Cus Words: Papa's Got a Brand New Bag

With James Brown in mind, BSB staffer Marcus Hartman examines the alterations to the Ohio State offense that were on display as the Buckeyes pummeled Illinois while wondering what will be the next step with an improved Indiana squad on the horizon.

What we learned this week: Jim Tressel is not as stubborn as many probably believed.

Against Illinois, the Buckeyes unveiled a few different plays from a three-receiver, one-back set that took advantage of a spread out defense to run up the middle with great success, a move Tressel seemed reluctant to make previously.

One of the wrinkles introduced was the use of Jake Ballard, normally a tight end, as an H-back or wingback who blocked down in the hole as a lead blocker at times.

With pretty much the whole offense still in a developmental stage - Ballard and No. 4 receiver Ray Small are the only seniors who play significant minutes while offensive lineman Jim Cordle is on the mend - this looks like a wise move based on personnel, although there is no guarantee it is any sort of longterm magic pill.

The head coach and his staff must prove they will be more flexible in games with this type of philosophy than they were with their old one for this to be a truly significant move. Many people are hailing the wonderful new options (like the read-option) this offense provides, but there are no more methods in this style for keeping a defense honest than there were with the old style, whether you'd know it by watching Ohio State or not. If you don't believe me, flip on Miami, Penn State, USC or, well, pretty much any NFL game.

The Buckeyes showed those alternatives to running straight up the middle out of the "I" in practice and against Navy but forgot them a week later against USC. If they had not, I believe they would never have reached this point, and they were just a missed block here, a bad route there or an off-target throw away from winning that game anyway.

This detour from what they were trying to do as an offense is a wise one based on the personnel and its current state of development, but I don't believe to any extent that it will lead to an offense that at the end of the day is better than what they were trying to build would have been.

There are two pieces of good news on that front, however.

First, they don't have to stop trying to develop a diverse offense that can excel both in tight and wide spaces, in the shotgun or the ‘I'. It's just that now as they work toward being able to do everything, they are trying the former instead of the latter as a base.

In the first three games, they already had shotgun run plays but they used the I-formation runs more. Now the table is turned. I don't think chucking the 'I' for good would be wise, but there is no ignoring second point of good news: This is the best way this offense can move the ball right now as long as it doesn't have at least two of the following three things: road-grading offensive line, snot-knocking fullback, tackle-breaking tailback.

Much is made of teams' tendency to load the box against Ohio State's I-formation, but that's not necessarily the end of the world. Sometimes challenging teams to meet you in the middle is more likely to result in a big play than dinking and dunking them when they are stretched out. It doesn't matter if the defense outnumbers you if you can overcome those numbers with a play by a Beanie Wells or an Eddie George or a Maurice Clarett, or even a Troy Smith or Terrelle Pryor, for that matter. And when they make a play in the middle of the chaos at the line of scrimmage (or on a bootleg run or throw), it's often over because everyone in the box means there is no one left once you reach the next level.

Although this is easy to forget with the way the Ohio State offense is sometimes drawn up, it's possible to be an I-formation team without the defense loading the box if you give them reasons not to. You can throw over the top with that type of offense or run around it if you try. And you can run up the middle without a stud tailback if the blockers (offensive line and fullback included) are special enough, as we learned with folks like Pepe Pearson and Michael Wiley in the hay days of the eight-in-the-box press defenses of the 1990s, but this offensive line and set of fullbacks is not at that level yet.


What we can expect to learn this week: What kind of counters do the Buckeyes have off this newfangled look? They threw a few passes out of it Saturday and there are doubtless many options, such as a simple little play action roll that calls for the quarterback to flip the ball to the H-back much like he would the fullback or tight end in a play they never ran enough out of the 'I' (We saw this in the third quarter when Pryor threw wide of Dane Sanzenbacher on a rollout to his left on their first drive. He had Sanzenbacher open deep and Ballard short, or he could have run.).

After the game, I asked Pryor if they ran so much against Illinois because of the weather or because of the simple fact the running game was working too well to go away from it, and he seemed to indicate it was both. He said they had intended to throw the ball a bunch, but he was fine with how things played out.

That makes sense to me, but beginning with Indiana this week, Tressel and staff need to show they are going to be more flexible in this new set than they were in the old ones, or they won't be much better off at the end of the day.

You might say there is no reason to assume they won't use the various offshoots of the base things they showed against Illinois, except I would say the same thing was true after they practiced counters and bootlegs in the offseason and used them against Navy but then forgot about them against USC.


All-Buckeye Beater Nominees
Illinois players have probably populated more of the first three All-Buckeye Beater teams than any other Big Ten team thanks to their history of strong performances against Ohio State, but this year that will not be the case. Upon rewatching the game on film, I observed so many mistakes from the guys in white that I am not really moved to include anyone from the game on my list. We'll see if Indiana can do better.


DVR Directions
At noon, Ohio State fans have the option of watching the battle of Michigan to see if Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio can figure out how to right the ship for the Spartans and take advantage of anything Indiana might have exposed about moving the ball and stopping Rich Rodriguez's Wolverines (on the Big Ten Network), but I would recommend ESPN for Wisconsin at Minnesota. The Badgers are up next for the Buckeyes, with the Golden Gophers to follow two weeks later, so maybe DVR that one so you can go back and watch again later. That frees you to bounce back and forth Saturday as things are happening.


Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll (Previous week ranking)

1. (2) Ohio State
2. (3) Iowa
3. (4) Wisconsin
4. (1) Penn State
5. (same) Michigan
6. (8) Minnesota
7. (10) Indiana
8. (6) Michigan State
9. (7) Illinois
10. (9) Northwestern
11. (same) Purdue

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[at]buckeyesports[dot]com

For more from this author, read his blog about Ohio State football and whatever else crosses his mind .


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