The Buckeyes know they have to play better offensively, especially with No. 21 Iowa coming to Columbus for the Big Ten opener on Saturday (noon, ABC). But to a man, OSU's offensive players believe they will iron out the problems and become a productive offense.
"It's only the fourth week of the season and we feel that we do have a good offense and will prove to be a good offense," senior center/captain Nick Mangold said. "We know we need to step it up and that's what we plan on doing."
With the Hawkeyes coming to town, the intensity has picked up this week in practice. The Buckeyes still have last year's 33-7 drubbing fresh in their minds.
"You get out there and you want to practice, but being in a Big Ten game, you don't really need anything else to drive your emotions," Mangold said. "So, I think last year's game really has a presence in practice and how we prepare in knowing that we've got to prepare a little more."
Iowa has a solid defense, but it's not on par with last year's unit. The Hawkeyes have two of the best linebackers in the country in seniors Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, as well as a solid secondary. But they have four new starters across their undersized defensive line.
"Their D-line is not as big as they were last year, but just watching the film you can see that they've got great technique, as they did last year," Mangold said. "So, definitely we'll need to have great technique if we're going to win the line of scrimmage."
Through three games, Iowa is ranked No. 19 in the country in total defense, giving up an average of 278 yards per game. But two of its games were against Ball State and Northern Iowa.
Mangold was asked what went wrong with OSU's offense in last year's game in Iowa City.
"We were still kind of fuddling around with ourselves and they were a great D-line," he said. "Those things put together just put us in a big hole."
Fuddling around? So, are the Buckeyes still fuddling around with their offense this year?
"It just comes out, you know," Mangold said, laughing at his vernacular. "No, I think we have a lot better understanding of doing what we're supposed to do. You can see it in practice that we are doing what we can do and that's definitely a confidence booster as you go through the week.
"I think we know who we are this year. We need to be able to run the ball. We've got playmakers that we need to be able to get the ball to and we've got to be able to do those things. I think we've held ourselves back by not doing all of those things."
Mangold feels that junior quarterback Troy Smith is making progress. He hasn't played well through his first two games, but he's looked solid in practice according to his center.
"Yeah, I think he's getting comfortable back there," Mangold said. "More ready to get after it. More trusting of his arm and his receivers. In practice, he's had some great throws and some great reads."
Mangold was asked if it helps preparing for a team like Iowa knowing the Buckeyes have one quarterback they are going to stick with.
"It helps going into a game," he said. "Especially when you're at practice, letting a guy get a feel for who his offensive linemen are. And we get a feel for where Troy is going to set up on different plays and stuff. So, it definitely helps through the week."
Throughout the San Diego State game, OSU rotated offensive linemen in and out. And there didn't seem to be much of a drop-off when the backups entered the fray. Freshman left tackle Alex Boone saw extended action, as did sophomore tackle/guard Steve Rehring and former walk-on John Conroy, a senior guard.
"It was uplifting to see that those guys could come in and we were still able to move the ball and get things done," Mangold said. "It's good to know in case someone gets hurt, we're going to have guys come in who can play, who are able to play and there won't be a serious drop-off. I think that's a confidence booster and you can have guys fly around more and not worry about injuries and how it's going to affect our depth. Competition is important and right now we have guys pushing each other to get better."
During the last couple of seasons, many of OSU's critics blamed the offensive line for some of the offensive woes. But you aren't hearing as much of that this year. The O-line looks solid and seems to be improving each week.
"That's nice," Mangold said of the lack of criticism. "It's kind of like the quarterback controversy. You're always going to have one here at Ohio State. "I didn't really notice (the criticism of the offensive line) that much last year. I usually stay away from listening to that kind of stuff because it just brings you down. So, I haven't really noticed either way so far."
If the Buckeyes are going to get it rolling against Iowa, they will need to get more touches for their playmakers like Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. Holmes is on his way to an All-American season if he keeps it up. Thus far, he has 13 receptions for 189 yards (14.5) and two touchdowns.
"Oh yeah, ‘Tone and I were roommates for the game last week and we were talking a little bit and he just has so much passion for the game," Mangold said. "You just talk to him and you realize how much he wants to be out there and how much he wants to play. And then when you watch the film you can really see it. He's really doing a great job this year."
Sophomore wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez took it one step further.
"I think he's the best receiver in the country," Gonzalez said of Holmes. "He's an exceptional route runner, he's got great hands and he always seems to make plays. And you watch him and you think, ‘Man, it looks so easy when he does it. Why can't everybody do that?' But he just has a knack for making plays."
Gonzalez also agrees with Mangold that OSU is not down-and-out offensively and will prove to be a good unit.
"I think we're just trying to find our way," Gonzalez said. "It is only the fourth game of the year. It is taking a little bit of time, but we all realize that come Big Ten time, we all have to step it up a lot. I feel confident that we will."
Senior running back Brandon Schnittker knows that Ohio State's offense is a work-in-progress. Tressel-led offenses usually don't peak until the end of the season.
"We're comfortable with the system," Schnittker said. "It's going to be a work-in-progress until we're done, but I think we're getting better and making improvements. We've ran the ball real well (in practice) and we've been aggressive with the football as far as the running game goes, which I think we're going to have to continue to develop as the Big Ten season goes on."
Schnittker was asked if the offense needs to play better than it did against San Diego State if the Buckeyes want to beat Iowa.
"Yes, I do," he said. "Iowa is going to be a great challenge defensively. Great linebacking corps, real strong secondary. They have a real young defensive line, but it's Iowa. They're a well-disciplined team, they're going to get after us and we've got to play better. We're definitely capable of that."
Schnittker disagrees that OSU's offense has been floundering so far this season.
"Well, I wouldn't use the word floundering," he said. "On all cylinders? Maybe not. But I think if you look at the improvements we've made from week-to-week – we've had five or six drives over eight or nice plays, which is the kind of thing you need to do as an offense: control the clock; control the ball. Are we where we need to be? No. But I think we're improving and we're making our way to where we need to be."
Saturday will be Smith's second start of the season and just the seventh of his career. He says the offense will continue to play better as he settles into the role.
"What I think is probably missing is just continuity," Smith said. "I was absent for a while, so that's one big reason. But now everything is back and there's no excuses. We'll put it together now and we'll get back on the tilt that we were last year and get things rolling."
Defenses are going to throw a lot of different looks at Smith this year. One thing a good quarterback needs to do is audible at the line of scrimmage if something doesn't look right.
"We have certain plays where we can audible in and audible out, but we haven't been in a situation where we need to," Smith said. "There hasn't been a front that they come in or they show us that we need to audible out of something to get in something else."
Tressel was asked if Smith has the freedom to audible if something strange pops up at the line of scrimmage.
"Well, it depends on what we're doing," Tressel said. "He can always get us out of a dumb call. He has that freedom whenever. But there are various packages. Sometimes we have checks where he goes to the line without a play and makes a call. Sometimes you go to the line and if they're in something that we can't handle, we get out of the call. And then there's other times when we go to the line and just execute. There might be hot throws, or route adjustments, or that type of thing."