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 season opener. As always, I'll come back on Sunday with my thoughts on how each of these questions were answered during my Sunday Morning Quarterback column.
Without any further adieu, here we go:
1. How will Justin Zwick do as the starting quarterback (once again)? -- That was our first question for last year's season opener, too. Zwick, a fourth-year junior, has no excuses. His career, in many regards, will be on the line as OSU hosts Miami. You have to hope his ankle sprain is behind him and he's 100 percent for what could be his last and best chance to reclaim the starting job.
If Zwick can go out and play a strong game – moving the chains, taking care of the football and making big plays as they become available – he has a chance to stamp himself as the starting quarterback for a little while longer. If he can't do that, the coaches will have no choice but to get Troy Smith ready to play a good portion of next week's pivotal game against powerful Texas. (How do you like those adjectives?)
2. How will Todd Boeckman do in his first stint at quarterback? -- Boeckman has not played in a live game since his senior season at St. Henry (Ohio) High School in 2002. He grayshirted in 2003, then redshirted last year. Jim Tressel has said that Boeckman will be given a chance at some point to play against Miami. It will be interesting to see how he fares. Boeckman stepped in for Zwick with the first team in preseason camp for about a week while Zwick was hobbled with the ankle injury. That experience served him well, but there is no substitute for game reps. It also remains to be seen how using Boeckman in, say, the second quarter may affect Zwick's ability to get into a rhythm.
3. How will Antonio Pittman do in his first start at tailback? -- Pittman told reporters earlier this week he is pumped up to make his first start. He sat behind Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross all of last season. He is the clear number one, although OSU has some situational tailbacks – Brandon Schnittker (power), Maurice Wells (speed) and maybe even Erik Haw (combo) – standing at the ready to help him carry the load. A perfect first game for Pittman would be 20 carries, better than 100 yards, two nice long runs and two or three catches out of the backfield. If he can do that and also handle any pass blocking assignments that come his day, he will be a big story coming out of this game. OSU needs a single guy to hang its hat on at tailback.
4. How will the young wide receivers factor into the spread? -- We know what Ted Ginn Jr. and Santonio Holmes are capable of. We have seen some glimpses of Anthony Gonzalez, too. But now we need to know how Roy Hall, Devon Lyons, Albert Dukes and maybe even Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline will factor into this passing attack. They might be well served to spread the wealth around with Texas' spies certainly watching. How cool would it be for it to break out in a new place with, say, Lyons or Dukes? There will be a story here, too, I imagine on Saturday afternoon.
5. How is the refurbished offensive line going to fare? -- OK, let's see if we've got this right. T.J. Downing is moving from left guard to right guard. Rob Sims is moving from left tackle to left guard. Doug Datish, who started most of last year at guard, is now at left tackle. Datish also figures to play some guard and maybe even spell Nick Mangold at center. Kirk Barton is still at right tackle and Steve Rehring also figures to play some at left tackle as well.
Jim Bollman likes to tinker and move people around. This is what he came up with for his most effective group. It will be interesting to see if the running game is in any way better – and we mean running out of the I formation and not the spread and converting third-and-short predicaments. I think they'll handle the spread and pass blocking well enough, although they need to be aware of defensive end Marcus Johnson and linebackers Terna Nande and Derek Rehage.
6. Can the defensive line exert some pressure on Miami QB Josh Betts? -- This was a big bugaboo for OSU a year ago as its sack production was cut nearly in half from the previous year. Not a good sign, certainly, that athletic and rangy defensive end Jay Richardson, a projected starter, was listed behind beefy David Patterson on the depth chart. It was believed that the athletic Richardson would be getting after opposing passers. Who knows, he still might.
We believe the tackles, Quinn Pitcock and Marcus Green, are solid, and we think the other end, Mike Kudla, will play strong – and we do mean strong – assignment football. But at some point, somebody needs to make a game changing play. It hurts that young ends like Vernon Gholston and Lawrence Wilson are hobbled. Gholston is out and it's unclear how much Wilson might play with a knee injury. That opens the door for redshirt freshman Alex Barrow to maybe make his mark.
7. Will the secondary contain Miami's strong receiving corps? -- OSU may not face a better receiving tandem than Martin Nance and Ryne Robinson until the Michigan game (or maybe the USC game … ha ha). We believe Ashton Youboty will be up to the challenge on the field side. Looks like Tyler Everett will get the first call on the boundary side. He and youngsters like true freshman Malcolm Jenkins and redshirt freshman Brandon Underwood could get a baptism by fire.
I said this earlier in Buckeye Grove and believe it still – the Ohio State defense will be ready to play Texas after this game. The two teams, Miami and Texas, are somewhat similar on offense. Each is expected to rely on the pass to move the chains with unproven runners in the backfield.
8. What impact will OSU's new kickers have? -- There is actually nothing new about Josh Huston, other than he is finally on the field as he embarks on his sixth year of college life. (He just received his degree as well – congratulations to Josh.) He seemed to solidify his standing with a strong showing in the kick scrimmage. OSU fans used to be happy when their kicker made kicks 60 percent of the time. Mike Nugent kind of blew the curve for everybody after him, so fans may need to dummy down their expectations.
I believe A.J. Trapasso is ready. The staff didn't even name a backup behind him. He has a powerful leg and, you just wait, may take off and try and get a first down one of these days. At 220 pounds, he is not going to be easy for anybody to bring down. If the Buckeyes can get that on film in this game, that would truly be a major coup because it would forestall the rush in future games.
9. What true freshmen will make an impact? -- It looks like Maurice Wells will be involved early and often in the spread offense at tailback. If they can get him loose in the open field on, say, a screen, look out. Jamario O'Neal and Malcolm Jenkins have made some nice inroads in the secondary. O'Neal is listed as the nickel back, which is almost like being a starter.
Alex Boone seemed to be in the mix at offensive tackle, but wasn't in the two-deep. I can't believe he would not play at some point this year, though. Maybe Brian Robiskie gets a look. Lawrence Wilson was going to play, but, again, we think he got dinged up. Watch the special teams closely to see which of these guys gets on the field because that is primarily where you'll find them.
10. Is this truly a top-10 team and a Big Ten and national championship contender? -- The truly great teams carry themselves in a certain way. They have a certain aura. Everything they do, to borrow a coaching phrase, is "clean." Ohio State wasn't exactly clean a year ago. Heck, they couldn't even get the ball snapped to fall on it for the last play of the Michigan game.
I'm not saying they have to necessarily be spotless. You know there will be some turnovers, dropped balls, overthrows and missed assignments along the way. The key is when those things happen, you don't allow them to snowball into larger problems. The great teams overcome their own mistakes and still find a way to win games convincingly.
Again, you don't have to win every game by 40 points to be considered great. I will be looking to see how Ohio State attends to its business. I will be looking to see if there is an attention to detail. This is a veteran team with 18 starters back from the end-of-year 5-1 run. They should know what they need to do in every situation on the field. They need to pick up where they left off from the Alamo Bowl and get better from there.
That may be apparent on Saturday. Or maybe not.
Hey, enjoy the game and we'll see you on the other side.