When Ohio State hired Jim Tressel as head coach in 2001, it got a man who prizes the value of special teams play, a strong defense and an efficient – if occasionally boring – offense. It was this strategy that helped propel the 2002 Buckeyes to the national championship and then kept them in the title hunt a year later.
OSU entered the 2008 season with returning first-team all-Big Ten players in Todd Boeckman, Chris "Beanie" Wells and Alex Boone on offense as well as honorable mention recipient Brian Robiskie and freshman sensation Terrelle Pryor. The expectation was that this would be a team that would light up scoreboards en route to a shot at another national title.
But Tresselball is back in style at OSU, even if a number of the team's younger players are completely unfamiliar with the term. During the team's 16-3 victory against Purdue, the Buckeyes found themselves using the tried-and-true method established years ago to pull out the victory.
For the game, the Boilermakers outgained the Buckeyes by a 298-222 margin. OSU's lone touchdown came via special teams on a blocked punt, and Purdue started each drive with an average field position of its own 19-yard line. Comparatively, OSU's average starting field position was its own 35-yard line.
Sounds like classic Tresselball.
"We had a big play on the punt block and then (punter A.J.) Trapasso downed a bunch of punts inside the 20 and that really helps the defense out with field position," junior defensive tackle Todd Denlinger said. "The offense really didn't have to do much. They struggled today, but that's fine."
The play that set the tone for the game came on OSU's second possession of the game when senior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins rushed around the left side of the Purdue offensive line and blocked the team's first punt of the afternoon. His momentum carried Jenkins toward the end zone and it was freshman Etienne Sabino – who said he had not heard the phrase "Tresselball" before – who was in place to scoop up the ball and rumble into the end zone for his first collegiate touchdown.
"Coach Tressel, he makes it a point for us to know special teams are a very important part of the game," Sabino said. "He stresses special teams and he stresses field position and no turnovers. In a game like today, you could really tell how important it is."
It would prove to be the only one the Buckeyes would score for the rest of the day, and although the Boilermakers had success moving the ball at times, the home team held the upper hand in the battle for field position. For that, OSU had Trapasso to thank.
The senior had a net average of 35.2 yards on his six punts, but three of them were downed inside the 20-yard line. Twice, he punted from his team's side of the 50-yard line.
Although the offense did not commit a turnover – another staple of the game plan – the special teams did leave points on the board when kicker Ryan Pretorius missed a 38-yard field goal during the second quarter.
The struggling offense helped to give the Boilermakers an advantage on the offensive stat sheet. Purdue outgained OSU thanks in part to the fact that it had 21 more plays on offense.
This was not how the 2008 offense was expected to look headed into the back stretch of the season. Injuries to several key players on the offensive line, in the backfield and out wide have helped to prevent the unit from really coming together. Factor in a quarterback change in the fourth week of the season, and the full picture emerges.
It's not exactly Tresselball by design.
"I think as we watch the video this week, we'll feel as if we're a long ways away because we just didn't do things consistently and didn't come up with plays and didn't come up with explosive gains and those types of things," Tressel said. "We had a couple deep ones open and didn't quite get them."
In other words, don't look for the team's performance against Purdue to be replicated as the season goes on. At least, that's the hope.
"Offensively we didn't get near as much done as we're going to need to get done," Tressel said, "but we didn't turn it over, and that's critical in a Big Ten battle and we all know we've got a lot of work to do."