With a quarterback head coach Jim Tressel has described as having the best touch on throwing the deep ball among the quarterbacks he has had in Columbus, the Buckeyes' game plan has frequently called for junior Todd Boeckman to loft the ball deep down the field and count on his intended target to make a play.
And while it has worked at times – the Buckeyes have six completions of 50 yards or more through 11 games – the strategy came back to haunt them in a big way against Illinois.
With his team trailing by a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter and a perfect season hanging in the balance, Boeckman lofted a pass deep along the left hashmark intended for junior wide receiver Brian Robiskie. Safety Justin Harrison came rushing over to close, but the pass was underthrown and cornerback Marcus Thomas came up with the interception.
"I knew Robo was one-on-one out there, but right as I threw it I knew it was underthrown," Boeckman said after the game. "I thought hopefully he could get up there and have a chance to break it up and the DB wouldn't see it because his back was turned, but he made a good play on the ball."
The hope that the team's wide receivers will get up and make a play on the ball has been central throughout OSU's first 11 games. The team's two primary wideouts – sophomore Brian Hartline and Robiskie – are each listed as being 6-3.
But the theme of throwing the deep ball has become less productive as the season has progressed. During a night game played at Purdue in week six, Boeckman tossed a season-high three interceptions.
All three of them were on deep throws.
"We knew they were going to load up the box and they were going to try to guard us outside one on one," Tressel said after the game. "We just felt like we could throw it up top, and we told Todd, ‘Don't overthrow it. Those guys will break it up.' "
They did not break the passes up, however, and that set an ominous tone for the rest of the season. After throwing three picks in the first five games of the season, Boeckman has now tossed eight in the last six games.
Although those interceptions are not all on deep passes that the intended targets should have broken up, Robiskie said the wideouts take it more personally when they do not break up a pass that is picked off.
"That's the quarterback, and he's got a lot of trust in you," he said. "I think he's got a lot of trust in you to get the ball out of the air or to make a play for him. It's almost like you're letting him down."
Throwing a successful jump ball requires more than trust, however. A successful connection comes about thanks to countless hours spent developing a rhythm and a timing between the quarterback and his receivers.
"We do a lot of one and ones, and you just want to throw it up because you've got the guys that are capable of going up and getting the football," Boeckman said. "I think just in practice and games you get confidence and a feel for what they do best and I think we have some guys that will go up and get the football."
Until the team's loss to Illinois, Robiskie said he felt he had been pretty successful at making plays on the passes Boeckman has thrown to him. He cited the final interception as one play that he was having a hard time getting out of his mind.
"I probably pick on (the ball) quickest when I'm trying to change my speed, (figuring out) whether I have to speed up or slow down," he said. "Todd's going to try and take the blame, but I'm going to sit here and say that I could've gotten it out of the air for him. I guess we can share it."
There is more than just going up and trying to break up the pass, however. Hartline referred to it as the "what if?" factor.
"DBs don't always catch the ball, so you're ready for that deflection," he said. "Sometimes they make (the catch), sometimes they don't."
Not every interception is the fault of the wide receiver, however. Boeckman has struggled with looking the opposing team's safety off of his intended target, occasionally resulting in his passes being thrown into double coverage.
The key is just giving the wide receiver a chance to make a play, he said.
"I guess you're reading a defender, seeing where he's at, maybe throw it a little ahead of him, or if he's behind (the wide receiver), throw it up, but let them have the opportunity to go up there and go get it," he said. "You do it just by reading where the defender and the secondary is at."