Offensive Notebook: OSU Ready For Night Tilt

Ohio State's offense has once again been the target of criticism this season. But nothing will silence the naysayers like a 530-yard performance, which is exactly what the Buckeyes did against Iowa. Penn State's defense will present a bigger challenge, but OSU's offensive players seem confident. We have comments from Antonio Pittman, Troy Smith, Anthony Gonzalez and Santonio Holmes.

Ohio State will face off with Penn State Saturday (7:45 p.m., ESPN) and OSU sophomore tailback Antonio Pittman would like nothing more than a repeat of his 28-carry, 171-yard performance against Iowa.

It won't come easy against a stout PSU defense, but that's what he's shooting for.

"I just want to come out and try to do the same thing," Pittman said. "Offensive line opened up some great holes and I was running great. Just want to keep it going. I believe it's all up to the men up front. If they come back out and do what they did (against Iowa) we'll keep it rolling."

Interestingly, Pittman says his body was not drained after carrying the ball so much against the Hawkeyes.

"I felt good," he said. "I went home and laid down, but I wasn't beat up or anything. I felt all right. I was straight."

Pittman was asked how many carries it takes to satisfy him each game.

"Twenty something," he said with a smile. "If I get in the 20's, I'm straight."

Last season, Pittman appeared to be the most talented back on the roster, but was stuck behind seniors Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall on the depth chart. Pittman actually rushed for over 100 yards against Indiana last year, then didn't receive many carries the rest of the season.

"No, It wasn't frustrating," Pittman said of the lack of playing time in 2004. "Last year, I took a pounding. A lot of people won't admit to it, but I'll admit that I wasn't that ready last year. But now I'm ready. I'm ready for 30 carries or more than that."

If Pittman took a pounding last year in a limited role, how is his body holding up so well thus far this year as the featured back?

"More of taking care of my body," he said. "Getting into cold tub after practice. Not letting them get a clean shot on me. Last year, I just tried to run it up in there and then try and make people miss. Deliver a hit first. Just try and keep my body from getting banged up as much as possible."

Pittman was asked about the balancing act between being a tough runner and trying to avoid taking a lot of hits.

"It's not difficult," he said. "After a while you get tired of getting hit. You'll just be like, ‘I ought to make this dude miss, but I'm going to end up getting carried off this field eventually.' You just tired of getting hit and that's when you realize it's time to put your shoulder down, or step out of bounds. Just try and read more now."

But if a running back runs out of bounds too much, he might be viewed as "soft."

"No, you don't want to be seen like that," Pittman said. "But on the other hand, you don't want to get hurt taking too many hits. Just don't try and be a superman out there. It's a long game and you want to fight to the last play. But you don't want to get hurt."

Pittman said the play of sophomore fullback Dionte Johnson was a big part of his success against Iowa. Junior Stan White has also played well in that role.

"Very important. Very important," Pittman said. "That's my fullback. That's my lead blocker. Without him, a lot of the plays (against Iowa) wouldn't have got the yards that they did. Hopefully he can get on the field a lot more so we can feature that more."

Pittman knows yards will be at a premium against the veteran Penn State defense. He saw PSU's 44-14 rout of Minnesota when the Nittany Lions shut down one of the nation's best backs in Laurence Maroney.

"They've got a great defense," Pittman said. "They played a hard game versus Minnesota. But, Minnesota is basically a straight run team. If you stop the run you shut down their whole team. And with us, we've got so many weapons. I believe we're going to kind of catch them off guard by throwing the ball and changing plays.

"But they're a good defense – similar to ours. Linebackers that can play, great D-line, corners play a lot of man – they've got a lot of trust in those guys. Some safeties that will come up. We've got to be ready."

Pittman has not asked any of his veteran teammates about playing in the hostile environment known as Beaver Stadium.

"Nah, I don't ask questions like that," he said. "I'd rather go see for myself. But crowd doesn't bother me at all. I don't pay attention to any of that. When it's time to play it's time to play. So, I don't buy into any of that."

Ohio State's offense has struggled off and on the last few years. But after torching Iowa for 530 yards of total offense, the Buckeyes would like to put together back-to-back strong offensive performances.

"I'd say it's a big game for the team in general, not just offense," Pittman said. "I think they're ranked in the top 10 now (PSU is No. 16) and we're trying to get to Pasadena, so it's a big game for the Big Ten and for us. We're just going to take it one week at a time. We're both trying to win the Big Ten title, so it's a big game."

Pittman was asked if he has any goals in terms of rushing yards this season.

"Yeah, I'm content with getting 1,300," he said. "I'm fine with that. But I've got to get some touchdowns though."

So, not reaching paydirt is bothering Pittman?

"No, that's not bothering me at all," he said. "It's just something that I've got to do. It's my fault. I've got to break it. I'll get in there before the season ends. As long as we keep piling up the yards and the team keeps winning, that's fine with me."

Junior quarterback Troy Smith has noticed one major difference in Pittman this season.

"I would have to say he's comfortable. He's comfortable," Smith said. "And I think comfort in any situation – as long as you don't have to look over your shoulder – you're able to get in and set your feet in and do what you do. And Pittman runs the ball with the best of them. As long as we get him the ball he's going to be OK."

Sophomore receiver Anthony Gonzalez was always confident Pittman would develop into a top back.

"Since he first got here in the spring of what would have been his senior year in high school, I've always felt that he was a very good back," Gonzalez said. "Very talented, he has great instincts, plays hard, run hard. He looks kind of thin out there, but he's actually running guys over sometimes if you watch and fighting for yards. I've always appreciated him as a player and I think he's a great running back."

* Ohio State's 21-10 win over Penn State last year is still fresh in Gonzalez' mind. He knows it was a physical game against a very good defense and he expects more of the same this year. The Nittany Lions have 10 returning starters on defense.

"I remember they are very physical," Gonzalez said. "And not only were they physical with us, but you can watch on film that they're very physical. They say there's no substitute for experience and I know in my case that's true. I feel I'm playing a lot better because I got experience last year. And I'm sure a lot of their defensive guys feel the same way. And you can see it when you watch them play. They do have some talented players on the defense."

Gonzalez is beginning to emerge as somewhat of a star. No, he's never going to get as much publicity as fellow receivers Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr., but Gonzalez is developing into a dangerous weapon of his own.

But it wasn't that long ago when Gonzalez wasn't sure which position he would play at OSU. He was a two-way standout at Cleveland St. Ignatius High School and even OSU's coaches were not sure if he was best suited to be a receiver or defensive back.

"There was some uncertainty," Gonzalez said. "I keep telling them there should still be uncertainty. I want to play defense too. But no, when I first got here I was on defense actually. And then after three or four days I asked to switch over to offense because I was playing safety, which I had never done before and that was really uncomfortable for me. But eventually I moved to receiver which seems to have worked out, somewhat."

So, Gonzalez was actually considered a defensive back when he signed with OSU?

"Well, they had told me all summer receiver," he said. "So, that's what I worked on all summer. All the different things that come with being a receiver. And then I got here (in the fall of 2003) and I was sitting on the defensive side of the room. That was kind of my ‘welcome to college football' moment I guess. ‘You're a number kid. Sit down.'"

Gonzalez believes that Ohio State's offense can recapture the feeling it had against Iowa when it looked like everything was clicking.

"Well, every week you feel like you can capture that feeling," he said. "You never go into a week feeling as if you're not going to perform well. This week is no exception. Every week you feel that you're going to perform well. Now whether or not you do, that depends on a lot of different things. And that's the fun of playing that game. That's when all the speculation comes in. You know, you've got analysts saying we're terrible and others saying we're great. That's what makes it fun really, at least for me."

Ohio State is just 1-3 following bye weeks in the Jim Tressel era. But Gonzalez is not worried about a letdown this week.

"I don't really have any concerns," he said. "I loved the bye week, I thought it was great. My body healed up a little bit. Not that I was injured, but you get some wear and tear on the body as the season goes on, which the bye week helps you eliminate. I will say this: I will miss not having the bye week next year."

Finally, we had to ask Gonzalez an in-depth football question: Does he prefer being called Anthony, or Tony?

"Anthony, because my grandma will kill me if she reads Tony anywhere," he said. "Most people call me Tony, but I'll say Anthony to keep me out of trouble with my grandma."

* As for Holmes, he thinks that OSU is on the verge of proving that it is one of the best offenses in the Big Ten.

"I feel that we can be one of the most explosive and productive offenses in the conference," Holmes said. "We just need to do our jobs and execute the game plan."

Holmes disagrees that the Iowa game is the only time OSU has looked sharp offensively this year.

"We did a lot of great things in the Texas game, the San Diego State game and then the Iowa game," he said. "So, we just need to keep rolling with what has worked in the past and get it working this week and come out victorious."

Holmes had his poker face on this week. He wasn't about to reveal any secrets as far as OSU's offensive game plan.

"I really don't know what has been changed," he said. "Probably a few formations, but I think our team is going to do pretty much the same things we did in the previous game and just go out and play football. It will probably be the same. We just have to see what the coaches are comfortable with."

Holmes believes there are a few keys if the Buckeyes want to beat a good defensive team like Penn State.

"We have to believe in ourselves that we can go deep and we can throw the ball," he said. "And that we can run the ball well and score touchdowns on these guys."

Usually, on the road in big games, Tressel becomes even more conservative than usual. Holmes was asked if he's concerned that OSU might go too conservative against the Nittany Lions.

"It's pretty much (Tressel's) decision," Holmes said. "If he decides to play conservative and run the ball and eat up the clock, we have to go with it. Until those guys start stopping us, that's when he'll probably open up and let us pass the ball a little more. Depends on how those guys play us this week. We'll have to see."

Although OSU lost the Texas game, the players have not given up hope of winning a national championship. And rightfully so. The Buckeyes are the highest-ranked one-loss team, so anything is possible.

"Not at all," Holmes said of giving up hope. "Coach told us (after the Texas game) there is still plenty more season to play. We just have to look forward to right now and playing each game every week from here on out since we got over our bye week. So, our main focus right now is just on Penn State, not national title right now. But it's still in the back of our minds, no doubt."

Although he's not a captain, Holmes is clearly one of the leaders on the team. His teammates look to him for leadership and he embraces the role.

"It's been one of the things that I've thrived on since I started playing is being a leader on the team," Holmes said. "Being a leader consists of just doing the little things. Outside of football, going to class, seeing some of the guys and helping them out, giving guys rides to practice or around campus if they need it. Coming over here, watching film, talking to the coaches more. Just getting out on the field and helping everybody on the field at the same time. And doing the right things that I need to do too."

Smith knows it helps his game having a future first-day NFL draft pick like Holmes as a target.

"Oh, it helps out a lot," Smith said. "Because within our offense, Santonio understands and recognizes things that you need a receiver to know. Things that you wouldn't expect a receiver to know, Santonio knows. So, that's just a bonus within his game. His smarts of the game, to me, is one of the keys that makes him one of the best receivers in the nation."

Holmes has strong football bloodlines in his family. He is cousins with Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, a former All-Pro.

"We grew up around the same time, but we were a little bit distant," Holmes said of his relationship with Taylor. "I was more with my mom and he was more with his family."

Has Holmes picked up any tips from Taylor over the years?

"Just from watching him, I take in a lot from just some of the little things that he has done on the field," he said.

Hey, next year they might be teammates. This is probably Holmes' final year at OSU… and Jimmy Smith can't play forever, can he?

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