He might have found that play Saturday afternoon.
While the Buckeyes were in the middle of blanking Illinois 30-0, they found a play that worked more often than not. On a rainy day that made the mere idea of passing the football treacherous, Ohio State ran the ball down Illinois' throats with an inside zone running play that the Fighting Illini simply couldn't stop.
Up to this point, Ohio State hadn't run the play all year, but it could become a standard
"When you're gaining 5, 6, 7, 10 yards a carry each time, we're going to keep on running it until it doesn't work," left guard Justin Boren said. "It definitely builds your confidence."
Though the Buckeyes ran successfully for most of the day no matter what the call, piling up 236 yards on the ground and 5.1 yards per carry, the inside zone play seemed to be used the most – and to the greatest success.
Quarterback Terrelle Pryor operated out of the shotgun with either Dan Herron or Brandon Saine to his side. Tight end Jake Ballard lined up as an H-back, then would kick across the formation looking for a block. The offensive line would zone block the play side and the back would search for a hole.
Ohio State debuted the play on its first play of the second possession of the game. Ballard came across the formation to the left, sealing off what turned into a 14-yard run for Herron. That got the ball to the Illinois' 32 and set up an Aaron Pettrey field goal that made the score 3-0.
When the Buckeyes got the ball back on their own 8, Saine was the recipient of the play call on first down and broke off 19 yards. The junior from Piqua, Ohio, rushed eight times for 64 yards on that drive, often running the inside zone, to get the Buckeyes into field-goal range as OSU took a 6-0 lead.
"That was a great play for us," Saine said. "This is the first week we ran it and I think we really executed it well. Jake was cracking people. It was nice."
As the day went on, it started to become clear that the Illinois defense, which kept two safeties high, didn't have much of an answer, so the Buckeyes kept going to the well. Junior right guard Bryant Browning wasn't sure how many times OSU ran the play – he said, simply, "a lot" – but he wasn't surprised it worked so well.
"We worked a lot this week on that play," Browning said. "We thought if we executed it would work well, and once you run it a couple of times and get positive yards, you just keep calling it. I feel it worked well for our offense, so we just kept running it."
As far as Illinois head coach Ron Zook was concerned, the answer was that OSU probably ran it too many times.
"They were doing some nice things on that, I think it was the third or fourth series there with the tight end that was something they haven't done," Zook said. "We had to make a couple of adjustments there."
The play is also versatile in that some adjustments can be made off of the base play. Ohio State started the second half in the same formation but faked the handoff, leaving all three Illinois linebackers in a lurch as Pryor tried to find Dane Sanzenbacher, though the pass to the open wideout fell incomplete. There are other alternations such as a zone read option run, where Pryor can keep the ball, and other slightly edited passing and running plays.
Even though Ohio State ran 46 times against 13 passes, the Buckeyes eschewed the I-formation – which they had run often through the first three games – for the shotgun, running no plays under center in the first half and just a handful in the game.
That appears to have been the result of some self-scouting by Ohio State in the week leading up to the Illinois game.
"As we studied ourselves after three games, we felt as we looked at the efficiency of some of those things that they were very good, that our running backs did them well, our linemen blocked them well and that those were things that we could build upon and so, yeah, that was – whether it was raining or snowing or sunshine, that was a conscious thing for us to be running what we did," Tressel said.
That suits the Buckeye running backs and linemen just fine.
"I think we're starting to hit it on the head with what we can do with our personnel," center Michael Brewster said before turning back to the inside zone play. "I think that (the coaches) liked the look of that because they have to play Terrelle on the keep and then they have to play the run so it's hard. They're kind of like, ‘Who do we take?' Or he can pull up and throw. I like it, and I really trust the coaches."