In what is becoming a yearly tradition for Ohio State, a struggling Buckeye offense faced a lowly Hoosier defense and suddenly looked like one of the top 20 units in the nation. Rushing, passing, field goals, and touchdowns - whatever they attempted turned to gold faster than if King Midas had touched it.
Part of the credit for the suddenly effective offense should go to Antonio Pittman. With senior captain Lydell Ross suspended, the freshman was given the bulk of the carries and finished the afternoon with 149 yards and a touchdown on just 20 attempts. Pittman's performance was an exceedingly welcome balm for burned and wounded Ohio State fans, players, and the coaching staff.
"Antonio Pittman, we've been mentioning all along, we think is going to be a very good player," said Buckeye head coach Jim Tressel in his post game press conference. "I think the guys in front of him, at least I hope it's true, that the guys in front of him really created some opportunities for him and then he found the spots. I think the more Antonio plays the better he's going to be."
Asked just what it was about Pittman that the staff has been so impressed with and why he was so effective against Indiana, Tressel elaborated: "I think Antonio has good vision and he's got excellent lateral movement. There are some guys that just -- they see things, and I think you wouldn't necessarily be able to sit there and draw up the defense look and that kind of thing, but he can feel the bodies and he can feel who's coming from where, and I think the more he plays, the more he carries, the better Antonio will be."
Indeed, it did seem to be exactly the case even as this game progressed with his performance improving by the quarter. In the first period, the Hoosier defense found itself on its heels trying to match up with the athleticism and speed of the Buckeyes as Pittman carried 7 times for 65 yards. In the second, his numbers tailed off a bit with 4 carries and just 14 additional yards. After halftime, with both defenses making adjustments, Pittman made solid gains with the football by coming up with 26 yards on 5 carries. His fourth quarter performance was perhaps the most important, however. Like all tailbacks with special gifts, he seemed to improve as the day wore on, and it showed on his 30-yard touchdown scamper to put the game on ice for the Buckeyes. His fourth quarter numbers were better than any since the first, with 44 yards on just 4 opportunities for a whopping 11.0 average per carry and the score.
For Pittman, the higher number of carries helped him break the game open late. "That was the key to getting into a rhythm," he commented. "Me and Mo Hall stepped it up real good today."
The day didn't start out quite so great for him however after a fumble in the first quarter. It looked like the Hoosiers would have the football on the Buckeye side of the field, and a sportswriter nearby drew a few good-natured chuckles after he began softly singing, "Here we go again…"
"Man I was down - you know what I am saying?" said Pittman of the initial call. "They (the coaches) just said keep your head up and don't let it bother you. Go back out there and do what you can do."
With instant replay in its infant season in the Big Ten, the referees consulted with the officials upstairs and reversed the ruling after the cameras showed Pittman had actually been down before the ball popped loose. Relieved, he and the offense jogged back onto the field and would score only seconds later on the incredible play by Ted Ginn, Jr.
Breaking tackles and at one point even running out of his own shoe, Pittman did not want to be denied Saturday afternoon.
"I was hungry," he said with obvious emphasis. "I see every other freshman out here getting the ball. They're doing it this year. I believe this is the year for the freshman. Me and Teddy and Dionte - we're just showing it's more than Adrian Peterson and Mike Hart. We're here."
Roommate and starting quarterback Troy Smith echoed those statements.
"Before the game, he told me he was hungry today," Smith said. "He had to go out there and do some things for himself that will help him get over the hump and get some carries. He did an awesome job."
Teammate Santonio Holmes commented, "He did outstanding. He rushed for 100 yards. That's exactly what we've been looking for. He did his job."
Indeed, there didn't seem to be anyone in the house be they fans, coaches, or even sportswriters who felt Pittman did not have a breakout performance to whet the appetite for the future.
Yet despite his fine individual performance and outstanding effort, Pittman was not interested in taking the credit.
"It was a good day thanks to the line," he said deferentially. "They were opening up great holes. I give it all to them. They opened up good holes. The fullback was blocking real good - everything was rolling today."
His teammates shared that sentiment, with Smith commenting, "Pittman did good, (but he) could not do as well as he did without the offensive line. Those guys did the things they needed to do to open up some holes…That group of five, seven or eight, those guys came out there and did exactly what was asked of them -- play with velocity and violence."
The best part of the day for Pittman seemed to be his touchdown. Like all players - but freshmen especially - he was thrilled to finally see the end zone come square into his sights.
"We were in a zone play," remembered fellow freshman Steve Rehring, who was blocking for his classmate. "You can run anywhere you want - wherever the hole is. It starts out one way and can go anywhere after that."
Where Antonio Pittman went was the end zone. Flashing around the left side of the offensive line, he gained the corner in a blaze of speed and then was gone. He turned up the field, outracing the Hoosier defenders for the piece of real estate he has been hoping to claim all season.
Beaming, he said, "It felt so good! That's why I dove. It was my first touchdown in college. I had to dive. I was waiting for that for a long time."
Now the question is - after such a strong performance - will he start? Will Ohio State see both Troy Smith and Antonio Pittman line up and open the game in the Buckeye backfield against Penn State after opening the season with Justin Zwick and senior captain Lydell Ross?
Tressel was noncommittal when asked.
"Oh, it's hard to tell," he replied. "We know we're going to have to play multiple backs, I think that's real. Who starts sometimes depends upon what are we doing, but, gosh, I don't know, I haven't honestly given any thought to Penn State yet other than I know that's who we play next."
Pittman also refused to be goaded into any comments on his job status.
"I just played my role today," Pittman said. "If Lydell comes back next week, he will be the starter, and I will be ready to back him up again."
He would later add in the same interview, "I wouldn't say I earned more carries. It was a time where another player had to step up. I feel like if I was in a situation and they called on him (Ross) to step up, he would step up for the team."
So what is next for the young freshman? Pittman is still focused on improving. When asked, he would not and could not pick out just one area where he is trying to improve more than others. He believes every facet of his game - from blocking to running to learning the offense needs an upgrade and has been working toward that goal since the spring when he graduated early to go through practice with the team.
Pittman believes that experience has played a pivotal role in his early success.
"It helped me a lot," Pittman said. "It taught me the system - the blocking schemes and the running schemes. It helped a whole lot. I had my feet wet. I know how hard they hit. I know the pounding that you are about to go up against. That helped a whole lot."
"I think anybody who comes in early, it helps them," opined tackle Rob Sims. "Steve Rehring played today and he came in early. Donte (Whitner) and Ashton (Youboty) last year did it. Maurice Clarett, he came in early. I think that really helped those guys. It must mean something."
With an eye toward improvement and a head start on his college career, Pittman's future looks bright, and with him toting the football, the Ohio State offense has the look of a shiny new penny as well.