All of us seniors, this is our team," said defensive lineman Simon Fraser. "We're going to be the ones to handle all the successes and the down periods of this team. It's our responsibility to go out here and get the right mindset out not only to this group in this room (media) but to our fans and everyone supporting us out there…"
If this is so, then it is high time for the seniors to step up and turn the team around because the Buckeyes are reeling. It seems an eon ago that Ohio State was ranked sixth in the nation and talking national title. A night game at Northwestern rife with turnovers and dropped passes cost them their first loss. Next up was Wisconsin, where once again execution and turnovers on offense blew multiple opportunities for points. The Badgers slowly throttled them with a solid ground game and held onto the football thanks to two inadvertent whistles by hapless referees. Last week was more of the same, but the situation degenerated into a blowout. Again a turnover took the wind out of the offense's sails in the first half and without Kirk Ferentz putting in the second team Hawkeye defense, the Buckeyes probably never would have scored.
While the seniors pointed out that a good number of underclassmen were struggling in their Tuesday night press conference, the seniors themselves are not looking so hot either. In fact, Lydell Ross, Branden Joe, and Simon Fraser – players the Buckeyes were relying upon coming into the season – are having anything but stellar final campaigns. Couple that with the loss of senior Dustin Fox, the team's best defensive back, at a critical time, and only Mike Nugent and Kyle Andrews have performed up to expectations.
Asked about this dynamic, Branden Joe answered, "Well, looking at our record, obviously (we have) not (had) the year we planned on coming into this season. Coach Tressel preaches to be a successful as you want to be as a team, the guys at this table are going to have to have their best seasons of their football career. We're all adults up here. It's fair enough for us to say we definitely haven't done the things we feel are needed to be done to be productive as a unit. That's why we're here at this table taking full responsibility for it. When we get this thing back on a road we are going to be right up here taking full responsibility for that."
The question is – can this offense turn the ship around?
The numbers are ugly, and they don't lie. This unit is not merely mediocre. It is extremely poor thus far. While many are bandying about the No. 111 total offense ranking (out of 117 division I-A teams), they are missing more important statistics. Specifically, there are five indicators that are much more telling than the nearly meaningless total offense number.
First, the Buckeyes are averaging just 2.9 yards per attempt rushing the football. As a team they are gaining only 97.7 yards on the ground each game and only Iowa (2.6 per carry) and Arizona State (2.9 per carry) are ranked in the top 25 with comparable performance. Compare the 2.9 yards per carry average with programs like California (6.1), Oklahoma (5.0), Utah (5.2), Auburn (4.9), USC (4.5), and even Wisconsin (3.8).
Second, never mind the No. 85 passing offense rating in the nation (another nearly meaningless statistic), Ohio State is averaging just 6.3 yards per passing attempt. That means opposing teams can and will dare the Buckeyes to pass the football and will win the bet. Consider that with 6.0 yards per attempt, the Badgers are the only team in the top 25 with a lower yards per pass ratio, and in contrast to Ohio State, they have a top 10 defense and a solid rushing attack. Comparing the 6.3 yards per attempt to more effective units such as Auburn (10.2), Oklahoma (7.8), USC (8.5), Louisville (9.1), and Purdue (8.9) really puts matters into perspective.
Third, Ohio State is losing the turnover margin. They are not just coming out on the short end of the stick – they are blowing it big time. The Buckeyes have turned the ball over to end multiple drives deep in their opponents' territory this season.
Lydell Ross (who has twice victimized his teams with fumbles that kept the opposition in the game) stated his opinion on turning the offense around: "I think the main thing is just limiting mistakes. I think if we just limit mistakes, things are going to happen, things are going to open up for this offense."
Fourth, opposing teams are actually outscoring Ohio State. Yes, perhaps that is about as obvious a statement as noting that Britney Spears is not as pure as she used to be, but it is something to consider. In the past two seasons, the Buckeyes have had the obvious luxury of a defense that could stop a team on three downs and give the ball back to an offense having a bad day. With more opportunities to see the field, they normally found a way to score points and win the game. This year, Ohio State's offense is scoring just 20.0 points per game while the defense is giving up 21.8. When your defense is allowing more points than your offense is scoring, statistically you stand a better chance of losing than winning.
Finally, third down conversions, or lack thereof, are killing the Buckeyes. It is not that Ohio State is not getting chances to do well on offense. Their ineffectiveness on first and second down (both running and passing) is leading to constant third and long plays. The greater the distance an offense must cover on that play, normally, the less likely they are to make the conversion for another first down. Where does Ohio State stand nationally in this offensive category? They rank 114 out of 117 teams, converting only 28.57% of their opportunities. Only San Diego State, Marshall, and San Jose State are worse. Not surprisingly, the combined record for the bottom four teams is 11-13.
Branden Joe indicated the seniors on this team recognize these statistics mean losses.
"Like the numbers say, we haven't been as productive as we would like to be," Joe said. "We practice every day to become a more productive offense. We are aware of the numbers – you guys (media) keep repeating them. It's kind of hard to forget those numbers. We feel that we practice with great intensity. We practice with the same speed that we're going to play in the ‘Shoe in Saturday or on the road. We build our confidence playing off our great defense. We take that confidence into the game."
This Week Against Indiana
With the Ohio State offense seeking to rise from its sick bed, the Hoosiers are just what the doctor ordered. The Buckeye defense might have been substandard thus far in 2004, but by way of comparison, the Hoosier defenders have played putrid, allowing 30.2 points a game.
Still, fans and players should not take Indiana lightly.
"Indiana is not a team that they have been in the past," said Fraser. "They went into Oregon and beat Oregon, which is a tough environment to go into and play. They've had a bye week and (have) been able to get ready for us."
Indeed, Indiana might just present a bigger challenge than in previous seasons. They have a senior quarterback in Matt LoVecchio and the all-time receptions leader for the Hoosiers in Courtney Roby. They won at Oregon and took Northwestern to overtime (just like Ohio State) in Evanston. Buckeye fans and the offensive unit must be licking their proverbial chops looking at the Indiana defense, but it might be well to note that Northwestern gives up an average of 31.5 points per game and still defeated Ohio State 33-27.
"They're going to come into this place Saturday and give us their best game – probably ever," said Lydell Ross. "They're a good unit and strong defense."
Their hopes likely buoyed by a Buckeye loss to Northwestern (the first in over 30 years), undoubtedly the Hoosiers have to believe this is their best chance to win a game in this series since 1988.
Ross agreed with this line of reasoning.
"I think any team would think that," he said. "We're coming off of three losses. They're coming into our house, and I think they would probably think this is the best time, but we're not going to let that happen."
"Indiana's coming in here thinking they have a shot, and why wouldn't they over the last three weeks of play we have been putting out," admitted Joe. "We have to get on them early. We have to dominate them physically and let them know that we are The Ohio State University. We're still the toughest place to play in the country and not come in too cocky or take anything for granted."
The bottom line is that this offense has to play better this week. They must turn it around, stop turning the football over, start making first downs, and put the ball in the end zone.
The question is - how do they propose to turn it around with yet another new starter behind the center?
According to Lydell Ross, it is a matter of will and mental toughness.
"We make it up in our minds that we want this," Ross said. "We have wanted it all along, but we have to improve. We have to limit the mistakes. We have to get this thing turned around and play our best football."
"It starts with attitude," Joe said. "It's a new week. You can't hold your head down. That's where it starts. You have to have guys coming in here that have faith and believing we are going to execute this week. Forget the last three weeks. We have to worry about this Saturday. Your attitude is going to be your foundation. We have guys with great attitudes that don't hold their head down, don't dwell on the past, and we look forward to the opportunity coming up."
The problem is the Buckeye offensive players have making these types of comments every week for the last three. At times, it has sounded quite literally like a broken record player.
Why do they believe this is going to happen this week?
"Because…three losses – it's enough," said Ross after a pause. "It can't happen any more. We're so confident in ourselves that we're going to be successful that it just can't happen any more. These guys want to get this thing turned around and it's time."
What to Expect
The Buckeyes appear to finally be reaching the point where they have mentally decided it is time to do whatever is necessary to win. Teams reach this point with divergent paths, and that same look could be seen in players' eyes in 2003 following the Wisconsin loss. If the players are mentally focused and start executing (and eliminating turnovers), expect Ohio State to come out and run the football effectively.
Once they have established their ability to run the football, Troy Smith can and will be given the green light to pass the ball. He believes he can and will succeed, no matter his ineffective performances in previous games this year against the oppositions' first-string defenses.
Joe commented on his abilities and attitude.
"Troy's a flashy, confident guy - not cocky," Joe said. "He's confident in his ability. That rubs off. He's an enthusiastic guy, and enthusiasm is contagious. I guess that could be an advantage in the huddle or out there on the field and in practice."
Ross seconded that sentiment, adding, "He's so confident in his ability. Every day he cherishes this game. He's just glad to be out there every second. He's just one of those guys that when he gets a chance, he is going to make the most out of it."
If that confidence finally translates to on the field production against a starting defense, look for the game to get out of hand possibly even by halftime. That would be a welcome and much needed change for a team that has rarely been involved in a blowout since Maurice Clarett injured his shoulder his freshman season.
What to Watch
·Buckeye third down conversions. The higher the percentage, the better the offense is likely to be playing and the more points they are likely to score.
·Yards rushing per attempt. If the number is high the game will likely end in a positive fashion for the Buckeyes.
·Turnovers. If Lydell Ross and Santonio Holmes hang onto the football, the offense could put on a show. If they turn it over, then they will keep Indiana hanging around until the fourth quarter when an upset could occur.
This week I find myself dealing with a split personality. Given three weeks of the same answers by players regarding their confidence in a win and the three losses that followed those quotes, I am not certain this team will emerge victorious Saturday. For the first time in 15 years, I can actually envision multiple realistic scenarios in which the Buckeyes will lose to the Hoosiers.
Bob Griese's quotation of the Bible last Saturday was perhaps the greatest summation of the 2004 Buckeyes, "How the mighty have fallen."
80% Ohio State 38 – Indiana 18
20% Hoosiers 34 – Ohio State 26