I must admit I was a little bit surprised by how many people – journalists and fans alike – who had the contention that the "conservative" offensive gameplan for Ohio State nearly cost it the Iowa game.
That debate, I think, tends to go in circles and is influenced by perspective, so I'll try to work my way back around it with a few observations.
My first was that the Buckeye game plan resulted in much more offensive success than it had the week before against Penn State. OSU put up 24 points in regulation in each, but against Penn State – which probably has a less talented defense than Iowa, especially in key positions that should have resulted in more trouble for the Buckeyes – the performance was more underwhelming to me.
Two of Ohio State's touchdown drives against the Nittany Lions were less than 50 yards thanks to great punt returns by Ray Small. The other TD drive came on the deep bomb from Terrelle Pryor to DeVier Posey on a one-play drive.
Against Iowa, the Buckeyes moved the ball more consistently in my mind. OSU had scoring drives of 73 (17 plays), 74 (eight plays), 79 yards (11 plays) and 49 yards (1 play), the latter two in the second half when the chips were down.
And then, of course, Iowa returned a kickoff for a touchdown, turning the game on its head. That was followed by a fluky touchdown drive for the Hawkeyes in which one OSU interception was overturned and another was lost when two Buckeyes collided on what turned into a catch.
As tight end Jake Ballard said at the Buckeyes' media day on Monday, the game probably would have been over in favor of OSU by a few touchdowns were it not for that kickoff return.
Of course, it wasn't. To many, the fact that the Hawkeyes were able to stay in the game is an indictment of Tresselball, although I would echo the point made somewhere on the Ask The Insiders message board that given OSU's lost interceptions, kickoff return TD, missed field goal and punting issues were mistakes enough yet still did not cost Ohio State the game.
Anyway, that's all still a matter of perspective. To illustrate that, I'm going to go ahead and quote a few stats from the game and then show how each can be construed in the direction one wants to take it.
For example, the Buckeyes called rushing plays on 20 of 25 first downs after throwing on the opening three first downs. That the ratio is very conservative cannot be argued, but the effectiveness can.
For those who want to see the offensive strategy glass half full, the Buckeyes averaged 5.9 yards per rush and ran for three touchdowns on those 20 first downs. Not bad; even when you throw in three first-down scrambles for Terrelle Pryor, you get a yards-per-carry average of 5.5. On the other hand, take out Brandon Saine's 49-yard TD run – certainly an outlier – and the average drops to 3.4 yards per carry on the called runs. All of a sudden, that's a lot less pretty.
In addition, 12 of the 20 first-down designed rushes gained 3 yards or more, including 11 of the first 15. Considering Iowa's average yards per rush allowed coming in was 3.2, that stat is either good or bad depending on how you look at it. In addition, Ohio State gained yardage on 16 of those 20 first-down runs.
The numbers were just as stark on second down, with OSU rushing the ball on 18 of 23 tries.
So just how effective was that strategy? Well, nine times, the Buckeyes went rush-rush on first and second down. The average yards to gain on those third downs was 4.8, meaning the Buckeyes gave themselves manageable but not easy conversions on average. Take out the 10 yards to go on the final field-goal "drive," which seems fair given that yards weren't of huge importance to SU at that point, and that average drops to 4.1.
Four of those third downs after starting rush-rush were 2 yards or less, yet Ohio State was only 2 of 4 in those situations. The Buckeyes missed consecutive short third-down conversions early in the third quarter, with Brandon Saine's fumble nullifying one success and a 13-yard sack of Pryor doing so with the other.
Given Ohio State's ability to move the ball on other series, it's seems safe to say the Buckeyes' offensive day could have looked a lot better if those two series hadn't ended with three-and-outs. That's especially true considering OSU converted two third-and-10 opportunities, a third-and-9 and a third-and-8.
Finally, one stat: when Ohio State called a pass on first or second down, the plays averaged 5 yards, and only two went for more than 10 yards. In other words, considering Iowa limited the Buckeyes' deep shots – and make no mistake, OSU tried to go downfield a few times – and forced Pryor into checkdowns, there wasn't much to gain by putting the ball in the air.
On To Michigan
For once, a little defensive analysis, and it will be wasted on the other team's defense.
And for those wanting to see just how badly things have gone for Michigan's defense, which is allowing 35 points per game in league contests, check out this play.
So, so many things went wrong here, and it's unfortunate for the Wolverines they are fairly typical of the way the year has gone.
We'll start with the left end, true freshman Craig Roh, who is playing a linebacker/end hybrid position called the "quick end." As an undersized freshman, Roh has had troubles holding the end this year, and this play is no exception, although he does have to deal with a double team.
Then there's middle linebacker Kevin Leach (52), who first gets cut by the TE, then jumps to his feet in a good show of hustle that was ultimately meaningless when he takes a terrible angle to the play. Leach was playing at this point in place of three-year starter Obi Ezeh, whose mediocre play resulted in his benching for this game.
No. 3, strongside linebacker/safety Stevie Brown, has had a good year by most accounts after struggling often during his U-M career, but this play is not one of his finer moments, as he fails to keep contain and allows himself to be blocked easily by a wide receiver.
Then there are the safeties. The safety on the playside of the formation, Jordan Kovacs (32), is not only late arriving but completely overruns the play, as does the free safety, Michael Williams (40). Kovacs is a true walk-on, having made the team in student body tryouts staged by Rich Rodriguez. He can be a useful tackler when going downhill, but this play highlights his weaknesses, which is to say in space.
On the whole, Michigan has given up 444.3 yards per Big Ten game, and plays like that are a major reason why.
Finally, Saturday might be the game in which the Ohio State tight ends finally break out. OK, don't hold your breath, but Iowa's Tony Moeaki had six catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns, Penn State's Andrew Quarless had two catches for 91 yards and a TD and Wisconsin's Garrett Graham had five grabs for 62 yards and a score. For once, Jake Ballard and Jake Stoneburner should have their hands ready.