Final Exams: The OSU Offense

We go inside the numbers and the trends and provide analysis and letter grades on each position group of the Ohio State offense. The offense, led by top receiver Santonio Holmes, came out of its funk late in the year.

Moments after Ohio State accepted its bid to the Alamo Bowl way back on Nov. 23, one of the bowl officials remarked that he was excited to see OSU's "dynamic" offense.

Of course, that official was referring to OSU's 446-yard explosion in its 37-21 upset over Michigan in the season finale.

Even OSU head coach Jim Tressel – who calls the plays for the Buckeyes – had to remark about that bowl official's off-the-cuff statement.

"We didn't let Alamo Bowl officials come to our first few games," said Tressel, whose offense seemed to struggle all year – until the Michigan game, that is. "They wanted to stop by, but we said we had some work to do. We have worked hard to get better. We have some young guys with some promise."

Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman probably spent a lot of sleepless nights as, for the second year in a row, OSU's offensive totals ranked among the very worst in Division I-A college football.

In the final analysis, OSU was:

* 73rd in rushing offense at 139.2 yards per game;

* 96th in passing offense at 174.2 ypg;

* 100th in total offense at 313.4 ypg; and

* 80th in scoring offense at 23.4 points per game.

Over the course of the year, OSU reached 400 yards just four times in 11 games. But there was hope late in the year as the Buckeyes began to run the ball somewhat more effectively and they also found ways to get the ball to key play makers like Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr.

The play of quarterback Troy Smith was also a big plus in the win over Michigan, as he threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 145 yards and a score. But where Smith seemed to be the clear front runner to start in 2005, the sophomore's future seems murky after he was suspended Monday for the Alamo Bowl due to unspecified team and NCAA rules violations.

That move was just the latest in what was a maddening 7-4 regular season for the Buckeyes. Of course, Smith's play against Michigan gives OSU some hope for what could be ahead the next two years – provided he is able to put his problems behind him.

"When the quarterback and receivers, play the way they played … that was outstanding," Bollman said of the effort against UM. "Troy was hot. When he has that kind of performance, you really have opportunities to play against most folks. He threw some great touch passes, he threw some great sharp passes and he made some great decisions. He made some great runs, himself.

"The whole football team, it showed on the film, they had the right frame of mind to play in that game. We have to keep building on that."

Center Nick Mangold said the Buckeyes were definitely a different – and better – offense by the end of the season.

"I don't know if it's something that happened," he said. "It may be a realization that we hit bottom, per se, and we could only go up and I think we felt we should go up the fastest way possible and do everything right to get there. It's a lot of people working hard with that same kind of determination that we wanted to go straight up in a hurry."

After the season's first seven games, we supplied Midterm Exam grades for the OSU offense and defense. Today, we will look at each position group on offense and supply those grades for the last four games of the season and average them for final grades. Keep in mind, the Buckeyes won three of those last four games – including The Game over Michigan – so the grades will look considerably better than the first half marks.

Here we go:


Smith relieved Justin Zwick late in Game 6 at Iowa when Zwick went down with a shoulder injury. Zwick never saw the field again as Smith took every offensive snap the rest of the way. He was 4-1 as a starter and made steady and gradual improvement as the season wore on.

The only bad mark against him was the Purdue game, where he threw three interceptions and also had a pitch to Antonio Pittman go for a key Purdue fumble recovery near the goal line. However, it should be noted that two of those interceptions went off the hands of his own receivers.

Of course, his performance against Michigan stands as one of the greatest big game showings ever by an OSU quarterback.

Put it all in the blender and you get:

First Half Grade: C+

Second Half Grade: B+

Final Grade: B (Hey, we always round up.)

Running Backs

This will be remembered as the year Ohio State could not line up in the I formation and consistently run the football. Late in the year, OSU abandoned the I in favor of any variety of one- and no-back sets designed to feature Smith, Ginn and Holmes to the exclusion of the tailbacks.

Fullback Branden Joe, saddled all season by injuries, delivered one of the best performances by any OSU back all season by grinding out 52 yards – most of them off OSU's goal line – on 14 carries against Michigan.

The tailback position was an unmitigated disaster. Senior Lydell Ross seemed to lose his confidence at midyear when running play after running play went nowhere. He lost his job when he was suspended after he was accused of some mischief at a Columbus-area strip club. Not the way a senior captain should conduct himself.

Freshman Antonio Pittman also had some issues – injuries and otherwise – that kept him from realizing his potential. This Dow Joneser had 144 yards on 20 carries against Indiana, then just 19 carries for 63 yards over the last four games.

Other than Joe's performance against Michigan, the only other bright spot late in the year was the 51-yard touchdown run by Maurice Hall to seal the Michigan State win. Hall surprised the Spartans by bouncing a run-out-the-clock run outside and not stopping until he hit paydirt.

First Half Grade: C

Second Half Grade: D+

Final Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

This was a strange year for the OSU receiving corps. Holmes, Roy Hall and Bam Childress began the year as the top three receivers. But Holmes, Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez finished it in those spots.

After a midseason lull, Holmes came on with 13 catches and two touchdowns in the last four games. Ginn became the talk of college football with his three-touchdown effort (one catch, one run, one punt return) effort against Michigan State, only to catch five passes and bring back a punt against Michigan.

Gonzalez showed his speed with a 68-yard TD grab to open the Michigan game.

As noted, OSU's passing totals gradually improved as the season ended. Holmes reflected on the season's turning point – the 33-7 loss at Iowa – as when things began to change for the better.

"Losing 33-7 and getting blown out like that was not good," he said. "I just told the guys, `We've got to finish off strong. We can't let one game determine the rest of our season,' especially when we still had five or six games left.

"I think it came out in the Michigan State game. A lot of people look at it and say it was Michigan. But I think it came out before that. Michigan State is where our team overall started to excel."

First Half Grade: B-

Second Half Grade: B+

Final Grade: B

Tight Ends

Like the tailbacks, the tight end spot was almost written out of the will this year.

For starters, junior Ryan Hamby was the only healthy tight end for the longest time after freshman Rory Nicol, pressed into service early as the backup, was dinged up.

OSU sorely missed the blocking of departed TE starter Ben Hartsock. And the quarterbacks, at times, seemed like they could not find these guys even if they had a search party.

Hamby appears to have the ability to catch 30 balls. He ended up with 15, including just two grabs in the final four games.

First Half Grade: B-

Second Half Grade: C

Final Grade: C+

Offensive Line

No unit on the entire team came under more fire than the offensive line. But OSU's late season "renaissance" shows that this unit did improve as the year wore on.

Mangold, right guard Mike Kne and left tackle Rob Sims were the mainstays. Doug Datish was a starter all year at left guard until he was supplanted by T.J. Downing for the Michigan game. Kirk Barton replaced Tim Schafer at right tackle at midseason.

The elusive Smith erased the few mistakes these guys made late in the year. The run blocking was not all that much better, but the offensive scheme changes seemed to work wonders for these guys who showed they can pass protect with the best in college football (23 sacks all year and none against Michigan).

"I think we're getting better," Tressel said. "I think as the season went on we played with more confidence and more velocity. When the guys around you make plays, you gain some confidence, too. We've come along. We're not sitting here saying we're where we need to be."

Sims added, "I think we're playing good. The guys we have playing now in the rotation are hungry and they're playing good. I'm feeling good about our front right now."

First Half Grade: C-

Second Half Grade: B+ (Hey, the improvement was fairly dramatic.)

Final Grade: C+

Offensive Coaching

The total offense numbers are still an embarrassment. Finishing in the bottom 20 in I-A football for a second straight year is inexcusable for a program that aspires to win national championships.

But the staff did find effective ways to utilize Smith. They stopped asking him to execute the Zwick version of the Ohio State offense and creatively came up with sets to feature Smith, Holmes and Ginn.

The so-called "Shot-Ginn" formation was actually quite an innovation. Ginn lined up as a flanker just off the tackle, 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage. This wrinkle allowed him to avoid being jammed by corners and to be used as a runner on option plays and reverses.

Sometimes better execution makes the coaching look better, too.

Whatever happened, the Buckeyes finally found something that worked down the stretch. It was not their identity (running out of the I and throwing from the pocket), but it was effective.

Moreover, it gives some promise for the year ahead – provided Smith is deemed eligible again.

"I think we're getting a lot closer," Tressel said. "I think those guys know we need to keep improving. That is reflective of everybody on offense. There should be some younger guys who are with us now who should be more ready to compete (next year). I'm anxious to get to work and see where we're at."

First Half Grade: D

Second Half Grade: B

Final Grade: C+ (we'll average up a half a grade for the Michigan win)

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