Seven weeks into the season, Ohio State is fourth in the Big Ten and 29th in the country in total offense (391.6 yards per came), and second in the Big Ten and 15th in the nation in scoring offense (33.6 points per game).
Those are the best numbers of the Tressel era at OSU, so why do the offensive players think they haven't peaked yet? Mostly because they believe they haven't been running the ball nearly as well as they would like.
"We want to start being able to pound them a little more," right tackle Kirk Barton said. "We need to get closer to 200 (yards per game) before we're really efficient. That's on the linemen, especially. If we pick them all up, that makes it easier for the backs.
"We can definitely get a lot better. I think we are still leaving too many points on the field. We need to pick it up from that aspect. But we have developed from the beginning of the season. We've shown up when we've needed to early in games when we needed to make a statement, like at Iowa and Michigan State. We've been able to put together some key drives, like just before halftime against Texas."
Ohio State is well under Barton's goal at the moment – averaging 155.9 rushing yards per game. That figure is ninth in the Big Ten and 44th in the country. But when you have probably the best quarterback in school history in Troy Smith, the passing game is going to have more emphasis and the running game is going to take a hit.
The Buckeyes average 235.7 passing yards a game – good for third in the Big Ten and 31st in the nation. And with the Buckeyes expected to be heavily favored in each of their next four games, those numbers will likely get better.
But just when everyone thought Indiana (4-3, 2-1 Big Ten) was going to be a walkover game, the Hoosiers win two straight conference games, including a shocking 31-28 upset over Iowa last week in Bloomington. The top-ranked Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0) are still 31-point favorites in Saturday's game in Columbus (noon, WBNS radio, ESPN U) but OSU players think it could be a dangerous game.
"Indiana is kind of like Michigan State in that you are never sure which team you are going to get," wide receiver Brian Hartline said. "They're either a great team that can come out of nowhere, or a little bit inconsistent some times and those are the dangerous teams. But we're really not worried about the other teams. We just want to make ourselves better and the team better and end the season on the right note."
Hartline had to do a double-take when he saw the Indiana-Iowa score.
"Yeah, I think a lot of people were surprised," he said. "Indiana is definitely an up-and-coming team and they are going through a re-loading, re-building season, however you want to look at it. They can be pretty dangerous sometimes."
Barton is one player that will always tell you exactly what he thinks and he believes that Indiana's win over Iowa was not a fluke.
"That was definitely an eye opener because I thought Iowa was a tough football team," Barton said. "They still are, but this just shows you how good Indiana is and how far they've come over the last few years.
"The main thing about Indiana is they hustle. They really play hard. There are some teams you might be able to say if you hit them hard early they might fade, but Indiana is not one of those teams. That's a credit to their coaching staff."
Barton Bounces Back
Barton missed all but two plays in the Bowling Green game two weeks ago after undergoing a laser procedure to address plantar fasciitis. ("A diagnosis of plantar fasciitis means you have inflamed the tough, fibrous band of tissue [fascia] connecting your heel bone to the base of your toes." – orthoinfo.aaos.org.)
But the 6-6, 310-pound junior started the Michigan State game and played well. It was billed as a minor foot procedure and that's exactly what it turned out to be. However, prior to the operation, and immediately following, Barton was in a lot of pain.
"They cleaned up where there was stuff around the tendon," Barton said. "There was a lot of swelling and scar tissue. I came back this past week and it was great.
"My doctors did a good job with the operation I had. They had me back playing within eight or nine days. I feel like a new man. It was a painful deal. I played through it, but it's hard to play on one foot. I did what I could with the Iowa game. I didn't want to sit that one out."
Smith's Heisman Campaign Takes Another Leap Forward
Smith was already the frontrunner for the Heisman in most people's eyes, but the season-ending broken collarbone suffered by Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson gave Smith even more of an edge. One that Smith would have preferred not to have.
"Adrian Peterson was really a fluke situation and he had had such a positive day in that game and it was a terrible situation," Smith said. "He is also one of my good friends in college football and I would hate to see someone end his season on that kind of note because of the kind of guy he is and the super athlete that he is."
Smith is aware of the Heisman hype that surrounds him every day, but he does his best to avoid thinking about it. A national championship and OSU's first outright Big Ten title in 22 years are his primary targets.
"As far as that trophy goes and that race, I try not to think about it," he said. "I try as much as possible to stay wrapped up in my team and what's going on around me within our football family, understanding that without these guys I wouldn't be in this situation."
Barton also talked about the Peterson injury and Smith's candidacy for the Heisman.
"That's very unfortunate what happened to (Peterson)," Barton said. "I'm sure Troy has to be in the top five. For me, he has to be the top player in the country. But the media has to decide that. It would help if we're able to win out.
"Troy is probably the best player on the No. 1 team. Sometimes with the Heisman, you have to think about where you would be if you lose that guy. I think we'd still be a good team, but Troy definitely gives us an extra dimension."
Smith leads the Big Ten and is sixth in the country in passing efficiency (172.8). He is 116-of-170 passing (68.2 percent) for 1,495 yards, with an almost unheard of 17:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Smith has made a habit this season out of making big plays when things initially appear to break down. He was asked what goes through his mind and if it's difficult to stay calm when defenders are hanging on him, or about to hit him.
"I can't say it's crazy because it has never been a situation where I feel as if things are going haywire for me," Smith said. "In a situation where I know a hit is going to come, you try and withstand it and absorb it and hope the training that you put in during the winter, the spring and the summer will pay off and when you're in situations like that you'll still come out on top."
Center Doug Datish has never seen anything like it. Just when he thinks a defender is finally going to get to Smith, out pops the OSU quarterback with another big play.
"He is amazing at it," Datish said. "Every game he seems to have a guy hanging on him and he either gets away from him or makes a throw with a guy hanging on him and it's a perfect throw every time. And his ability to do that is incredible and it's great to see it on film. But it's also unfortunate because sometimes it's our fault up front. We try to not have to have him to make those great plays."
Smith has made the offensive line look good a lot this season by avoiding sacks.
"Oh yeah, that's a huge benefit for us because sacks are negative and anytime you lose yardage it's bad, but a sack is even worse, I think," Datish said. "It makes us as an offensive line look terrible, but with Troy's ability he does save us from those terrible situations."
And it's happened so much that OSU's players aren't even surprised anymore when Smith makes a spectacular play.
"I don't know if I'm amazed any more. I kind of expect it out of him," Barton said. "A couple years ago when he took over and he started to win some games for us, you just knew he was not going to fade in the big game. He's going to be there. He's a guy you can count on."
Barton doesn't have any trouble picking out Smith's best trait as a football player.
"I would say his leadership," he said. "He's been one of the best leaders I've been around. He gives great speeches, but the great thing is when he gives a speech he backs it up. He's the kind of guy you want to follow into war. I'm just glad we have him.
"The speech this past week was pretty good. We had heard about the last two times we played (MSU) when we were No. 1 and going up there. He just basically said, ‘We're not those teams. It's a different era.' The thought of failure, if that's in your mind, you might fail. We wanted to get on them from the beginning and erase those thoughts early."
Datish Still Perfecting Shotgun Snaps
One of the things some people might take for granted is the art of snapping the ball in the shotgun. And as much as OSU uses shotgun-spread formations, it's a big part of Datish's job description.
For a first-year starting center, Datish has been solid in that area. He's had a few poor snaps here and there, but overall he's been able to get the job done.
"I don't know if it's complete second-nature for me, but it is more difficult than everybody thinks," Datish said. "It's one of the key aspects of my game, personally. When I play, I have to do that perfectly, and when I don't do it perfectly I certainly hear about it from several people, both on the field and off the field. Yeah, it's a huge part and it's something that I have to contend with as a center and it's something I actually take pride in doing."
Datish was OSU's starting left tackle last year and has also started at guard. He was Nick Mangold's backup at center the last two years, but as soon as he found out he would definitely be OSU's starting center this year he began to work especially hard on snapping out of the shotgun.
"It's something that I have to continually work on because when you do different blocks you have to also worry about getting that snap, because if the snap is not perfect it doesn't matter what my block looks like," Datish said. "So yeah, it's a continual process in getting better at snapping and blocking at the same time."
As Barton mentioned earlier, most of OSU's players think the Buckeyes need to do a better job of running the ball. But Datish thinks the "low" rushing figures is simply a product of OSU's outstanding passing attack.
"I don't know," Datish said. "We definitely want to run the ball a little better, but the two teams we played the last two weeks did a great job of coming after our run game, but at the same time that opens up the pass game and throughout this year I think we've been pretty balanced in what we've been trying to do. If they choose to stop one aspect of the game, then they are going be deficient in stopping the other aspect of our game. But yeah, we'd always like to run the ball a little more and do a better job, but if it opens up the pass that's fine too."
Indiana has the No. 9 total defense in the Big Ten (388.7 yards per game) and is dead last against the run (172.4). Therefore, this could be a week OSU racks up some rushing yards. And doesn't an OSU back always seem to have a big day against the Hoosiers? (Can we call it the Lydell Ross bowl?)
"I think Indiana's defense plays extremely hard," Datish said. "I think that's their biggest attribute is that they play hard and they don't quit. They have a solid scheme. They are fundamentally sound. They're a good football team. They had some troubles earlier in the year with the unfortunate situation with their coach and since he's been back they've really played with a renewed sense of pride and determination and their defense has really stepped up."
Datish gave his reaction when he initially learned about IU's upset over Iowa last week.
"I don't know if I was surprised, but I guess after playing Iowa I wouldn't have thought that would be the case, but it's a credit to Indiana and their staff," he said. "They really put together a great game plan and outplayed them."