With nine returning starters on a unit that was one of the most prolific in school history, the biggest question concerning the Buckeyes was how the coaches were going to take advantage of the biggest offensive arsenal this side of the Cold War. But instead, with three games left in the 2008 season, the OSU coaches instead find themselves facing a few harsh realities.
In one third of the team's games this season, the Buckeyes have not scored an offensive touchdown. Within the Big Ten, OSU is second to last in total offense with an average of 318.3 yards per game. Last year, the Buckeyes averaged 393.7 yards per game en route to a berth in the national championship game.
The problems have been both on the ground and through the air, where OSU is sixth and tenth, respectively, within the conference. Last year the Buckeyes were fourth and ninth at the end of the season, but their averages this year are nearly 30 yards per game below last year's rushing totals and nearly 50 yards per game below last year's totals through the air.
Solving the problem has not been easy. Asked about using his thumb to metaphorically plug a hole in the team's offense, head coach Jim Tressel said he would need 10 thumbs to patch all the leaks.
According to senior wide receiver and captain Brian Robiskie, the problems have not been the same from week to week but that they all have a common cause.
"It all comes down to execution," he said. "We've been able to move the ball at times and lots of times we get into the red zone and we'll have to settle for field goals. I think it all comes back to being consistent with our execution."
Solving the problem is more difficult than it appears on first glance. Senior tight end Rory Nicol said striving for such improvement is an almost unreachable goal.
"If you have 11 guys that do their job on every play, you'd have the best team to ever play this game," he said. "It's simple, really. If I'm supposed to block this guy and I do and 10 other guys do it, we're going to win and we're going to win by 150 million points. It's just not that easy."
During the open week, Tressel said he and the coaches went back and examined the overall body of work put forth by the team's offense throughout the first part of the season. No easy fixes were found, and Tressel said there was no magical cure for the problems plaguing the offense.
It seems all the Buckeyes can do to improve is to simply go to work.
"Everybody has to do their jobs," Robiskie said. "That's been giving us some problems whether it be the line or the quarterbacks or whoever it may be. When you don't have 11 guys doing their jobs that's when you have negative plays."
The thing that really drives some players nuts is the fact that, in practice, the Buckeyes apparently look like an entirely different team than the one that suits up and takes the field on Saturdays.
"That's the hardest thing for me," Nicol said. "I watch practice every day and I see brilliant plays, guys doing what they're supposed to do and on Saturday it doesn't happen. We're so close."
Aside from a lack of consistency, the Buckeyes have been hampered by a few other factors throughout the season. Senior quarterback Todd Boeckman gave way to freshman Terrelle Pryor in the starting lineup, and injuries to tailback Chris Wells and a few players on the offensive line have conspired to hold the ground game back.
During the open week, Robiskie and Nicol both said the Buckeyes have gone back to fundamentals a bit and refocused their efforts on making sure the players understand the basic concepts they are trying to accomplish.
As the players have tried to learn what they do well, it appears the team's coaches are struggling with the same question.
"I don't know if there's a specific thing," OSU tight ends coach John Peterson said. "We're always going to have the ability to run a few base plays, whether it's the off-tackle play or the isolation play or lead zone plays or things that we've been running for years."
The problem has been that opposing defenses have accused the Buckeyes of being too predictable at times this season, a fact that has enabled them to anticipate what the offense will do next. But Tressel's counter to that point all along was echoed by both Robiskie and Nicol; the Buckeyes have to simply execute their tasks regardless of what teams are trying to do to them.
That requires all 11 players to be firing at the same time. Whether or not the Buckeyes will find that level of play yet this season remains to be seen.
"When you're on the field and things aren't going as you planned, a part of you wants to step up and do something extraordinary but at the same time that's not what we need," Robiskie said. "Everybody knows that they have a role in this offense. I think that if all 11 guys do their jobs, then we're going to be alright."