Offense Knows Slow Start Won't Fly At Iowa

The Ohio State offense has had back-to-back sluggish starts against Cincinnati and Penn State. Now, going into a showdown at No. 13 Iowa Saturday (8 p.m., ABC), the Buckeyes know they must open the game stronger. One important piece will be the play of quarterback Troy Smith, whose string of five straight games without an interception ended against PSU.

The Ohio State offense has sputtered in the first half of the team's last two wins. But with OSU heading to Iowa this Saturday, the Buckeyes know they will have their hands full.

"Our offensive challenge will be against a team who's very physical," said OSU coach Jim Tressel. "Last year, that Iowa front four was new. Now they are truly veterans and very physical.

"Their linebacker corps, one of the three is a returning three-year starter, but the other two are first-year starters. They were backups last year and got spot duty and they seemed to be cut out of the same mold. The safeties are both back. The corners have played a lot in the past. They weren't the two corners that were the starters, but because of some injuries and so forth last year they played a lot of football.

"So our offensive football team knows that Iowa does not give up big plays. Iowa is where they are supposed to be. They play low, they play physical, they play with good strength and you have to earn every yard against the Hawkeyes."

Some of the key names for the Iowa defense include defensive end Ken Iwebema, defensive tackle Mitch King, linebackers Edmond Miles and Mike Klinkenborg and strong safety Miguel Merrick.

"Up front they have a front four that's probably the best we'll see," said OSU quarterback Troy Smith, who had one of his biggest games in last year's 31-6 win over Iowa. "The secondary is fast and physical and the linebackers will roam around and make plays. It is a typical Iowa defense."

Playing in a hostile environment, Smith said the Buckeyes must take care of the ball.

"We can't have any turnovers," said Smith, who threw two interceptions last Saturday against Penn State – his first interceptions in over five full games. "You go into a situation with their great fans. They can disrupt some things if you let them. Turnovers fire up the crowd and the sideline. We have to avoid that."

Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. concurred, "You can't turn it over at all. A lot of teams feed off turnovers when they're at home. They're defense is going to be fast and playing hard. We have to protect the ball at all times."

Wide receiver Brian Robiskie, coming off his best game with three catches and a touchdown, supplied his thoughts on the Iowa defense.

"They run the same defense as last year," he said. "They have the same guys back. They have more experience. They all look like they are athletic and they play well together.

"They are a zone team. They have some guys back in the secondary. They are coming back with some experience."

Penn State Reflections

As noted, the Buckeyes struggled in the first half against Penn State. The Buckeyes trailed 3-0 at halftime against PSU after trailing Cincinnati much of the first half the week before. All's well that ends well as OSU won both games by comfortable margins. Tressel believes his team learned some lessons with the back-to-back slow starts.

"I think adversity and more difficult situations always help you get better," Tressel said. "Heck, all the way back to the Penn State game a year ago, that was tough. That was one of the top, in my mind, three defenses in the country last year. And here was Troy having to try to compete with them and I'm sure he learned a lot from that and every other game where you have some adversity.

"And Penn State and most every Big Ten school is going to put heat on you. They know you well. They know how you protect. They know how to get to you a little bit. They guess right sometimes, and they guess wrong sometimes. Adversity is maybe the only teacher."

Against PSU, the Buckeyes managed just 89 yards total offense in their scoreless first half.

"I can't say it's just one thing," Smith said. "It's always a list of things that can go on through the course of a game. But once the ball gets rolling, it doesn't really matter to me if it starts early or ends late. Everybody wants it to start early so we can, the next morning, read in the paper how good everything always is. But that's not the way it's going to be."

After a string of strong games, Smith struggled a bit against Penn State. He was 12 of 22 passing for 115 yards with the touchdown to Robiskie and two interceptions.

"I didn't play my best game, but defensively they did a nice job," Smith said. "We were still able to do some things offensively that clicked. We made some big plays. As a quarterback at this level, you have to face those situations and bounce back."

The 37-yard touchdown pass to Robiskie – where Smith put the ball in the air for 55 or more yards – was one that electrified the Horseshoe.

"The situation where I get fired up the most is when things are going slow and somebody makes a big play," Smith said. "That's when I get excited."

Robiskie said the Buckeyes need to come out strong at Iowa.

"The last two weeks, we started slow," he said. "We know there are a bunch of things we have to work on. We know we have to come out a lot faster. Now that we're in the Big Ten, we know we can't afford to come out as slow as we have the last two weeks. We need to do that the next couple of weeks.

"We shot ourselves in the foot. They did some things to slow us down a little bit, but we had some penalties and some problems with execution. We can only blame ourselves. I think it's a matter of us coming out to play. We made some adjustments in the second half. We need come out in the first half and get it done."

Ginn said the last two games were actually quite different.

"With Cincinnati, we just came out flat," he said. "Against Penn State, they came out and played Big Ten football. It's a whole new ballgame. The condition of the weather kind of stopped us as well."

Offensive Identity

The Buckeyes still seem to be searching for the best way to attack opposing defenses. They might be well served to look at what worked a year ago against Iowa.

Last year, the Buckeyes outgained Iowa 530-137 in taking a 31-6 win in Columbus. The Buckeyes had 314 yards rushing and 216 passing.

"I enjoy any style as long as we're successful with it," said center Doug Datish. "It's fun to come off the ball and run it. It's also fun to let Troy sit back there and throw the ball and make plays."

It seems a good bet that OSU will try and establish the running game with Antonio Pittman, who has three 100-yard games already this year.

"I think he is deceptive," Datish said of Pittman. "He has a ton of power behind him. He runs really hard. Then, he has that little burst of speed that people don't expect. He gets to that corner on people and he can score almost every time. I think deception is more the point. We have so many good players and people have to contend with that, but he gets in there and does a good job for us.

"He's gotten bigger and stronger. He looks faster to me. He has a better understanding of the offense as well. I think it's starting to click for him."

But don't sell Smith and the passing game short after one subpar game. Once again, Smith will be looking to isolate Ginn or Anthony Gonzalez on mismatches with the Iowa defense.

"Once you see that you have a match-up to our advantage, you have to give the receiver the best look you can to where he can give you some of the things he does," Smith said. "That includes working on inside guys, whether it's a safety or a corner or a linebacker."

A Happier Return?

Two years ago at Iowa, Ohio State suffered the worst defeat in Tressel's six years at the helm. The Hawkeyes rolled to an easy 33-7 win. Smith took over as the OSU quarterback that day after Justin Zwick was knocked from the game. He completed 8 of 12 passes that day for 76 yards and one touchdown.

Since that day, he has posted a 17-2 record as OSU's starting quarterback. Now, he goes back to Iowa City as the established starter and one of college football's top quarterbacks. He talked about the lessons learned the last time OSU was in Kinnick Stadium.

"One of the things we learned is that you can't go into an opposing stadium and not focus on the task at hand," he said. "I think that was the main reason why we took that kind of whipping when we went up there the last time. They put drives together and put drives in the end zone. From our end, we have to go out and execute and try to play our game the best we can.

"It was a hard-fought game. It was a long game. Their fans were some of the best that we've played against. They did a great job riling their team up and it was a hard-fought game all the way through."

Smith helped OSU avert a shutout in that game, throwing a late touchdown pass to tight end Rory Nicol.

"In a situation where you can get shut out, the panic button almost turns on and you're fighting and scratching for anything you can get," Smith said. "Any time you face extreme adversity like that, it can make you better. It will make you worse or make you better. For us, I think it made us better. We had been there with our backs against the wall and fighting and scratching. As a group and a team, we didn't want to be in that position again."

Datish said the Buckeyes know they will have to contend with noise when they have the ball.

"The biggest thing I have learned is you have to try to not let that affect you even though it is probably going to," Datish said. "It just takes an immense amount of focus and concentration to not let that happen. You have to get locked into the game and not let it bother us."

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