Cus Words 11/11: Basketball On Grass?

The first college basketball games of the new season are tipping off this week, but BSB staffer Marcus Hartman gets the feeling he has been watching a fast-break style on the football field throughout the fall - for better or for worse.

What we learned last week: Ohio State has the football equivalent of a basketball offense that is only effective in the open floor.

I doubt that's the intention, but that is what Jim Tressel is getting nowadays.

"Offensively I'm not sure we were as consistent as we'd like to be, but we made more plays than perhaps we've made in the past few outings."

That was how the Buckeyes' head coach characterized the win over Northwestern, and I could not agree more. He delivered that message, part of his opening statement before taking questions, with what sounded like a twinge of disappointment before he got cheerier as the press conference went on.

Making plays is great, to be sure, but would you rather have something to hang your hat on? Something to call on third-and-2 (or less) that will work nearly every time?

Tressel, I'm betting, would answer yes, and I am inclined to agree.

Obviously, in a perfect world you have both (like the 2006 offense), but life is rarely without blemishes. Lots of basketball teams can run and plenty have great, disciplined half-court attacks, but how many have both?

Ohio State has shown over the last month or so that its magic bullet is the big play from Chris Wells or Terrelle Pryor (sometimes with help from his receivers). Take that away and the Buckeyes won't put many points on the board.

Who cares if you can't execute if every 10 plays you break loose for 40 yards? Well, that's why keeping the Buckeyes to small gains is more crucial than it is against the average offense. Thus far, they have shown they have a lot of trouble putting together consistent drives.

Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with constructing an offense this way, but I don't believe the product Buckeye fans are seeing on the field is intentional.

I think that is what Rich Rodriguez wants to do at Michigan, what Urban Meyer wants to do at Florida. Put as simply as possible, those coaches don't care what they do play to play, they just want to put their best players in position to run as far as they can as often as possible. That's probably not going to work the majority of the time, but it doesn't have to because the times it does should yield enough points to win. I think getting enough yards to move the chains is just a byproduct.

Whatever you think about it, that's one way to go about things.

Tressel approaches offensive football from a different angle, though. He wants to have a running game that sets up the pass. Give him the four yards he needs every play first and foremost and then if something big happens, all the better.

That big play could be a long run by the tailback, a play-action pass made more effective by the success of the running game or even a scramble by the quarterback when the defense does not leave anyone to watch him.

Say what you will about that strategy, but it is a time-proven one, and teams obviously are not content to let the Buckeyes have it their way or they would not be flooding the box with defenders.

Initially, Ohio State is succeeding at dictating to the defense what it should do. The problem has come in just how and when the Buckeyes respond. I'm not sure they have a firm handle on how to mix things up, even when they want to.

Creativity can be helpful but it can also be overrated, at least in comparison to execution of assignments and carrying out dirty work, but it is just that execution and dirty work that are necessary to craft that half-court offense.


WHAT WE CAN EXPECT TO LEARN THIS WEEK: Have the Buckeyes learned how to slow down dual-threat quarterbacks?

This is a loaded question.

By its very nature, the run-pass quarterback is difficult to hold in check. It's simple math, really.

Since the single-wing went by the wayside in the 1940s and '50s, defenses have been designed to win battles of 11 on 10. Reintroducing the quarterback as a weapon in the running game almost had to work when you get right down to it. That's why good, old-fashioned triple-option attacks still work even at the elite high school level.

Now, switch that to a scrambling quarterback, when the defense is geared to stop something else (a pass play) and the weapon becomes even more dangerous. For a reminder of this, look back through the years at former Buckeyes like Stanley Jackson and Steve Bellisari. Although neither was a great passer, both had plenty of days they got the better of opposing defenses one way or another.

Troy Smith was effective even before he became a Heisman-Trophy-winning precision passer as a senior in 2006, whether he was breaking out of the pocket on a pass play or just running around end on a quarterback (or single-wing) sweep.

Now enter Juice Williams, the starting quarterback for Illinois.

When he threw four touchdown passes to lead the Fighting Illini to an upset victory at Ohio Stadium, it came as a shock. For all his athleticism and despite being a four-star recruit out of Chicago, Williams had never shown the ability to throw so effectively.

Since then, though, his arm has become a bona fide weapon.

Sure, Juice can still run (577 yards through 10 games), but why should he? He is averaging 276.9 passing yards per game and has 20 passing touchdowns.

But don't forget that last year Williams' feet hurt the Buckeyes more often than did his arm. Yes, he threw for those four touchdowns, but he also ran for 70 yards. Williams completed 12 passes but he ran 15 times (not counting one sack), and when he wasn't running he was also enhancing the threat of running back Rashard Mendenhall with the zone read.

Now it is Williams and the Fighting Illini who stand between the Buckeyes and the chance to play for another Big Ten championship against Michigan to close out the regular season.

The stat sheet shows what Williams has learned plenty in one year's time. What about the Buckeyes?


All-Buckeye Beater Nominations: Sure, he only led his team to 10 points, but how can Mike Kafka be left off after that gutsy performance? He ran an eye-popping 29 times and finished with 83 yards, a total that would have been much higher if not for the four sacks he absorbed.

Although passing is not his strong suit, Kafka also managed to complete 18 of 27 passes for 177 yards with an interception. Early it seemed as if the Northwestern offensive line might produce a nominee or two, but the Buckeye defensive line consistently got the better of it after a slippery start.

On the other side of the ball, nobody in the Northwestern secondary had a good day as the Buckeyes tormented them downfield and in the end zone, but the Wildcats held their own up front for much of the day. Particularly standing out were linemen Corey Wooten, who had a sack, Kevin Mims and John Gill. Props also go to Northwestern linebacker Nate Williams, who had a game-high 12 tackles.


DVR Directions: This one is easy. As Motorhead sang, "It's all about The Game," and you will need DVR to get a good look at Ohio State's next opponent, Michigan, because the Wolverines and Buckeyes are playing simultaneously at noon Saturday. While Ohio State tangles with Illinois on ESPN, Michigan entertains visiting Northwestern on ESPN2.


Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll (previous week's ranking in parenthesis)

1 – tie (1) Penn State 1 – tie (2) Ohio State 3. (same) Michigan State 4. (6) Iowa

(Do I have to rank anyone else? OK, here's my best shot...)

5. (4) Minnesota
6. (5) Illinois
7. (7) Northwestern
8. (same) Wisconsin
9. (same) Michigan
10. (11) Purdue
11. (10) Indiana

Marcus Hartman is a staff writer for BuckeyeSports.com and Buckeye Sports Bulletin. He can be reached for comment, cursing or questions via email at mhartman@buckeyesports.com.

For more from Marcus, read his blog at this link.


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