OSU Offense Looking For Early Spark

It takes 60 minutes to play a football game, but the first few minutes of Saturday's game between Ohio State and Penn State could be critical for the Buckeyes. Find out why and what sort of effect it might have on OSU head coach Jim Tressel's plans for the game in this article.

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel does not care when his team scores, as long as the Buckeyes do eventually put points on the board.

In a battle with fellow Big Ten title contender Penn State, the head coach will lead his charges against a Nittany Lion team that has excelled at keeping teams off the scoreboard early. Given OSU's early-game struggles this season, it seems to an advantage for the home team in Saturday's contest.

But Tressel said Tuesday that the coaches will not put any extra emphasis on trying to make early progress against the Nittany Lions.

"You put emphasis on trying to score," he said.

Sensing a need to try and get the ball rolling offensively as early as possible, OSU wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell said after Saturday's win against New Mexico State that the Buckeyes have opted to receive the ball to start the game whenever they win the opening coin toss. The hope is that the extra offensive possession early in the game will help the offense gain traction sooner.

That first drive has not exactly been a hallmark of success for OSU so far this season, however. Through nine games, the Buckeyes have scored on their opening drive three times – 33.3 percent. Of those three scores, two have been touchdowns.

OSU has started the game with the ball in every game this season save for its neutral-site contest with the University of Toledo. In a drive that tied for the worst starting field position of the year for the Buckeyes, OSU marched 79 yards in three plays to score a touchdown in 54 seconds in what would be a 38-0 rout of the Rockets. That drive began after the OSU defense forced UT to a three-and-out to start the game.

The other opening-drive scores came against Navy (touchdown) and Indiana (field goal). The drive against the Hoosiers was the most time-consuming of OSU's opening drives, lasting 2:50.

The rest of the figures have not been pretty. OSU had a five-play drive against New Mexico State result in a missed field goal, but the other five drives have seen four three-and-outs and the other end in a fumble after only two plays.

In the Buckeyes' last four games, they have scored 14 first-quarter points. Seven of those came via an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown from senior safety Kurt Coleman against Wisconsin. Last week against lowly New Mexico State, OSU moved the ball to the tune of 141 first-quarter yards but came away with no points.

"It always helps going into the game when you can score early, when you can get that momentum going," junior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. "I think last week we struggled a little bit getting things going. We were able to move the ball but not really get points on the board. I think the earlier you can start things flowing, the better it is."

Failing to get anything going offensively early would fall right in line with how the Nittany Lions' defense has performed this season. PSU was the last team to allow a first-half touchdown this season, finally allowing a score to Michigan on Oct. 24. For the season, the Nittany Lions have allowed two touchdowns in the first half and have outscored opponents by a 163-34 margin.

The Buckeyes have outscored first-half opponents as well (147-43), but they have done so with an offense that has been every big Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. OSU has put up 500 yards or more of total offense three times this year but has also been held to less than 300 yards on three occasions.

The game is already sold out, with 109,000 fans expected to pack Beaver Stadium. The last time the Buckeyes played there in a nationally televised night contest, they took care of business both early and often.

The first drive of that 2007 game resulted in an OSU field goal. After the Nittany Lions answered with a touchdown, the Buckeyes put together lengthy back-to-back touchdown drives that pushed their lead to 17-7 at the half. They would go on to win easily by a score of 37-17, scoring on five of their first seven possessions.

In the process, a packed house wound up steaming for the exits before the final whistle blew. Again playing on the road in front of a hostile crowd, the Buckeyes would be well served to put up a few points early.

"I think it would be more important in this game, especially because it's on the road in a tough environment," Sanzenbacher said. "It's always tough to play away games, but if you can take the crowd out of it early I think it can always help you out."

As Tressel pointed out, however, scoring early or first is no guarantee for success. As an example, he cited OSU's 41-14 loss to Florida in the 2007 national championship game when Ted Ginn Jr. returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.

After that, it was all Gators.

"If I'd have thought that theory was that important, I'd have said, ‘Teddy, don't take that touchdown back in the championship game. That's too fast. We're going to work on scoring later this game,' " Tressel said. (You) can't do that. We want to take every point we can get and, believe me, every yard in this game is going to be precious."

Starting with the first drive, that is.

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