And Down The Stretch They Come...

Ohio State moved its record to 7-2 with an easy 45-0 win over New Mexico State last Saturday. The game was nothing more than a glorified scrimmage for the Buckeyes, but things get far tougher during the next three weeks with games against Penn State, Iowa and Michigan. Bill Greene takes a look at where the Buckeyes are, and what it will take to run the table, in this article.

The Ohio State Buckeyes are now heading into the meat of their schedule following an easy 45-0 romp over hapless New Mexico State last Saturday. What will it take for Ohio State to beat Penn State, Iowa and Michigan on consecutive weeks, and claim a berth in the Rose Bowl?

QUARTERBACK: Terrelle Pryor has made steady progress and has shown improvement as a passer in 2009, but he will need to step up his game to the next level for Ohio State to run the table. Pryor's success has come in the face of an ever-changing offensive scheme, as the Buckeye coaches have never been able to decide how to best use the talent at hand. Pryor has been forced to try to run a semi-power, semi-spread, sometime-shotgun, sometime-option, as the Buckeye offense has tried about everything from week to week, but mostly can be described as a hodge-podge menagerie. Pryor will need to limit turnovers, but still will need to make big plays with both his arm and his legs, because Ohio State will not be able to sustain long, time-consuming drives against good defenses. The success of Terrelle Pryor will go a long way toward determining the fate of Ohio State in the next three games. The team is so dependent upon Pryor that it's hard to see the Buckeyes winning any game in which he plays poorly.

RUNNING BACKS: This group has been inconsistent and injury-prone in 2009, as trying to replace Chris "Beanie" Wells has been as difficult as most people believed it would be. Dan Herron, Brandon Saine and Jordan Hall have all had good moments, but for the most part the Buckeye running backs have been little more than average this season. All three appear to be healthy and I envision Jim Tressel using all of them equally over the next three games, trying to play to each player's strengths. This group needs to be far better at finding the holes in the defense, and hitting them with authority. Ohio State cannot run the table by relying solely on Pryor to move the ball on the ground, and this group needs to play better. Looking for a player to raise his game? How about Boom Herron, as this former starter looks to regain his spot?

WIDE RECEIVERS: Devier Posey is emerging as a star, but he must eliminate the drops that seem to plague him on a weekly basis. Dane Sanzenbacher has had an impressive season and deserves to see the football more, but his strength is getting open in the middle of the field, an area Ohio State avoids for the most part. Duron Carter is coming off his best showing as a Buckeye and is a reliable third option for Pryor. Ray Small is the one receiver that can turn a five yard gain into a 50-yard touchdown. One of these players will need to come up big down the stretch for the Buckeyes to win the next three. Who will it be? I'm guessing Small will find a way to impact a game with his speed.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Looking for the single biggest key for Ohio State getting to the Rose Bowl? Look no further than Michael Brewster, Bryant Browning, Justin Boren, Jim Cordle, Andy Miller, Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts. This group has been hampered by injury and illness, and has rarely seen the same five players on the field from week to week. This group simply has to play better than they have all year over the next three games for the Buckeyes to have success. For the most part, they have been good in the running game, but pass protection needs to be improved upon, especially in blitz control. This group is so important that I do not see Ohio State losing any game that they play well. I also find it hard to see the Buckeyes winning any game where they play poorly because this is the most important area on this football team, even more than the quarterback play. Which player steps up and leads this group by example and performance? No doubt, it's Justin Boren, the most consistent player on the line in 2009.

DEFENSIVE LINE: This group deserves the bulk of the credit for the 7-2 record in 2009. One can reasonably assume that each of the remaining three opponents will have trouble running the football consistently against Ohio State. There is depth and talent, and they could receive a boost if Dexter Larimore returns from an earlier injury. Ohio State has been able to pressure the quarterback rushing only four down linemen, making the pass coverage even more formidable. Looking for one player to step up and take his game even higher? Thaddeus Gibson, as he looks to solidify his status as an NFL first-round draft choice.

LINEBACKERS: This group is the cement that holds everything together defensively for Ohio State, and Austin Spitler, Brian Rolle and Ross Homan deserve more praise than they're getting. Not one of the three starters is flashy, and none of them can be found on SportsCenter, but this group is solid, steady and dependable. They also do not miss tackles, a talent that basically goes unrecognized. They have easily been able to replace all-everything James Lauriniaitis without missing a beat. Etienne Sabino has been improving weekly and is the primary backup to all three spots. Look for Homan to provide big plays over the next three weeks.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: The cornerbacks have been extremely reliable, but teams are still going to come after Chimdi Chekwa, Devon Torrence and Andre Amos. It will be impossible to gain yardage against the Buckeye defense on the ground, so the defensive backs will need to continue to play well, and avoid giving up big plays. At safety, Kurt Coleman and Jermale Hines have played at an all-Big Ten level, and Anderson Russell rebounded from a poor showing against Navy to become a positive force this year. Look for Coleman to finish his career in fine fashion by continuing to make plays that influence the outcome of games.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The coverage units have been good, except for a shaky outing against Indiana's kickoff returns, and changes were made to shore up this group. Jon Thoma has been efficient and reliable as the punter. Now, let's get to one of the key members of this football team going forward: Devin Barclay. That's right, I said Devin Barclay. Assuming that place-kicker Aaron Pettrey's injury suffered against New Mexico State is serious, it appears the Buckeyes will turn to Barclay for field goals, extra points and kickoffs. Barclay showed a powerful leg, averaging nearly 70 yards on five kickoffs, but he missed two field goals. The 26-year old former Major League Soccer player will probably be counted on to kick an important field goal at least once in the next three weeks. Here's hoping he can use his age, and his experience in pressure situations, to summon the courage needed to succeed. Or we can all pray that Pettrey receives divine healing over the next few days, and is ready to answer the bell this week.

COACHING: There are no worries with defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and his staff. I'm confident we won't see any of the remaining teams consistently march up and down the field against Ohio State, and we won't likely see any team scoring more than 30 points against the Buckeyes. I'm not quite as confident in the Buckeye offensive brain trust, and they will need to be on top of their game if Ohio State is to win out. There has never been a day that I haven't seen Jim Tressel and his staff as superior coaches to that of Penn State, Iowa and Michigan. I expect Tressel and company to once again prove that over the next month, and I do expect to see the Buckeyes win the next three games. A final record of 10-2, and a Rose Bowl appearance, will make the 2009 season a success, and will lay the groundwork for a national title run in 2010. Take That To The Bank!

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