Covering a beat daily like the one on the Ohio State football team gives a writer a variety of perspectives on the squad in question. Every week, reporters from a plethora of platforms come to interviews in an effort to try to glean the information from Buckeye players and coaches that they believe their audience would want to know.
As a result, there are a myriad of topics discussed about the team each and every week, some more nuanced and intriguing than the others. In particular, I've noticed recently how much interest people have taken on the Ohio State offense, and how little people seem to be asking about the defense.
That theme hit an all-time high Wednesday night, Oct. 1, when one coach from the offense and one coach from the defense were made available for interviews. Coordinator Jim Bollman represented the offense and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson was the defense's spokesman, both of them being elected because of their "expert" status on the upcoming opponent of Wisconsin.
Johnson spoke first and for 25 minutes answered a number of questions about the Wisconsin team, in particular the matchup problems posed by physical tailback P.J. Hill and freakishly talented tight end Travis Beckum.
Halfway through Johnson's discussion, Bollman became available, splitting up the media horde. I must confess that I spent the ensuing 10 minutes with Johnson while Bollman began his talk, but once I got in my questions to Johnson I spent about 20 minutes listening to Bollman speak – which, by the way, is one of my favorite things to do on the job. To talk to Bollman is to realize that the man knows more about football in his little finger than I've ever considered.
Not once in the time I was there did I hear anyone ask the coordinator about Wisconsin's defense. Part of this assuredly is because the Badgers don't boast a talent on the defensive side of the ball that equals either Hill or Beckum for ability or acclaim. But I couldn't help but be struck by just how much more everyone wanted to know about the inner workings of the offense rather than the stop troops.
Of course, so much has happened on that side of the ball this year that it lends itself to that curiosity. The offense came into the year expecting to be led by a senior quarterback and a Heisman Trophy-candidate tailback; instead it has seen a true freshman take over under center and said running back battle perhaps the highest profile foot injury of any athlete in the nation.
It's also had its fair share of troubles. The Buckeye offense could muster only 19 points against Ohio (seven points came thanks to a Ray Small punt return touchdown), then it totally crashed and burned while putting up just three points against USC.
Along the way, many have tried to figure out what, exactly, had gone wrong. Many of those are fans who have subscribed to our "Ask The Insiders" premium message board.
To those fans, one of the major concerns has been the creativity – or lack thereof – shown by the Ohio State offense. I also listened recently to some people I respect wondering just how an offense this talented could sputter so much out of the gates. There was even a general befuddlement as to how it could take the Buckeye coaching staff so long to realize that the freshman quarterback – the nation's No. 1 prospect in Terrelle Pryor – could be left on the bench until the fourth game if he clearly was as talented as he had shown up to that point.
But for me, the evolvement of the Ohio State offense has made sense to me at all turns. I – along with many of my media cohorts – had the chance to watch a couple of the team's practices during fall camp, and in my eyes it was obvious that the team would have to begin the season with senior Todd Boeckman at quarterback with Pryor backing him up.
Pryor had shown a certain explosiveness during those short looks at the team, but it was clear that Boeckman was the player who had the best command of the Ohio State offense. His balls during camp were crisp and on target to open receivers, a hallmark of a senior with a full working knowledge of what he was being asked to do.
According to cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson, Pryor showed up at camp and wasn't exactly overwhelming.
"Early in the preseason … he probably wasn't making the throws, making the decisions like you're used to seeing Todd Boeckman and some of the other guys (make)," he said.
Against Youngstown State in the season opener, all went according to plan. Boeckman was efficient in leading the offense, while Pryor came on and played well while getting a feel for the college game.
A week later, the offense struggled against the Bobcats for a variety of reasons, showing perhaps the first signs that something might be seriously wrong. The timing between the team's top wideouts and Boeckman was off, but Pryor could do no better during his limited action. Boeckman, the senior, was left to pull Ohio State out of its mess, and he did that even while battling a bout of happy feet that left some wondering just how effective he'd be a week later.
Still without Wells, Ohio State had to figure out a way to attack No. 1 USC, and that led to deploying Pryor more than he had been up to that point. Without the talismanic running back to carry the offense – and Ohio State certainly could run on the Trojans with him but maybe not without – the Buckeyes would need all hands on deck.
The USC game, of course, then became the turning point of the battle. Boeckman always has been prone to make a mistake or two even in the best of times – his career game against Penn State last year also included an interception thrown right to Dan Connor – but his two interceptions and lost fumble against the Trojans were daggers as far as Ohio State was concerned.
In the same game, Pryor not only showed improvement but handled the pressure of facing the nation's top team with some success, and he certainly didn't look scared or out of his league. If Boeckman was going to continue to make mistakes, why not go with the young guy, whose mistakes might not be any more crippling than the ones already being committed? Plus, his mobility was a major plus behind an offensive line that is very good at run blocking but inconsistent in pass protection.
Also, as Johnson tells it, he simply was improving week to week.
"As the preseason progressed getting into the season and you starting going against him more and more, you could see not only in practice but on film, this guy is getting better," Johnson said.
The rest has been history. Pryor has shown himself to be a preternatural talent with a silky smooth running style complemented by a sincere desire to throw the ball with skill. It's truly amazing to think how good he could be in the long run considering that he's already a capable quarterback.
While that seems like a natural progression for the offense, the point about offensive creativity must be addressed.
I'll preface my remarks by saying that I'm not totally sure that the Buckeye coaching staff does all that well when it attempts to be creative, or shall we say "cutesy." I remember back to the 2002 season when the Buckeyes would fiddle with largely ineffective five-wideout sets with play calls that seemingly didn't make the most of the talent on the field.
To this day, I sometimes have to wonder what exactly the team is doing when it tries to get away from fundamentally sound football while installing new offensive principles. For example, against Ohio, I wondered exactly why the Buckeye offense ran twice as many pass plays than run plays against a Mid-American Conference foe. Even with Wells out of the offense, OSU still should have been able to run the ball when it wanted, a fact the team seemed to realize in the second half.
Where the team excels the most is when it gives its offense the best tools to succeed without getting too fancy. When Troy Smith – who still hadn't matured into the passer he would become – was in charge in 2005, the Buckeyes added spread elements to the offense, including more quarterback runs and option plays. When Smith was a Heisman-level passer a year later, the spread still saw the field, but it was a passing-biased offense that allowed the team's game-breakers on offense to get open quickly for Smith to find.
Last year, the Buckeyes went back to the drawing board with Boeckman, a quarterback who was much less mobile than the one he was replacing. With Wells proving capable of handling the load on the ground, the Buckeyes tailored their offense around their big back. The passing game was based on play-action and downfield throwing, two of Boeckman's strengths. The lack of "creativity," to me, was mostly based on the fact that the team had modified its offense based on the capabilities of its best player and its most important player.
Now that Pryor has taken over, yet another shift has taken place. Against Minnesota, the team alternated spread option principles with good old fashioned downhill running. The team already has used a variety of plays we've rarely if ever seen before.
To say the Buckeyes are conservative or predictable isn't going down the right path, at least to this observer. Tressel insisted after his team's loss to USC that predictability isn't a bad thing, especially if the Buckeyes could perfect the things they do to the point that execution and thus success were almost givens. Now, with better playmakers on the field, it appears that such an offense could be in the cards.
One final point I'd like to address is another contention I've seen repeatedly recently from frustrated fans who say that way Ohio State schemes, it has to have great players in order to have an effective offense. My response to that is to say, well, of course they do. How many offenses don't?
Look around the country at some people who have recently been hailed as offensive gurus. People love Rich Rodriguez, but his spread option offense isn't all that effective right now without good players. Down in the SEC, Dave Clawson and Tony Franklin were hired to install high-tech attacks at Tennessee and Auburn, respectively. Neither offense has great playmakers, and neither has excelled.
The good news for Buckeye fans right now is that Ohio State has the playmakers to make it work. Enjoy the ride.
Play of The Week: It took exactly four plays for Wells to show why his return was so welcome.
To most, Beanie's hurdle of Minnesota's Kyle Theret – who sure found himself involved in a lot of plays with a variety of success – was the lasting image of the contest, but I can't stop thinking about Wells' 28-yard run on Ohio State's fourth play from scrimmage. On that play, Wells showed the vision and skill that the other rushers in the Buckeye backfield simply don't have at this point in their careers.
The Buckeyes lined up in a single-back formation from their own 39 with Jake Ballard on a wing to the left and Rory Nicol to the outside of him. Pryor was under center with Brian Hartline split out wide to the left and Brian Robiskie to his right.
No matter who was running the football, the play was going to be a success because of the offensive line's play in blocking the Minnesota 4-3. After the snap, Michael Brewster fired out to the second level to block linebacker Deon Hightower. Left guard Jim Cordle stood up tackle Eric Small while Ballard cut inside to put a hat on middle linebacker Lee Campbell. On the edge, tackle Alex Boone's man sped upfield to take himself out of the play, while Nicol fired out and blocked strong-side linebacker Kevin Mannion.
Wells hit resulting hole on the left with speed and then showed both his vision and cutting ability. Safety Tramaine Brock raced into the play and dove at Wells upon reaching the 43, but the back cut left and was never touched by Brock, who instead flew into Nicol's leg. The tight end crashed to the ground in an unsightly manner with an ankle injury that ended his day.
Now, Wells was rolling. Hartline got enough of a block on Traye Simmons that Wells could go around the diving JUCO transfer at the OSU 49 and hit the open field. Hightower finally got off of his block and raced upfield to drag Wells down at the Minnesota 33 after a 28-yard gain.
On (To) Wisconsin: As I write this I'm watching the final 18 minutes of Wisconsin's epic collapse against Michigan. Rather than pile on to the heap of adjectives that have described how poorly Wisconsin played over the 13-minute stretch in which U-M scored 27 points, I'm struck by how the flaws that doomed the Badgers to a disappointing 9-3 season a year ago continue to haunt the Cardinal and White.
Those problems are especially acute on the defensive side of the ball, where I simply have to wonder where the Badgers hang their hat. The loss can be pinned on a number of acute defensive errors that Wisconsin fans had to fear coming into the season.
I'll start with the first touchdown scored by Michigan, a 26-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Kevin Koger on a third-down play up the seam. Last year, safety Aubrey Pleasant was replaced by Kim Royston on passing downs. This year, Pleasant – who looked less than competent while trying to tackle Chris Wells last year at times – has been given that chance, but he was burnt on this play. He was tasked with press coverage, but Koger – a true freshman! – went right by him at the line and was 5 yards behind him at a moment's notice. Quarterback Steven Threet noticed and hit Koger in stride to make the score 19-7.
Two drives later, Michigan moved the length of the field to make it a one-score game. On a first down from the Wisconsin 34, Threet ran a zone read option play with Brandon Minor that froze linebacker DeAndre Levy. Minor ran by Levy and into the secondary, where he went right at safety Shane Carter, who had seven interceptions last year but rarely impressed with his tackling. Minor cut right and blew by Carter with little resistance before going into the end zone untouched. 19-14.
The coup de grace was a 58-yard run by Threet, who might just be looking up at Boeckman when it comes to mobility from a signal caller. The option play certainly helped confuse the defense, but poor linebacking play out of Jonathan Casillas and Jaevery McFadden didn't help. Casillas overran the point of attack before taking a block, while McFadden simply came up empty on a diving attempt to tackle Threet, who then was off to the races. It took Casillas, who boasts speed among his best attributes, 40 yards to catch him, while Carter was making up no ground. An undersized linebacking group that saw the starter in the middle last year, Elijah Hodge, bumped down to third string in camp saw yet another chink in its armor.
People seem to know plenty about the Badger offense, but I'll point out what I think could be the turning point of this contest. Woes in the red zone concerned UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst during the preseason, and those have continued to a certain extent during the regular campaign, especially against Michigan.
On the year, Wisconsin has scored 13 touchdowns on 21 tries in the red zone while adding three field goals, numbers that place the Badgers 10th in the league in red zone efficiency. Against Michigan, the Badgers earned just 10 points on four red zone trips, and four first-half possessions that started inside U-M territory netted just two field goals.
If the Badgers have similar problems against Ohio State, they'll be facing a real uphill battle.
Around The Big Ten
Sifting through Purdue head coach Joe Tiller's press conference this week was a veritable gold mine.
Tiller has long been one of the more entertaining, down-home, dare I say folksy (after all, it is a political buzzword right now when used to describe Sarah Palin) head coaches in the league, willing to say whatever comes to mind just to make a point.
Unfortunately, his final season at Purdue doesn't look like it's going to be much of a success, as the Boilermakers sit at 2-2 after getting whipped at Notre Dame, and Penn State and Ohio State are next on the schedule.
Even more alarming might be his team's lack of fight. Tiller told reporters this week that he didn't sense much excitement out of his squad after giving his halftime speech during the Notre Dame contest even though the game was tied at 14.
"They were getting – you know, they were getting manhandled pretty good the first half," Tiller said of his players. "So I can see why maybe at halftime they weren't quite sure about how much, you know, more they had in them if they had to go on field and stay on the field. And, of course, that's exactly what happened to us.
"But it's like I told the team at half-time, I said, ‘Fellas, you couldn't be in a more enviable position. You are sitting here 14-all and could be up but you're not. Let's go out there and get up on them like we're capable of doing.' And I thought I'd get a great big, ‘Yeah!' But I got a, more like, ‘Okay.'
"So after watching the tape on Sunday, I understand a little bit better today than I did, you know, at that very moment."
Tiller also took on his beat media after it asked a number of questions about his team's lengthy list of injured players.
"I want to ask a question," he started. "Why do reporters want to know about injuries so much? I got to thinking about that. If I were a reporter, why would I want to know about an injury? Then I thought, well, I'd want to know about an injury so that my public could know. Then I got to thinking, why does my public want to know? They are intently interested so they can place their bet on the game. Otherwise, why would I report an injury? What value is there to that? Must be some, I don't know. I'm not in your shoes. I'm just talking out loud like the knucklehead I usually am."
In this case, Joe, I think you are a bit of a knucklehead. Isn't it conceivable that reporters want to know how injured players are doing so that they can tell the tens of thousands of die-hard fans who fill stadiums every week while giving money hand over fist to their favorite college's athletic department?
As for picks, last weekend this space nailed four out of five Big Ten predictions, only missing the Wisconsin/Michigan game. What can you do about a game like that except move on?
With Northwestern off, five league games are on the slate. Quick previews of each follow.
Illinois at Michigan: The Fighting Illini better win this one if they want to be looked at as one of the better teams in the league. The squad's defense has been atrocious, as Illinois sits last in the league in scoring defense and 10th in rushing and total defense. That shouldn't be a problem against Michigan's last-ranked offense. Give me the Illini.
Indiana at Minnesota: It's hard to find a quality win among these teams thus far. Indiana still boasts one of the better offenses in the league and one of the lesser defenses. Still, I think their defense can do enough to limit Minnesota. If Indiana can hold on to the ball, they should grab the win.
Iowa at Michigan State: These are two very similar teams offensively at the moment. Both boast running backs that carry them in Hawkeye Shonn Greene and Spartan Javon Ringer. The latter is better, and MSU will want home-field revenge for an overtime loss in Iowa City last year. Expect a Sparty party.
Penn State at Purdue: I just don't see how this one is a fair fight. Penn State hast he best rushing offense and defense in the league, while Purdue is last in each category. I don't think I have to say much more than that.
Ohio State at Wisconsin: I'm sticking to my theory that both teams will be able to move the ball to a certain extent, but the performance of each squad in the red zone will be the difference. Ohio State should be able to use Pryor and Wells to score when necessary, but I'm not sure Wisconsin can do the same. I'm taking the Buckeyes by a 28-20 score.