The Buckeyes collected 449 yards of total offense in Saturday's entertaining 45-31 win at Minnesota. And, with the exception of quarterback Troy Smith, it could be said that all of OSU's stars on offense found the end zone against the Gophers. Smith, of course, was the pilot as he threw for 233 yards and three touchdowns.
The overall analysis shows that OSU has had 386 yards or better in all four of its Big Ten wins. OSU fans may finally have their one wish – an offense that can support the team's usually stellar defense and special teams.
"I think we've got a little bit better whole package," said OSU coach Jim Tressel. "We have some more experience. Quite honestly, I don't know if the last two defense we've played were as good as Texas or Penn State. But I think we're better than we were then."
Members of the offense say this midseason renaissance is due, in part, to cutting out the costly turnovers and penalties. OSU had to fight like crazy to get past Michigan State 35-24 on Oct. 15 after committing four turnovers. Just a week ago, OSU pulled away late and won 41-10 at Indiana after a pair of turnovers and eight costly penalties kept the Hoosiers in the game well into the second half.
But the mistakes – at least on offense – were kept to a minimum at Minnesota. The Buckeyes were turnover free for the first time all year and OSU's four penalties (for 35 yards) were not too much of a hindrance.
"I thought after Michigan State we were coming along," said wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who had four catches for 63 yards with a 27-yard touchdown. "Then we did it again against Indiana. Today, you saw another great performance out there. You see what happens when you don't turn the ball over. You score 45 points.
"We are finally starting to get to where we should have been at the beginning of the year. For whatever reason, it took our offense some time to get it going. But we finally have got it going now."
Sure enough, OSU ended up with back-to-back 40-point games for the first time since the beginning of the 2002 national championship season, when the Buckeyes had 45 points against Texas Tech and 51 against Kent State. That's even more amazing when you consider that the Indiana game snapped a string of 28 games since OSU last tallied 40 points, and that game was the 44-38 triple overtime thriller against N.C. State in early 2003.
Gonzalez termed the win a "weird game," and it was. Each side made a handful of dazzling big plays in what looked a lot like a track meet at various points.
"You talk about goals and holding teams under certain levels and things like that," Gonzalez said. "This was one of those games where you throw all of that out. You just go out and score and hope that at the end of the game it's more than the other team."
Flanker Ted Ginn Jr. came up huge once again. One week after having a 98-yard kick return for a touchdown negated by a penalty, Ginn was credited with his first career kickoff return touchdown on a 100-yard return. Plus, he caught three passes for 53 yards on offense and, for good measure, added a key 18-yard punt return late that helped lead to an OSU score that put the game away.
"I just think that we are clicking well right now," Ginn said. "The line is picking up blitzes. The receivers are catching the ball, Troy is delivering the ball and we're all doing what we're supposed to do. I think we're doing fine."
The Ring Leader
Smith was as cool as the other side of the pillow at Minnesota – even as the Gophers took turns teeing off on him. OSU had to call a timeout in the first half to allow Smith time to get bandaged up after he suffered a gash under his chin.
Smith cited that injury and also said he did not feel well afterwards as he begged out of talking to reporters.
But Smith made the Gophers feel poorly as well with his game management. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 233 yards and the three scores without an interception. He also netted 25 yards on 11 carries.
This is the Smith – distributing the ball to his various targets and making good decisions overall – that Tressel and OSU fans have been waiting to see.
For the year, he has now completed 83 of 139 passes (59.7 percent) for 1,265 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has also amassed 378 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
"He's always confident," Gonzalez said. "He's always into the game. For whatever reason, the last few games he has been extremely good about that.
"Troy had a great game. His head hurts right now because he had some stitches. But he battled and he is one of the toughest kids I know."
Ginn also discussed the play of his close friend and former Cleveland Glenville teammate.
"First, you have to give all of the thanks to the line," Ginn said. "But then he was very patient and poised and being a quarterback. He was delivering the ball. I think he's becoming a great quarterback, which he always was. He's improving himself with every game."
Many Happy Returns
OSU's edge in the special teams was readily apparent once again. Ginn's kick return was the product of a fake to upback Gonzalez. OSU varied its kick return scheme by putting Ginn as the single deep man and having Holmes and Gonzalez in front of him. If teams want to kick away from Ginn and go short, OSU will still have a steady – if not spectacular – hand to still field the kick.
"No matter where they kick the ball on the field, no matter who gets it, we're going to make something happen with it," said Holmes, who had four catches for 94 yards with a pair of touchdowns on offense giving seven TD grabs for the year and 21 for his career.
Some have noted that Ginn is taking more direct routes on returns instead of moving laterally, as he had earlier this year.
"That's the game plan every week, to run north and south and not east and west," he said. "Sometimes you get caught up in things and you see wrong things and go east and west. You just have to run, hit holes and go."
After going four games without a touchdown, Ginn's return gave him scores in three straight games. He had a touchdown catch against Michigan State and a punt return score against Indiana. He now has four touchdowns on the year and 12 for his career. Amazingly, nine of those 12 TD plays have gone for 57 yards or longer.
"It gives me some juice," Ginn said of his latest return. "But I know next week they probably won't kick me the ball."
Kicker Josh Huston, who made a 31-yard field goal, was a perfect 8-for-8 on putting his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
"I think he put it in the stands every time," said UM coach Glen Mason. "It's awfully tough to be successful when offensively you always have to go the long route."
Ending The Drought
OSU players were relieved to see tailback Antonio Pittman get into the end zone for the first two times this season.
Pittman ripped off a 67-yard TD run to give OSU the lead for good early in the second half after the teams had fought to a 17-17 halftime tie.
"When I was running down the field, I was thinking, ‘Good, I hope there are no flags. We need this kid to have a touchdown,' " Gonzalez said. "Pitt broke that really nicely and he showed how fast he really is. We all know that. Now everybody knows that as well."
OSU was without several of its key offensive players at Minnesota. Offensive tackle Kirk Barton missed his third straight game, providing a chance for heralded freshman Alex Boone to get his feet wet.
And some new injuries were revealed Saturday as starting tight end Ryan Hamby and backup tailback Brandon Schnittker did not make the trip. Tressel said that Hamby was week-to-week, while the Buckeyes hope to have Schnittker back for their bowl game.
Sophomore Marcel Frost, an imposing looking athlete, stepped into the void for Hamby at tight end and made his first career start.
"I feel more comfortable now because that was Minnesota and they're a good team," said Frost, who had one catch for 6 yards. "I feel I can go out there and play against the best now."
Frost's OSU career has been marked by injuries and off-the-field problems. But the clouds seem to be lifting.
"It feels great," he said. "It's been a long time coming. It's been a lot of hard work. I did a few things in the past, but I fought through them and just came out today and played hard."
It is too early to call Frost the heir apparent at tight end, especially since promising sophomore Rory Nicol is sitting out this year with an injury. But Frost said he will be working even harder now that he's had a taste of playing time.
"I got my mouth wet with this game," Frost said. "I don't want to have a dry mouth any more. I want to keep playing."
* One of Tressel's favorite sayings to his quarterbacks when the offense gets inside the 30-yard line is "don't mess up the three."
The obvious meaning is he doesn't expect the offense to take any negative plays that knock the Buckeyes out of field goal range.
But Tressel sort of ignored his own advice midway through the second quarter when the game was tied at 17-17. OSU faced fourth-and-1 at the Minnesota 24. Instead of opting for a 41-yard Huston field goal attempt, Tressel called Smith's number on the quarterback sneak.
But the Minnesota front seven won the battle up front and Smith was stopped for no gain.
Reporters remarked afterwards to Tressel that it was unlike him to take such a gamble when Huston has been nearly automatic inside 50 yards this year.
"I guess I don't know me well enough," he said. "I got excited because we were moving the ball. It turned out to be a poor call."
* Tressel raised some eyebrows with about four minutes left when he put redshirt freshman Todd Boeckman in the game in place of Smith. The coach bypassed backup Justin Zwick and gave Boeckman his first playing time since the season opener.
"That was just a case where we couldn't find Justin and I wanted to get Troy out," Tressel said. "He had been sliced up."