After being asked what one thing he knew the Ohio State offense could hang its hat on as the 2009 season got underway, the senior right tackle squinted into the sunlight and cited the run game as being the backbone for the offense. Given the team's storied history of running backs and the mind set of head coach Jim Tressel, it seemed like a sensible answer. After all, the 2008 Buckeyes were just the second team during Tressel's tenure to gain more yards rushing than passing, joining the 2002 squad.
Following the team's Sept. 12 loss to USC in which the Buckeyes averaged 2.9 yards per carry, the team is now faced with the question of whether or not the power running game it as relied on so heavily in recent years is capable of carrying this offensive attack.
Two games into the year, OSU is averaging 3.5 yards per carry – more than a full yard less than last year, when it averaged 4.6 per rush. Leading rusher Dan Herron has picked up 116 yards on 35 carries – a 3.3 yards-per-carry average. Since Tressel arrived in Columbus, the lowest rushing average to lead the Buckeyes for a season came courtesy of Lydell Ross in 2004 – an average of 4.1 yards per carry.
With a neutral-site contest against Toledo on the schedule for this weekend, Herron reiterated his belief that the running attack will remain the focal point of OSU's offense.
"Ohio State is known for running the ball," he said. "It helps the offense out by running the ball and then being able to open it up and pass it and then go back to running it. I could say it is the backbone of the offense."
The coaches did not select an offensive player or an offensive lineman of the week following the loss to the Trojans with Tressel citing a lack of consistent play across the board as the reason for the decision. Looking back, Herron said there were plenty of mistakes on the film that need correcting.
Asked why the Buckeyes were not able to consistently open up running lanes against USC, junior right guard Bryant Browning said, "Different things happening, guys maybe missing an assignment or missing a cut or things like that."
He reaffirmed his confidence in the line's ability to do its job.
"We know what we can do," he said. "We know as an offensive line that we can move people."
The problem right now is that they aren't – or at least they aren't consistently, a point touched on by offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman before the game against the Trojans.
If the running game isn't working, the onus might be on sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor – or whoever is under center.
"Even when you have Beanie Wells and they're loading up the box, Todd Boeckman had to be a good deep thrower and you had to do this or that because if you only have one phase, you're in trouble," Tressel said.
Quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano said he felt that Pryor could become the face of the offense, but added that he has a number of inexperienced skill players who will accompany him in that role.
Asked what the offense knows it can do effectively right now, Siciliano said, "After two games, I would say that we're still working through that. That's just an honest opinion."
When Pryor picked OSU out of high school, he did so because he wanted to go to a school that would help develop him into a complete quarterback. As he attempts to become a more well-rounded athlete, the Buckeyes are also trying to win games.
Siciliano said the two goals are not at odds with each other.
"As long as you're working each day in and out you're going to get to your expectations and your goals," the coach said. "It's not about how we're doing. It's about the hard work you put in while you're doing what you're doing."
Hard work or not, it is a fact that the offense has struggled for large portions of the first two games of the season. After watching the USC film, junior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher echoed what Bollman said prior to the game.
"I think as far as last Saturday goes, it comes down to execution and just not getting things done that we needed to," he said. Sanzenbacher added that he feels the team does not have a bread-and-butter attack to lean on but said that is common this early in the season.
During his Tuesday press conference, Tressel reiterated his belief in an offensive system that relies on controlling the clock and using the run game and field possession to defeat opponents. The question now is how to get it – Pryor, the running game, everything – going.
"You always want your guys to be ready to go and to play like fifth-year seniors," Siciliano said. Unfortunately we're not there yet at a lot of positions."