And while I'm more than willing to agree with that stance, I also believe that the old coaches' truism has been proven correct again – it wasn't as bad on the tape as it looked like.
But before I go into what I think went right and what went wrong, here are a few things to keep in mind before you think this was a classic performance from the Jim Tressel collection, vintage 2003. At least the Buckeyes scored an offensive touchdown this year, unlike a trio of wins in that season six years ago.
After the game against Wisconsin, Tressel said the Buckeyes had 32 gradeable plays, which is right around half the average the team had in the first five games of the season. (I presume Tressel did not count the final six of the team's 40 offensive plays as OSU went three-and-out twice while sitting on a three-score lead in the fourth quarter, a fair decision in my mind).
While Ohio State ended up with only 184 yards of total offense, that number would jump quite a bit without those three return scores for touchdowns based on how the Buckeye offense had moved the ball up to that point. OSU averaged 4.6 yards per play, about a yard below its average going in but still better than a Wisconsin team that checked in at 4.1.
There's little doubting Wisconsin gave the Buckeyes a different look than both OSU was expecting based on UW film, a scheme that was much different than either Illinois and Indiana had shown in the first two games after the offensive staff decided to go to the shotgun for more than 90 percent of the team's plays.
Early on, Ohio State obviously struggled. During the first five drives, the Buckeyes got a total of one first down and 31 yards while throwing an interception. Some have argued that OSU should have adjusted quickly after UW threw the changeup at the offense, but it's clear something did change when OSU totaled 148 yards and 10 points on its next two drives, the last two before Tressel killed the game with the Buckeyes handily ahead.
So what went wrong in the first few drives, and what changed as the game went on? Well, here's a few examples from each.
What Went Wrong
**Blocking. A number of plays were done in by the Buckeyes losing battles at the line of scrimmage. Sure, it's not easy to break off big runs against eight men in the box, but at the same time, you at least have a chance to gain yardage if players block who they are supposed to block. This didn't always happen on Saturday.
For example, on the second drive, on a second-down play, J.B. Shugarts had trouble with Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield, a big, quick end who was a thorn in the Buckeyes' side all day. Schofield slipped by Shugarts to string out a run by Brandon Saine, while linebacker Mike Taylor circled from the inside to clean up the play.
However, there were also some plays where the Buckeye line held its own and did a pretty good job of blocking. On a number of plays, there was time to throw the ball, and OSU's ground game was able to eke out some positive yards without big gains in the early going. The problem was that most positive treks were canceled out by negative plays, keeping the Buckeyes from getting momentum.
**Terrelle Pryor's Throwing. Pryor was 1 for his first 7 throwing the ball, and some of the throws simply weren't on target. For example, he had good pass protection with Dane Sanzenbacher open on the first play of the game, but the ball was delivered low. An out pattern to DeVier Posey on the second drive was open for some yardage but the ball was again off the mark. A slant on the third drive for Posey on third down was too high, making it hard for the wideout to come down with a ball he eventually dropped. (On some other plays, Pryor simply did not have anyone open).
Pryor has shown a willingness to work on his faults, including poor footwork that has made many of his throws sail or fall short of the intended target. This is an ongoing process that will take some time, but credit goes to No. 2 for studying his faults and getting better.
**Play-Calling. This can't go unnoticed. While it wasn't as bad as maybe it seemed at first – Ohio State threw passes on three of the five plays that led off drives, so it wasn't about ramming their head into the wall by running repeatedly into stacked fronts – there were at least a few curious play calls with the Buckeyes running pass routes short of the first down on third down.
Tressel in particular said the interception play was a bad call, especially against the coverage Wisconsin ended up using. On that play, two wideouts on the right ran curls well short of the first down, and that compact route led to traffic and Culmer St. John's interception.
Ohio State did come up with a running play I hadn't yet seen before, a running play in which Justin Boren blocked out to the left and Mike Adams pulled around from his left tackle spot to lead the running back into the hole. That play netted Boom Herron 4 yards on the first time he carried the ball on the day.
What Later Went Right
**Big Plays. Both in the passing game and on the ground, thanks to Pryor for the most part. In particular, his 27-yard run that kick-started OSU's late first-half touchdown drive was probably the play of the game. End J.J. Watt was supposed to keep contain on the right but did not, allowing Pryor to double back on an option play and find plenty of open field.
**Pryor's Throwing. He was much more on the mark over the two drives that netted points. The touchdown pass to DeVier Posey was delivered under duress and was right on the money; it was the kind of throw you see from Pryor a few times per game that really makes you say he has the tools to be a great quarterback.
But some other throws also should be mentioned. His deep square in to Posey to set up the TD pass was a great read and put right where the wideout could keep running and maximize his gain. Another out to Sanzenbacher after the halftime break turned into a 17-yard big play thanks to a good read and a ball delivered to give the wideout space.
**Play-Calling. OSU fans complaining about the lack of adjustments to what Wisconsin was doing on defense should perhaps settle down after some nice calls as the game went on.
Some have wanted more deep passing to offset the fact that Wisconsin loaded the box; how about the deep ball to Posey for the touchdown that took advantage of man coverage on the edges?
And then there was one fantastically designed running play early in the fourth quarter that really showed brilliance. Pryor and Saine started right out of the shotgun as though they were going to run the speed option, and Wisconsin's linebackers and safeties all followed. Saine then quickly cut back to the left, took a handoff from Pryor and zoomed toward the left end. There, Adams and Justin Boren were sealing the outside with help from a pulling Ballard, allowing Saine to get the corner and gain 31 yards. All day Wisconsin had men in the box to take away OSU's running game; this play took advantage of that fact and those players' aggressiveness to net the Buckeyes a big gain.
The moral of the story: Execution continues to be the difference between a good offense and a struggling one. The coaches have to execute by calling good plays, then the players have to make the right moves on the field.
**The defense continues to earn plaudits, and a few players stood out as I watched much of the first three quarters for Wisconsin. Todd Denlinger did a bang-up job in replacing Dexter Larimore, pushing into the Badger backfield early and often in an effort to throw off the UW plays before they could get started. Ross Homan deserved his 15 tackles, getting off blocks a number of times to make big stops. His nine solo tackles showed just how well he played on the day.
**Those wanting an illegal block in the back call on Wisconsin tight end Garrett Graham as he blocked Jermale Hines on the Badgers' fake field-goal touchdown appeared to be off base to me. Graham engaged Hines before the safety turned his back to him in an effort to chase down the play. Now, maybe a holding penalty was in order, but I'm not buying the block in the back wishes.
**One blitz the Buckeyes drew up to get a sack on Scott Tolzien in particular caught my eye both live and on tape as a fantastic play call. On a third-and-6 early in the second quarter, OSU showed blitz from the right side of the defense with Brian Rolle. Then at the snap, Rolle and Thaddeus Gibson dropped on the right into coverage while the remaining three members of the line slanted that way. UW's entire offensive line went with them, freeing up the left side for Homan and Chimdi Chekwa to race into the backfield untouched. Tolzien had a hot read but the unblocked pressure was too fast, forcing him to take the sack that was credited to Homan. Credit Jim Heacock for dialing up a creative and extremely effective blitz.