Five Questions: Ohio State at Purdue

With the Buckeyes facing perhaps their biggest challenge of the year, there are plenty of spots that could turn the contest. Among those we examine are stopping Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter, controlling the ball offensively and continuing the solid tackling of recent weeks.

1. Can Ohio State control Purdue's quarterback?

Ohio State players and coaches have expressed great respect for Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter all week, and with good cause.

The senior will enter the game among the nation's top 20 in passing yards, pass efficiency and points responsible for.

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel praised the Boilermaker's quick release, command of the offense and touch on his passes. Although Painter has just 8 yards rushing on the season, Tressel warned that he can hurt teams with his legs as well.

"He'll kill you with the run when they need it," Tressel said.

Facing an experienced quarterback with good receivers to throw to is something of a novelty for Ohio State lately, presenting an extra challenge for OSU safeties coach Paul Haynes to prepare his troops for.

"I think the biggest thing is you've just got to stay poised," Haynes said. "You've got to be able to deal with some adversity. They're going to stay after it and continue to do what they do.

They're an experienced team. He's an experienced quarterback that's not going to get rattled. He's going to take his punches and make his throws, so we've just got to stay calm and collected and poised."

2. Will the Buckeyes continue their improved tackling?

Shifty Washington quarterback Jake Locker left more than one Buckeye grasping for air in the third game of the season, but since that contest Ohio State has tightened up its tackling.

Just how much the Buckeyes have improved in that area will be tested this week because their opponent is one of the preeminent purveyors of the spread offense.

Purdue head coach Joe Tiller has been stretching opposing defenses sideways for years and this season he has a number of players able to make big plays when given the ball in space, including wide receivers Dorien Bryant, Greg Orton and Selwyn Lymon, tight end Dustin Keller and running back Kory Sheets.

"Give them credit because they have a lot of good athletes with their receivers," Haynes said. "They get them out in space and then it's a one-on-one tackling drill, so tackling is definitely an emphasis of ours, a key."

Bryant deservedly gets the most publicity after compiling 40 catches for 450 yards and four touchdowns this season, but Sheets averages 103 yards rushing per game and has scored five touchdowns while Keller is second on the team with 20 catches and No. 1 with five TDs.

"It's huge," OSU linebacker Marcus Freeman said of tackling this week. "If you miss one tackle they could turn a 3-yard play into a 15-yard play, and it's something that we have to make sure we do this week: tackle very well and try to limit their big plays."

Defensive tackle Doug Worthington agreed.

"It's going to be very important, and we have great tacklers in Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell at safety. The DBs all can tackle. I feel very confident with those guys back there and all the things they've been doing as far as tackling and getting better as a unit."

3. Could special teams swing this game?

The return game figures to be crucial this weekend as it represents a strength of Purdue and something of an enigma for Ohio State.

The Boilermakers lead the Big Ten in kickoff returns (third nationally) and are third in punt returns (No. 23 in the nation).

Purdue averages 31.3 yards per kickoff return, 11 yards better than Ohio State.

The star for the Boilermakers is Bryant, who is seventh in the nation and best in the Big Ten with a kickoff return average of 32.4. He already has four returns of 40 yards or more this season, including a 91-yarder for a touchdown at Toledo.

Minnesota learned that kicking away from Bryant is not all that appetizing of an idea after Desmond Tardy returned the opening boot of that game 95 yards for a touchdown.

Ohio State, meanwhile, is fifth in kick coverage as a young unit has been rather feast or famine, coming up with a number of big hits far short of the 20 but also allowing six returns beyond the 40.

Despite a plethora of playmakers, the Buckeyes have yet to turn heads with their own return game, but this could be the chance to change that as they face a team that ranks last in the conference in kick coverage.

To this point, Ohio State's longest kickoff return of the season is a 39-yarder by Brandon Saine, a play aided by the freshman tailback's taking a reverse handoff.

Aside from all that, Ohio State has blocked a punt and a field goal this season while also getting inconsistent performances from its long snappers, so something goofy in this department would not be totally unexpected.

4. Which team will control the clock?

While Ohio State has mastered scoring via the big play, there is something to be said for possessing the ball, controlling the clock and wearing down an opponent.

Whether that skill is one Todd Boeckman and this offense possesses is yet to be seen because it has not been needed yet.

OSU quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels wouldn't mind seeing that change.

"Oh yeah, we would like to do that," Daniels said. "We're very much in favor of slowly moving the ball down field. You can tell in our offense right now as far as a lot of ball-control passing and the running part of it. We like to control the ball and eat up time and go on eight-, nine-, 10-, 12-play drives.

"But we're not going to argue if we go down in three plays and score."

Ohio State enters each game with a goal of achieving four eight-play drives per game, whether they score on the drive or not.

Thus far the Buckeyes have 17 such drives in five games, including 11 that went for scores and one that ended when time ran out in the half.

Both the Boilermakers and Buckeyes enter this contest having a slight advantage in time of possession overall this season, and with the firepower on each side would no doubt like to limit the opposing team's chances.

5. Will the atmosphere be a factor?

It would seem Ohio State has broken its night game curse. After losing four regular season night games in a row, the Buckeyes have won their last three, beating Texas, Iowa and Minnesota.

More than just looking better in the win column, Ohio State beat all three rather convincingly.

The closest score was the 24-7 win over Texas last season, a fact that would seem to support Brian Robiskie's claims this week.

"A lot of my teammates would probably agree that when you get a chance to go on the road into that atmosphere where everything seems to be against you, it definitely brings a lot out of you," the wide receiver said.

Freeman sounded as if he was chomping at the bit.

"I think just being a competitor, you look forward to games like this," Freeman said. "The atmosphere is going to be very hostile. It's a night game, a great team. You can't ask for much more, especially playing in the Big Ten. It's something that we're excited for so I think that is going to increase our energy even more.

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