SvoNotes: Watching Football, Oct. 17

The Ohio State offense has been in the crosshairs of discussion across more than just the Buckeye Nation since the loss to Purdue. OSU's struggles have spurred national talk, but how good are the common suggestions? SvoNotes takes a look at what went wrong in the Purdue game and what might help the Buckeyes stop making headlines for the wrong reasons.

The outcry from Ohio State fans about the offensive performance in the Buckeyes' 26-18 loss at Purdue was swift and immediate.

But that was not all. The past two days, rife with national media outlets taking swipes at the play of Terrelle Pryor and the way the OSU coaching staff uses its prized quarterback, have left the program under attack from all angles in a way rarely seen in-season during Jim Tressel's tenure.

Those criticisms – first in the form of ESPN.com's story by Joe Schad in which Pryor's high school coach expressed concern at the way his former pupil is being used, followed by SI.com's Stewart Mandel's opinion piece in which he took OSU's offensive braintrust to task – have been widely read not only by Buckeye supporters but by college football observers and fans from across the country. The picture painted at Ohio State by the pieces is one of dysfunction and frustration.

Those are two words I wouldn't use to describe the actual mood around the team, as much as us reporters have been able to see. Sure, there was some frustration on the field as the Buckeyes lost to Purdue – most notably's Pryor's displeasure with Duron Carter after a third-quarter interception – and DeVier Posey's misspoken "He couldn't be much worse" line Tuesday, but to say dissent has been rife among the ranks would be stretching it.

I'd also argue with the line of reasoning that says Pryor needs to be used as a runner more, especially as part of some zone-read package. First of all, Pryor is already used as a runner quite a bit – he leads the team in carries and had 21 totes vs. Purdue, though some of those were sacks and scrambles – and is given the chance to occasionally run the zone read, often to mixed results.

Secondly, saying he needs to run the zone read is an oversimplification for a variety of reasons. Defenses have a much better handle on how to stop the play than they did when Vince Young was around – watch Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield, in particular, play both Pryor and Brandon Saine a few times Oct. 10 – and there are plenty of other ways in which Pryor can and does run the ball (speed options, rollouts, draws and other keepers).

I fully applaud the OSU coaches' decision to not have him run an exorbitant amount of times per game, both from an effectiveness and a philosophy standpoint. Preventing him from absorbing a ton of hits per game keeps him healthy during a long season, and there's not a ton of evidence the attack would be much better with him simply running on every play. Also, he came to Ohio State to learn how to throw the football, and giving up on that option when he shows signs of growth as a passer would be foolish.

My final point in addressing the pieces by Mandel and Schad would be that Pryor is not the sole – or perhaps even the root – cause of the Buckeyes' offensive struggles. Certainly, he can play better and is making mistakes, but he's far from the only one on the team having issues.

With that out of the way, there were a number of things that went disastrously wrong during the Buckeyes' loss to Purdue – and a fair amount of encouraging signs, as well.

There are three major components that I'd say have gone into Ohio State's issues moving the football over the past two games – there's Pryor's play, the effectiveness of the offensive line and the play-calling itself. I'll take a look at what I saw from each against Purdue next.

OFFENSIVE LINE
I'll start here because I think this was the unit – including tight end Jake Ballard – that threw off more of what the Buckeyes were trying to do than any other. Injuries and illness coupled with a lack of depth have really put a strain on this unit, and it showed against the Boilers.

The issues were highlighted on the second play of the game when Ballard was beaten one-on-one by defensive end Ryan Kerrigan. Pryor faked a handoff left and rolled right, but Kerrigan beat Ballard easily and was in Pryor's face from nearly the moment he turned. The quarterback was able to bring the ball down, but Kerrigan ferociously stripped it away, giving the Boilermakers great field position that turned into an early 3-0 lead.

That theme – Pryor barely having time to set let alone process the field and make decisions – was constant throughout the day. One writer I respect who watched the game a number of times said that he judged that nine of the first 24 plays Ohio State ran had little chance at success because of the offensive line's immediate inability to block.

I didn't think to make that count as I was watching, but I'll take his word for it. A number of marks in my notebook show something going very wrong along the offensive line from the snap. Pretty much every member of the Buckeye line had their fair share of troubles, with the Ohio State tackles in particular unable to provide consistent pass protection.

Ballard threw a key block on Pryor's long run that led to an early fourth-quarter field goal, but the tight end was beaten a number of times. Weeks ago, he turned in a standout game blocking as an H-back as Ohio State ran over Illinois; this was a clear step back from that performance. It's time to wonder if he's best suited as a player whose best blocking comes on the move rather than in straight-up situations.

Having pointed out a number of things that went wrong with the line, it's worth noting that its run blocking in the first half wasn't bad. Brandon Saine ran for 5.3 yards per carry, and Ohio State had a few rushing plays in the first half in which the first-team line opened holes.

In pass protection, the line did get better as the game went on. Pryor had more time to throw as Ohio State attempted a fourth-quarter rally. He also had time occasionally in the third quarter as the Buckeyes tried to pass their way back into the game, but a number of those passes were rushed – perhaps because of the earlier struggles of the line put some footsteps in Pryor's ears.

PRYOR
Pryor certainly did not have a great game by any stretch of the imagination, but it's hard to say he was put in a position to succeed.

I'll get to the game plan – both positive and negative aspects of it – later, but Pryor was up and down against the Boilermakers. That has been discussed ad nauseum, and I agree with a number of the points made by some others; he continues to be too eager to cut the ball outside for small rushing gains rather than cutting upfield and taking what he can get; he shows inconsistent footwork on his passing and seems lax to stay in the pocket and fire; and he appears at times to be trying too hard to make big plays.

However, he did show signs of overcoming those flaws throughout the game. After bouncing a speed option wide for no gain when there were yards to be had on the first play of the game, his long run in the fourth quarter was aggressive. His footwork wasn't perfect in the fourth but it was better, and he was much more comfortable stepping up in the pocket and delivering the ball with zip even facing a rush. There were a number of times in the fourth when he took advantage of Dane Sanzenbacher running clear-out routes by hitting Posey with short passes that moved the chains.

Pryor is still very inconsistent, then, but signs continue to be there. His utter third-quarter meltdown helped exacerbate the situation the Buckeyes were in, but in the fourth he showed poise well beyond his years. Like it or not, Ohio State fans, but this is what you're going to get out of Pryor as a sophomore.

The speed of the game at Ohio State is well beyond what Pryor was asked to compute in high school when he played in the lower levels of Pennsylvania prep football. It will take time for him to learn the intricacies of coverages and passing the football, a task made much, much harder given the fact that he never knows at the snap if he's going to have to run for his life an instant after the snap.

Whether Pryor is being used correctly is, I suppose, up for debate, but the bigger question deals with his underlying performance. He's not going to read defenses or excel at throwing tomorrow, but if the light is going to go on, every rep is going to make him better and get him closer to that point.

In the meantime, his fourth-quarter performance at Purdue and his resulting quotes to the media on Wednesday about relaxing and leading better seem to show that at the very least that the way he approaches the game is coming along.

PLAY-CALLING
This could be both a broad and specific discussion given the recent calls to see Pryor in a different offense more suited to his skills, but I'll stick to the Purdue game here.

There were a number of new plays the Buckeyes wanted to use to take advantage of Purdue's defense, but only a few of them went off without a hitch.

Included in that bunch was a running play we haven't seen before in which the offensive line double-pulled, with both guards pulling left to trap while the other linemen on that side let the Purdue DL go in order to block at the second level. It worked fantastically well, getting OSU 20 yards on the first play of the second drive and then netting Brandon Saine a touchdown in the second quarter only to see a holding flag negate the gain.

Ohio State also seemed to sense Purdue would be aggressive and called a number of screen passes, all of which blew up in the Buckeyes' faces because of shoddy blocking.

The Buckeyes included some more two-tight end sets than we've seen in recent weeks, which resulted in some decent blocking. Frustration has to come from Ohio State fans who wonder why Jake Stoneburner wasn't involved in the passing game, though.

All in all, it was a first-half plan that seemed well crafted to keep the Boilermakers off balance, but it was executed poorly on the field. Bordering on criminal, though, was Ohio State's second-half abandoning of the run. Saine had just one carry in the second half despite the fact that the Buckeyes had been able to engineer some gains on the ground before halftime.

Ohio State called two nice plays near the goal line before kicking a fourth-quarter field goal – including a play people have probably wanted to see for years, a PA pass to the tight end that Pryor airmailed – before a quizzical third-down speed option to the boundary with two receivers on that side of the field.

So what has to happen to make the Ohio State offense hum in the future? It's just my opinion, but let's go back to what has worked in the past few games.

That includes:
1. Running the football. The H-back look that was so successful against Illinois and Indiana has been abandoned for the most part in the past two games for reasons I can't comprehend. The Buckeyes have had their fair share of decent running plays against Wisconsin and Purdue, even against stacked fronts or blitzes. There has to be some semblance of a running game to get things going, especially when your pass protection is in the state that it is in.

2. Rhythm in the passing game. Perhaps its time for some shorter routes that allow Pryor to take a snap, set his feet and fire quickly. The pass pro, again, has not been great, and OSU was at its best against Purdue later in the game with quicker developing passing plays dialed up. Include swing passes to the running backs (heck, even go back to the screens; they can't be much worse this week) and perhaps some rollouts to hit tight ends like we saw against Navy. The H-back wing formation also has some disguisable passing options that allow Pryor to get on the move and find receivers. This is a phase of the game in which the Buckeyes need confidence before anything else right now.

3. Try the hurry-up. Clearly, the urgency involved gets this offense playing at a sharper level. Pryor has looked like a better quarterback since fall camp whenever the offense's play has some tempo, and the other skill players seem to like it as well. It's not like the offense can spend less time on the field than it has the past two weeks.

There's no guarantee those ideas will work but given seven games of evidence, those seem to be the best ideas we've got on this team. Inconsistency along the line and with Pryor's throwing likely will prevent this from being a standout unit at any point for the rest of the year, but there's enough to work with here that some things should work as OSU hits the stretch run.


Buckeye Sports Top Stories