Offensive Notebook: Will Weather Be A Factor?

This offensive notebook delves into some of the burning questions surrounding Ohio State's offense. Will the weather at Michigan State have an affect on Troy Smith and the passing game? Will Kirk Barton play this week? Does Anthony Gonzalez deserve a better nickname? We tackle these issues and more.

We heard a lot about the Texas heat in the offseason. But what about the Michigan cold? Ohio State will tangle with Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing (3:40 p.m., ABC) where the weather forecast is calling for temperatures in the mid-40's, winds up to 15 MPH and a 20 percent chance of rain.

The conditions could have an affect on Ohio State's offense. Instead of airing it out, the Buckeyes might choose to rely on their ground game more than usual. But quarterback Troy Smith isn't buying into any such talk.

"I'm sure the weather wouldn't have a real strain on us because we've already been in those situations," he said. "The Penn State game was a cold and wet day. We had a practice in camp that was really bad in terms of rain, but we still do pretty well."

But Smith knows a quarterback has to be even more careful when the ball is wet and the wind is whipping.

"One of the things in my mind is I know there has to be added emphasis on ball security and set depth when you drop back as a quarterback," he said.

Top-ranked Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) is a 14-point favorite over Michigan State (3-3, 0-2). The Spartans have lost three straight, including a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Notre Dame, and an embarrassing loss to Big Ten doormat Illinois – both at Spartan Stadium.

But Michigan State always seems to play OSU well and Smith is not taking them for granted. He flips on the film and sees a lot of good players on the Spartans' defense.

"Every year you get a chance to play against Michigan State it's going to be a battle," Smith said. "From their front four to their back four, speed and strength. And their linebackers are great linebackers who can retrace and hit you at any time. Their down guys are some of the best we have played thus far."

Michigan State's defensive line is led by tackles Clifton Ryan (6-2, 302, Sr.) and Ogemdi Nwagbuo (6-4, 297, Jr.). Clifton is a returning starter and leads the team with three sacks and five tackles-for-loss. Nwagbuo is a first-year starter who replaced Domata Peko, the fourth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals last spring.

"They're big, they're strong, they're fast," OSU center Doug Datish said of MSU's front four. "I think these guys will be some of the best defensive linemen we will play against all year. They've played a lot of football, both of their defensive tackles. Clifton Ryan has been a starter there for longer than I've been a starter here. We've seen a lot of each other and have seen a lot of football."

The Spartans' top linebacker is David Herron (6-1, 245, Sr.). The older brother of OSU commitment Daniel "Boom" Herron is second on the team with 36 tackles (20 solo). There was some talk early in the week that he was banged up, but Michigan State lists him as a starter and it sounds like he will play.

Despite starting two seniors at cornerback, the Spartans' secondary has been picked on at times this year. The leading tackler on the team is the youngest of the defensive backs – safety Otis Wiley (6-2, 209, So.) – who has 46 stops (31 solo).

"I guess they've got a little bit of inexperience in the secondary, but they're solid," OSU tight end Rory Nicol said.

OSU-MSU By The Numbers

Ohio State has the No. 35 total offense in the country, averaging 386.6 yards per game. The Buckeyes are seventh in the Big Ten. However, that is a statistic skewed by schedule strength. The six teams ranked ahead of OSU in the conference are: Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan State and Purdue. You would be hard-pressed to find a coach willing to trade Ohio State's offense for any of those.

The Buckeyes also check in with the No. 20 scoring offense in the country (32.8 ppg) and are ranked third in the Big Ten.

In rushing offense, OSU is 54th in the country (151.5 ypg) and surprisingly 10th in the Big Ten.

In passing offense, the Buckeyes are No. 33 in the country (235.2 ypg) and No. 3 in the conference.

Michigan State checks in with the No. 66 total defense in the nation, allowing 334.1 yards per game. The Spartans are ranked seventh in the Big Ten.

The Spartans find themselves in the bottom third of the country in both scoring defense (86th nationally, eighth Big Ten, 25.7 ppg) and passing defense (80th nationally, eighth Big Ten, 209.8 ypg). They are solid against the run and are ranked No. 52 in the country and No. 5 in the Big Ten in rushing defense (124.3 ypg).

Barton Expected To Return

Considering that six different players have won OSU's Jim Parker offensive lineman of the week award this season, it's hard to pick out the best lineman on the team. Some weeks it looks like Datish. Other times it's T.J. Downing. Other weeks it's Alex Boone. Steve Rehring has also established himself as a force.

But right tackle Kirk Barton could be the best of the bunch. And when he limped off the field against Bowling Green last week and didn't return, there was cause for much concern.

However, Barton was simply recovering from a "minor foot procedure" and head coach Jim Tressel thinks he will play and possibly start this week. That's good news to players like Nicol who line up next to Barton.

"I think there is a comfort level playing next to Kirk," Nicol said. "When he went out, I don't know if there was a drop-off, it's just a matter of playing next to a new guy. Tim Schafer came in and did a solid job for us and anytime you can get extra reps, that's great for him and it's great for our offense because he's kind of that spare guy that can play any position. He's got a lot on his shoulders. It's tough to play left tackle, then right tackle, then left guard all in the same game."

This week, sophomore Jon Skinner is listed as the backup right tackle.

The Cuban Missile… but there's no crisis

OK, isn't it time for a new nickname for OSU star wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez? "Gonzo" isn't bad, but it's already used for Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez. How about something a little more creative like "The Cuban Missile"?

For all of his route-running skills, sure hands and football smarts, it can be easy to forget that Gonzalez ran a 4.35 40 for the scouts at OSU's pro day last spring.

And since you'd have a better chance of talking Time Warner Cable into carrying ESPN U than you would of getting Gonzalez to say something nice about himself, we turned to one of his teammates to get the low-down on Gonzo, er, The Cuban Missile.

"He's kind of a guy that comes to practice every day and works hard," Nicol said. "He works hard in the weight room and does a lot of stuff with flexibility and maintaining his speed. He's not really an individual guy and doesn't really care about that stuff. He's one of those guys that cares about everybody but himself. And his game has definitely evolved to the next level. He's definitely become a big-time receiver for us."

Smith Does His Best Manning

OK, so Smith is never going to be quite like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning changing plays at the line of scrimmage. (But then again, Buckeye fans don't want him to get laryngitis.)

But Smith does have some freedom to calls audibles if he sees something he doesn't like. It's just another step in his growth as a complete QB.

"That's a credit to the staff having a lot more trust in my ability to recognize things on the field," he said. "A lot of the game, I give the coaches credit, they game plan as much as we watch film. They wouldn't put us in a situation where we had to change plays all the time. They do enough studying to where they know in certain situation something is coming and they call the right plays."

Smith was asked what he did to finally earn the coaches' unquestioned trust.

"I can't pinpoint one thing," he said. "I would like to credit it to personal growth – as a player, as a man, as a person, whatever you want to call it. I would believe and hope it was a gradual thing. It was kind of mutual. They gained some of my respect and I gained some of theirs." It's well-documented that Smith spends long hours in the film room working on his trade.

"I've done a 180 in that transition," he said. "Early on in my career, I would watch guys and see who was making plays. Now, I understand that this is the one key that will help me get through this season and make me a complete player at the next level. The more you are able to recognize what the other team is trying to do, the better you will be."

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