Big Ten play begins this week for Ohio State as they host Iowa at Noon EST at the Horseshoe, and to kick off the usual Tuesday media sessions, OSU head coach Jim Tressel and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz both fielded questions at this week's Big Ten coaches teleconference. Tressel began with some thoughts on this week's game against Iowa.
"We're anxious to get into Big Ten play," Tressel said. "I think the Big Ten is going to be a very, very tough conference this year. As you look at everybody from side to side and throughout the conference, they've had some tough ball games, they've had some great wins. I just think it's going to be a very strong league, and we start out with an awfully strong one with the university of Iowa. They're a physical football team. They have dropped a game, but they didn't have their quarterback that day. They're just an outstanding team as they've shown over the years, and we have to be ready to compete."
Both teams have plenty of question marks entering this game. Iowa (2-1) is coming off a 45-21 win over Northern Iowa after losing on the road to Iowa State. The Hawkeyes seem to be a team still searching for an overall identity.
"First of all, we're happy to get the win on Saturday... It was just a good outing for our team to get back," Ferentz said. "I thought we looked a little bit sharper. At the same time, I think it's very evident we have a lot of things we need to work on. That's a big focus for us this week. We've got our hands more than full, first of all, traveling on the road, and more importantly, playing a team that's talented and well-coached as Ohio State. So we've got a lot of work to do between now and game time. With all that being said, we're looking forward to the weekend."
For Ohio State, the problems have come on offense. The Buckeyes have struggled to score touchdowns, and Tressel was asked if the difficulties on offense were a concern at this point.
"Absolutely," Tressel said. "I think the consistency, or lack thereof -- where we are at this moment is not where you'd like to be after three games. We haven't done little things across the board. Everyone likes to discuss what we haven't done at quarterback, but we could talk a little bit about all the way down the line, where we need to get a lot better. We need to get a lot better fast, because when you start playing against the Big Ten defenses, yards and first downs and points are even more difficult. So we've got a lot of work to do and we've just got to get at it."
Tressel also suggested that some of the struggles may have come as a result of Troy Smith not yet being completely settled in after having to miss games due to suspension.
"I don't think I've seen Troy yet totally in command and relaxed," Tressel said. "He really wants to do well and couldn't wait to get in and play after sitting out a couple games there when we were playing two weeks ago. This week I thought was very, very valuable in that he got 71 snaps and that he got a lot of plays on tape and a lot of things he can learn from. I just think it's just relaxing and being in command with the whole situation. To me, that's the biggest task that he has to tackle."
Smith has seen plenty of carries from the quarterback position throughout his first two games. Tressel was asked if he felt Smith needed to look to throw more this week against Iowa.
"What's most important is that the quarterback takes what the defense gives and not make up his mind before maybe which it's going to be," Tressel said. "We have to find out what happens after the ball is snapped. There is a time where 'Hey, they've got them all covered and I have to let my legs take over,' and that's fine. But as I mentioned to one of the earlier callers, having that relaxation and that calm and that command to take what they give you, to make those decisions, and sometimes it's to take off running, which is fine.
"A lot of the games I've watched over the years, the unnoticed things are that 3rd-and-7 play where there's bracket coverage and everyone was tied up, and that quarterback ran for a first down and changed the momentum of the game. So we don't discount the importance of that, but you have to do things in progression. I just think Troy needs to be a little bit better from his progression standpoint."
Iowa has faced a different set of struggles throughout their first two games. Ferentz discussed what has been disappointing so far in this team's performance.
"The first and most obvious thing is just turnovers," Ferentz said. "If we turn the football over -- and this has been true traditionally and we're not unique to anyone in football for this one -- but when we turn it over, we're asking for bad things to happen. So that would be certainly first and foremost, and we're making too many mental errors right now in all categories and haven't been consistent. It's hard to be consistent when you make mental errors, and we just haven't had the kind of consistency you like to have. I don't think we've found a rhythm at all as a football team yet.
"I think turnovers a lot of time are, first of all, you give credit to your opponent; they also have a hand in it. Then also, a lot of times it's concentration, so we need to do better there. As far as the rhythm, I think we're still developing as a football team. We've got some very experienced players playing for us who are for the most part doing a very good job, but we have a lot of new guys trying to fit their way in too. When you're doing that, you're always trying to establish your identity as a football team. I don't know how it is at other places, but I know if you look back at our teams the past three or four years, it's really been a process for us. We haven't just come out of the gate and been clicking right off the bat; it's been more of a process than anything else. Hopefully we'll bring resolution to some of our problems here in the next week or two or a couple weeks."
Last year, Ohio State traveled to Iowa City in October to take on a Hawkeye team that had started 3-2 and had not looked like the co-Big Ten champions they would eventually become. The Hawkeyes crushed the Buckeyes in a 33-7 win, one which featured a great performance from quarterback Drew Tate, who at the time was a rising star on his way to becoming Big Ten player of the year.
"I think it's probably safe to say his breakthrough game would have been the Michigan State game (one game before the Ohio State game)," Ferentz said. "We just got totally thwarted down in Arizona -- played at Arizona State, came back after that and did some good things at Michigan State, but we turned it over a bunch up there too. We came back after that ball game -- we were 2-2 at the time -- and he really had an outstanding game the next week. Since that time, he's done a lot of good things for us. Again, I think it was just a great challenge for him. What he did a year ago was amazing to me because of his lack of experience and just our lack of being a balanced attack. We had no realistic opportunity to ever establish a running game last year, so to me, that just puts more pressure as a quarterback. We had to put more on his shoulders and I thought he responded in a very admirable fashion.
"Now the big challenge probably is to make sure he doesn't feel like he has to do too much, just has to play his position but doesn't have to be the hero every play or every game. We don't want any of our guys thinking that."
Tate was able to accomplish his feat last season despite the unusual amount of injuries the Hawkeyes suffered at the running back position. By the time the Ohio State game had come around, Iowa had resorted to using a walk-on as well as a player they originally intended on redshirting to run the football. This year, the Hawkeyes are healthy at tailback and led by Albert Young, who has 298 yards on 36 carries (8.3 average) and three touchdowns.
"We're real pleased with Albert's start to the season, certainly, and we've had good feelings about him for three years now," Ferentz said. "It's exciting to have him out there on the field, but all it does is enable us to have a better chance to be more balanced. We certainly weren't able to get that done last year for obvious reasons, and I think this year, all of our running backs have really done a good job. They've been practicing well and it's probably been a bright spot on our football team."
While the win over Ohio State was a high point for the Iowa season, the game was one of the lowest points in recent years for the Buckeye football program. Ohio State improved after the Iowa game, however, and were one of the top teams in the Big Ten by the end of the year. Tressel was asked about that game and how OSU was able to improve since then.
"Like all Big Ten games, if you go in and don't play great, you're going to learn some very difficult lessons and have some harsh realities brought forward no matter who you are, whether you're a lineman, one of the receivers, one of the backs, one of the quarterbacks or one of the coaches," Tressel said. "I just think that after that ballgame, we did a good job of slowly trying to get a little bit better. I don't know that it was anything instantaneous. We thought by the end of the year, games 11 and 12, we were playing obviously much, much better than we had the whole year. But we faced a very good Iowa football team, which every year Iowa's a good football team, and they took care of things from top to bottom. It was certainly a learning thing. Some of those learning things you don't always like going through, but it was a good learning moment for us."
This year's game marks the start of the Big Ten schedule for each team. With each team having already lost one game, this week's matchup carries great significance for the postseason hopes of each team as well as with the race for the Big Ten title. Tressel was asked about the subject and agreed that a loss this week would destroy national championship hopes but said it would not mean the end of Big Ten title contention for either team.
"What I think we're going to find is that in the Big Ten, all these games are big," Tressel said. "Someone may be 7-1 and win it, you never know. I think your point about any thoughts that one would have of playing for the national championship certainly would end, but I don't know that the Big Ten world as we know it would end because I think last year, Iowa opened the Big Ten season, lost to Michigan, and ended up being the co-champions. I think you go day by day and game by game, and certainly it's a big game, but I'm sure they're over there at various other stadiums saying "Hey, that Michigan/Wisconsin game's a big one." As we begin conference play, I think it's always important to get off to a good start."
Ferentz, however, was quite frank when he was asked about his team's views of the national championship and Big Ten title.
"I don't know if you're familiar with the way we've played the first three weeks," Ferentz said. "We've been playing okay at best and certainly not okay a couple weeks ago. We really haven't played very well. We did a lot of good things, but there's a lot of things that need attention and urgency, so we're not even thinking about that. We don't do that anyway; we're a little bit more of a smaller focus kind of football team. I'm more focused on starting conference play, knowing the strength in our conference. Obviously Ohio State has every right to be thinking national title picture; they're used to that and they've earned that right We look at their football team and the challenges they present, and we've got our hands more than full just worrying about this weekend, so really that's kind of what we're focused on. We just know that it's going to be a very challenging eight-game stretch that we have in front of us. If we don't start improving a little quicker here, it's not going to be good.
"I think that's more media talk and fan talk. All I know is that if you're going to have a chance to win a title, that really becomes apparent in November if you're in the race or not. If you don't take care of business in September or October, none of that's going to matter. I'm just more in tune to what our concern areas are right now, and hopefully we can improve those real quick because again, knowing the strength of the conference, if we don't get moving here, we're going to get left behind real fast."
Ferentz was asked if there was a ban on talking about the Big Ten title within the team.
"I don't think we ban it; we just don't do that," he said. "We never really have. I think it's very obvious every team in our conference -- we have eleven of them -- every one of us wants to win the title, so to me, it's almost silly to talk about it because if you don't want to do that, why the heck are you playing? So we just don't spend much time talking about it. I just know this -- the more games you win early, the better chances you have to be in position at the end of the season, so to me, you're better off just focusing on what's in front of you."
Iowa teams, in recent years, have shown the ability to rebound from an early loss and play better as the year goes along. Ferentz discussed his team's approach to rebounding from an early loss.
"I think the bottom line is it's a long season, and even though you want to win them all, most times that doesn't happen if you look at it over 117 teams or whatever it is that plays football," he said. "Whether you win or lose, pretty much you just put that game to bed and you focus on what's in front of you. Obviously you go back and critique the things that are keeping you from being successful and try to get those straightened out, and then after that, you move on to you're next opponent. I just think you try to invest weekly as much as you possibly can into each and every game and then try to count them up at the end of the season. I think if you get too focused on the big picture -- maybe it works for other folks, but it really hasn't worked for us too well."
Each coach was also asked about the spread offense and why more teams are using more towards the spread attack.
"I think in this day and age, you've got to be able to attack with a lot of different things," Tressel said. "There are so many good guys out there that can throw and catch, and the evolution of football -- there's so many good ideas. Sometimes, things trickle down a little bit from the pros. Now, the pros don't allow their quarterback to get hit quite as much as we do in college football in our spread offenses and so forth, but I just think because people are so well-schooled on defense, you've got to give them more problems. I think if you have that as part of your package, it can give you a chance. Some of the people in our league do it very, very well."
"I just think that's football in general," Ferentz answered. "I think you're seeing more and more of it. It started back when Coach Fry came to Iowa in the late '70s; he threw it around a little bit. Then Mike White came to Illinois, and they threw it around a bunch, and I think more and more of it spread. I think right now, if you just look nationally, you are seeing a lot more of the "spread offense" then you are the old conventional two-back, two-receiver type thing. It seems that's the direction football's moving in right now."
Tressel was asked why Ohio State in particular has moved to the spread look.
"We feel like we've got some guys, we'd like to get the ball in their hands," Tressel said. "Plus, we also think that if you can prove that you can do a good job throwing it, there aren't quite as many people in the box when you are trying to run it. Then I think when you add the quarterbacks into the run package, that's another bit of pressure you can put on the opposing defenses. So you'd like to be able to do it all, and I think that's why you see so many people doing it, and specifically the guys that we've got that are capable of making things happen when we deploy that way."
Ferentz concurred with a reporter who asked if the Big Ten was no longer a power football conference.
"I think you're right on target," Ferentz said. "It depends on the teams you're looking at. Nobody in the country runs the ball as well as Minnesota. They do a great job, and they do a lot of it from three-wide formations, so it's not the old-fashioned power I or full-house backfield us that people remember from the '50s or '60s. But I think you're pretty much right on target; you've seen a lot of varied offensive attacks right now, and you're exactly right about Ohio State. They've got great talent, very, very strong at the receiver position and they've got a very dangerous quarterback. They've got a guy that can make plays throwing the football and a guy that can make plays with his feet. But it changes week-to-week, game to game. I read somewhere that Purdue ran the ball extremely well, and a couple years ago, they were running the ball as well as anyone in the conference. Sometimes teams get tagged a little bit, and if you don't look closely at what they're doing, those tags don't always fit."
Tressel was also asked a recruiting question -- one regarding his thoughts on the high school talent in the state of Ohio and why the talent is so plentiful.
"I think we're extremely fortunate to have great talent," he said. "I think culturally, youngsters grow up wanting to play this game, and so that gives those outstanding coaching staffs people who are listening closely and training in the offseason and studying video. I just think if you wrap in all of the reasons people love football in this state, all of those add to helping our high school football be very good. I think last year, if I'm not mistaken, I think there were 90 guys signed at BCS schools or something out of the state of Ohio. It's amazing, and then you look at rosters and guys, every week we have to watch someone from Ohio playing for another team, and we say 'Boy, we wish we had all those guys.'"