But when the top-ranked Buckeyes take on Northwestern Saturday in Evanston, Ill. (3:30 p.m., ABC) they might put even more emphasis than usual on stuffing the running game.
The Wildcats (3-7, 1-5) have played musical chairs with their quarterbacks all season, but have finally settled on sophomore C.J. Bacher, who opened the season as the starter. Northwestern is last (No. 11) in the Big Ten in passing offense (153 yards per game) and last in total offense (307.2).
However, thanks to sophomore tailback Tyrell Sutton, the Wildcats have a decent ground attack and are ranked No. 5 in the Big Ten in rushing (154.2).
Sutton, Ohio's 2004 Mr. Football, piled up 1,474 yards (5.9 per carry) and 16 touchdowns as a freshman last year. This year, he has 833 yards (5.8 per carry) and four scores despite defenses ganging up on NU's running game.
"Their team to me is Sutton, because if Sutton is going, they're going," OSU safeties coach Paul Haynes said. "If he's running the ball very well, then that opens up their pass game too because you've got to try and stop him. Just like anything with defense, you've got to stop the run. You've got to stop the run."
Haynes explained what makes Sutton such a productive Big Ten back.
"Well, everything," he said. "He's a small package (5-9, 190) but he's powerful. He can run around you, or run you over. So, you've got to do a great job of tackling him and you see a lot of people miss. You see a lot of people miss, plus they do a lot of misdirection stuff and it's hard to find him and all that and he's right on you and you have to make a decision quick."
Ohio State (10-0, 6-0) defensive back Antonio Smith, who was named a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award earlier in the week, thinks that Sutton is among the best backs in the country.
"He's a great back," Smith said. "He runs very hard. He's a powerful back. He's extremely fast. He can get the ball out on the perimeter and he just runs extremely hard. He's an Ohio guy. He's going to be ready to perform."
As for Northwestern's much-maligned passing game, it is actually starting to come around. There are going to be growing pains when a team has to replace a four-year starting QB (Brett Basanez) and the Wildcats have had more than their share. But Bacher (691 passing yards, 54.4 completion percentage, 4 TD, 6 INT) is beginning to right the ship and has thrown for over 200 yards for three straight weeks, including 204 against Michigan and 218 in a 21-7 upset over Iowa last week.
"I don't know, maybe they've simplified it, but the last few weeks they've been playing a lot better," Haynes said. "I just think they've kept improving. I think they feel comfortable with (Bacher) but they will have a package for the other guy (redshirt freshman Mike Kafka) because he does some things well and all that quarterback run stuff is difficult. So, I think you've got to have it and I think they will have it, but with Bacher, I think he's done a good job of just controlling their offense."
Iowa is definitely enduring a down year, but most everyone in the Big Ten was still surprised to see Northwestern go into Iowa City and leave with a convincing victory.
"It shows their determination," Smith said. "They've been through a lot this season all the way back to the summer and their coach and things of that nature. They had that devastating loss to Michigan State. They're just still fighting hard. In the Big Ten, teams will play tough and physical each week. We just have to be prepared to go out there on Saturday."
Ohio State is ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (7.6 ppg) and is ranked No. 9 in the country in total defense (258.2 ypg). Smith explained what the "Silver Bullets" expect to see out of Northwestern.
"They mix it up," he said. "They like to run the ball. The quarterback is throwing the ball pretty well. He's averaging 200 yards a game with a lot of throws. They're pretty versatile. I know they will try and run the ball and get into the zone, stretch plays and get outside."
One of the reasons OSU has exceeded expectations defensively has been its ability to force turnovers. The Buckeyes have racked up 19 interceptions and have had at least one in every game.
"It's not a competition. It's always good when you can come up with turnovers," Smith said. "We have emphasized that from day one in spring practice. We've just been doing a good job of swarming the ball and creating turnovers."
Smith knows that most fans are already looking ahead to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up of OSU and Michigan next week, but he insists the players aren't overlooking Northwestern. The Wildcats upset the Buckeyes in overtime in 2004 in Evanston. (Yes, things are just a bit different this year.)
"As a team, the whole season we have taken these games one at a time," Smith said. "Now that we are closing out the season, it's not a big emphasis. We know as a team that we have to stay focused. This week is Northwestern. We have to focus on that. The Illinois game shows that anybody can get beat on any given Saturday. We can't afford to look ahead."
‘Little Animal' makes big national splash
When OSU middle linebacker James Laurinaitis was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award last month, it was a great honor for a sophomore. And it was figured that might be as far as he would go, at least for this year.
But Laurinaitis was named one of just three finalists earlier this week (along with Penn State senior Paul Posluszny – the 2005 winner – and Mississippi senior Patrick Willis) and his stats match up with anyone in the country.
The 6-3, 244-pound native of Minnesota leads the Buckeyes with 86 tackles (39 solo) and five interceptions. He also has 8.5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks and a forced fumble. He is looking to tie Chris Spielman with the most interceptions by a linebacker in OSU history (six). Laurinaitis is fifth in the Big Ten in tackles.
Posluszny is third in the Big Ten and 22nd nationally with 93 tackles (57 solo). He has added two sacks, one forced fumble and does not have an interception.
Willis leads the SEC and is sixth nationally with 112 tackles (74 solo). He also has one sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and no interceptions.
A.J. Hawk was robbed by the Butkus voters last year and you would have to think Laurinaitis is still the long-shot this year, depending on how much emphasis the voters place on interceptions.
* The Buckeyes are up for several other post-season honors, most notably defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock who is a finalist for the Lombardi Award. The 6-3, 300-pound Pitcock leads OSU with seven sacks. He is also a finalist for the Bednarik Award and a semifinalist for the Lott Trophy.