The Buckeyes are ranked 52nd in the country (out of 117) in total offense, averaging 385.6 yards per game.
No, that's not going to conjure up memories of some of the best offenses to ever play the game, or even OSU's explosive offenses from 1995-98. But for a Tressel team – a team that nearly always plays well on defense and special teams – 52nd is a solid ranking for the offense. And it will likely be in the 40's after games against defensive-challenged Illinois and Northwestern the next two weeks.
"At some point you have to say, ‘We're a good offense,'" wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez said. "Three straight weeks of 35 or more points, this offense is picking up steam. And I feel that the coaches are giving us a lot more freedom. Not that they were hampering us or anything like that. But Troy (Smith) in particular, we had some plays where he was allowed to check off at the line. It's just refreshing because you feel like not only are we performing well, but they are seeing that and they want us to kind of take that next step. Maybe that next step is mental, because physically we have it. But maybe that next step is mental and we're getting there."
Smith has thrown for 1,265 yards, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has a completion percentage of 59.7, and is second in the Big Ten and 12th nationally in passing efficiency with a 155.6 rating.
Each week, he is proving he belongs in the, "Who is the best QB in the Big Ten?" discussion.
Gonzalez was asked if the coaching staff seems to trust Smith more now, as opposed to the first few weeks of the season.
"I think so," he said. "I've always trusted him, but it's tough because (he's only started 11 games) and he's relatively young still. Yeah, he's a junior, but he didn't really play that much until the end of last year. As he becomes more comfortable, maybe the coaches are becoming more comfortable and entrusting him more with more decisions and he's making great decisions, which is nice."
And with more trust comes more freedom. Tressel was asked earlier in the year if Smith had the freedom to call audibles or check down at the line of scrimmage, and he replied, "Depends on what we're doing."
But now, Smith often checks down at the line. The Buckeyes sometimes call both a run and a pass and Smith decides at the line which play to use.
"The run/pass thing is something new that we threw in last week," Gonzalez said. "We call a run and a pass, and then depending on what he saw, he could switch it to the run, or he could switch it to the pass. We did that a few times, and they all worked out well for us."
One of the criticisms of Tressel's offenses during his tenure at OSU is that they are too predictable. But by allowing Smith to check down at the line, the Buckeyes become unpredictable. No, it's not quite the same as Peyton Manning calling 14 different audibles on the same play, but it's a big step in the right direction.
So, the play and maturation of Smith is obviously a big reason for the improvement of the offense.
But the production from tailback Antonio Pittman is another vital key. He now has 882 rushing yards and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. With a decent game against visiting Illinois on Saturday (3:30, ESPN) Pittman will crack the 1,000-yard barrier.
"It's going to be great to see him get it, because he deserves it and we deserve it," senior center Nick Mangold said. "I don't know if it will happen this week, but it looks like it might and that is gratifying for an offensive lineman."
You can bet Mangold didn't want to leave OSU without having blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher for three straight seasons.
And while Pittman deserves a lot of the credit – so does the Buckeyes' offensive line.
Mangold and left guard Rob Sims will be playing on Sundays next year. Junior right guard T.J. Downing has been solid all season and the Buckeyes often run behind him. True freshman Alex Boone has played well at right tackle, filling in for sophomore Kirk Barton, who will return this week from a knee injury and play somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15 plays. Junior left tackle Doug Datish has struggled at times, but he's been forced to learn a new position after playing primarily guard and center his first three years in the program.
"I think we've come together and proved to be a pretty good line," Mangold said. "We can get better and we still have time to get better, but I feel good about what we're doing right now up front."
Junior receiver Santonio Holmes – in what is likely his final season at OSU – is having a tremendous year with 36 catches for 673 yards (18.7) and seven touchdowns.
In addition to his heroics on special teams, sophomore Ted Ginn Jr. has 27 receptions for 382 yards (14.1) and two scores. And he's made a couple of tough catches the last two weeks over the middle, proving he's more than just a speed guy with moves.
And Gonzalez continues to flourish in the slot receiver role. He has 21 receptions for 257 yards (12.2) and three touchdowns.
Looking at this week's match-up with Illinois (the 111th-ranked total defense in the country, allowing 456.1 yards per game) Ohio State's players say Illinois is better than its numbers indicates.
"Their record isn't what it maybe should be, but they played Wisconsin pretty tough," Gonzalez said. "We're not going to take them lightly."
Mangold also gave his best Lou Holtz/Joe Paterno impersonation in assessing the Fighting Illini.
"Up front, their awareness is maybe some of the best I've seen," Mangold said. "They're sound on what they've been doing. They've been getting beat on big plays and whatnot, which has hurt them. But they've been working hard and they keep getting after it during games. They don't give up. You watch the film and they're still getting after it late in the fourth quarter. So, they're going to be out there ready to fight and we've got to be just as geared up – if not more so – as them and put a good performance on in the ‘Shoe."
Added Sims, "I think they are better than everyone thinks they are. I think Illinois really does have some good players, they're just real young. We've got to play hard."
For the seniors like Mangold and Sims, there are only two home games remaining in their collegiate careers and they plan on soaking up every moment.
"It's kind of out there a little bit because it's so far away and you never think it's going to come," Mangold said. "And now all of a sudden I've only got two games left in the ‘Shoe. Rob and I were talking about it, now we only have two Tuesday practices left. So, it's coming down and we want to be out there doing our best. There's probably going to be some tears after that Northwestern game knowing I'll never play again in the ‘Shoe."
With the national championship off the table, the Buckeyes have a clear-cut goal of going out as Big Ten champions. They need some help to win it outright, but they are confident everything will work out for the best if they win out.
"Of course we're going to be down about not winning the national championship," Sims said. "But I think, especially the seniors, we've done a good job of just stressing to everyone that we want these last three games. The Big Ten title, that will take care of itself."
Sims was asked why the offense is playing so much better now, as opposed to the early stages of the season.
"I think we just kept plugging along all year and finally got it together," he said. "Not having any turnovers – you can see the difference of not having turnovers what we can do as an offense. I think if we don't turn the ball over, we've got people who can make plays. I think that's the biggest difference. Just not turning the ball over gives us opportunities to make big plays and we've been capitalizing on them and we look forward to doing it again."
Sims says OSU wants to jump on Illinois early and put a lot of points up on the scoreboard and a lot of yards in the stat book.
"I think it's important," he said. "We came in (Tuesday) and weren't shy and said, ‘We want to put up a lot of numbers on these guys.' Like we do with every team, but guys have had opportunities to put a lot of numbers on them this year and we want to be one of those teams. So, we're going to go out there and play hard against a good team this week."