SvoNotes: Thinking About Offense

Just how much will the Ohio State football team pass the football in 2010? That seems to be a burning question heading into the season opener against Marshall now that team personnel have gushed about Terrelle Pryor's growth. Jeff Svoboda looks at his targets and OSU's history throwing the football to try to figure out the riddle.

Jim Tressel said something that I consider a bit curious while in Chicago for the Big Ten Media Days, and it got a little bit more curious the more I looked into it.

In the course of chatting with media members, he said he could foresee Terrelle Pryor throwing between 25 and 35 passes per game for the Ohio State football team this year.

Now, 25 isn't a lot of passes for a game – well, it might seem that way for those used to watching Tressel offenses – but 35 sure is. As I got to thinking, I wondered how many times the Buckeyes had even reached that number as a team in Tressel's nine-year tenure.

So, while writing an overview story about the Ohio State offense in the football preview edition of the Buckeye Sports Bulletin (still on newsstands!), my task was to try to figure out how the Buckeyes will attack teams this year.

Of course, that Tressel quote would have to be a major part of the exercise. And while in the process of marrying that quote – and others from players and coaches – with some cold, hard numbers, a few interesting bits of perspective appeared when it came to the passing game that I just couldn't help sharing.

Let's start at the Rose Bowl, where Pryor's official numbers had him 23 for 37. The Buckeyes also had a team pass, which was a spike Pryor tossed at the end of the half as OSU moved into field-goal range.

So that means the Buckeyes threw 38 passes in the Rose Bowl. Houston threw 53.4 passes per game last season to lead the nation, Northwestern threw 40.8 to top the Big Ten and the Buckeyes set a season high in that contest with 38, yet offhand I could not think of any games in the Tressel era in which the Buckeyes had thrown more passes.

Of course there was an answer, which showed the Rose Bowl tied as having the third most throws for OSU in a game under Tressel. But most interesting was the fact that the other contests in the discussion are among the most memorable in his tenure – mostly for the wrong reasons.

The most passes thrown in a game in Tressel's tenure was 46, which happened in the 2003 contest against Michigan. That game is better known as Tressel's only loss in nine tries against the Maize and Blue. The Buckeyes fell behind early, with Craig Krenzel tossing 33 passes and Scott McMullen 13 in a fruitless effort to bring the team back.

It is with great irony, then, that I reveal the game in which OSU threw the second most passes under JT: Perhaps his greatest victory over Michigan. In 2006, Troy Smith threw the pigskin 41 times, completing 29 for four touchdowns in the classic 1 vs. 2 matchup OSU won 42-39.

As for the other game under Tressel in which OSU threw 38 passes, well, people tend to remember that one too. Justin Zwick was 18 for 38 in 2004 as the Buckeyes had a 33-year winning streak against Northwestern snapped by a score of 33-27 in Evanston.

So there you go. Of the four games under Jim Tressel in which OSU has thrown the most passes, two are among the coach's greatest victories and two among the most painful losses.

What does that tell us? Well, likely nothing. The Buckeyes were behind for most of the two losses and needed to throw to get back in the game, and if you'll remember, the Buckeyes didn't exactly have powerful rushing attacks in those contests. As for the wins, OSU came out throwing and dictated tempo with a passing game complemented by success on the ground.

If you had to pick which one of those scenarios sounds more like the 2010 Buckeyes, you'd be right to choose the latter. With a veteran entrenched at nearly every offensive position and plenty of talented youngsters to provide depth, you could make a fair argument, then, that the Buckeyes should air it out this year.

On the other hand, you could make a fair argument that OSU still won't. Even when the Buckeyes boasted a similarly talented and experienced offense in 2006, the team threw 30 passes in a game only thrice (Cincinnati, Minnesota and Michigan), although it should be pointed out there were fewer plays per game that year because of new clock rules that sped up the game.

In fact, the total number of games under Tressel in which OSU has topped 30 passes per game is 23, which is a cool average of 2.6 per season. There has been only one season in which OSU averaged that number of dropbacks* – 2003, when the average number of dropbacks per game was 30.7 (and no one wants to see that offense again). Last year, the number of dropbacks per game was 26.1, just below Tressel's OSU average of 26.3.

*For this, we'll define dropbacks as passes thrown plus sacks, which is really as close as we can come. Because of scrambles off of called passes, the number of dropbacks is actually higher in all seasons across the board, but it shouldn't throw off the numbers too much.

On the other side of the spectrum, the year in which Ohio State ran the most was the lone national championship year under Tressel, 2002. The Buckeyes ran on 66 percent of plays that year, and it was the only year under JT the team did not hit 30 passes in a single game.

All in all, Tressel's OSU teams have averaged 28.9 points per game in his tenure – and 29.1 when throwing 30 or more passes in a game.

None of that goes a heck of a long way to show what the 2010 offense will look like, but as I said, I found the numbers interesting. If there's any lesson to be learned, it's this: Tressel hasn't aired it out by choice except for certain situations in which he has had the players to do so.

So will the Buckeyes throw more in 2010? It's possible, maybe even probable. Will it be a lot more? Not likely.

Random Thought: The Buckeyes have talked of diversifying the offense to the point that tight ends and running backs are a big part of the passing game, with Pryor even mentioning it during his lone media availability of the preseason.

"We have Jake Stoneburner, he could be a possible third wide receiver," Pryor said on Photo Day. "It depends on the grouping. Brandon Saine could have maybe 30 or 40 catches this year. That's our goal, to get Brandon Saine a lot of catches and Jake Stoneburner 40 catches and also DeVier and those guys. Zach Boren can catch balls as well. We have some weapons, to tell you the truth."

To that end, we've seen the Buckeyes focus on distributing the ball to those options during camp. Stoneburner had two catches, including a 26-yarder down the middle of the field, and Ricky Crawford had three in the team's jersey scrimmage, while Boren added three in that event.

During one camp drill, the OSU coaching staff had the quarterbacks and tight ends working together, with the tight ends developing their skills running different routes depending on the coverage presented by the defense. And it appears some play calls have the tight ends and fullbacks as early options in the pattern in an effort to get consistent gains through those sources.

And one final quote from receivers coach Darrell Hazell, who is part of the offensive brain trust, uttered on Monday caught my eye.

"I think what you'll see a lot better now is better protection," he said. "I think you'll see a lot more of the ball being dumped off to some of the backs, and then being able to high-low some people. You'll see some different things. They were always there, but we probably weren't able to get to them because of the level of growth that we were not at at the time."

Translation – yes, the tight ends and backs are better receivers than in the past, both in their abilities to catch the ball but also in their skills at doing damage once grabbing it.

Of course, those players weren't often out in patterns to even catch passes last year, so a second translation follows. Remember, the Buckeyes had terrible troubles last year at the tackle position, especially throughout the first half of last season, starting three different players at each tackle spot. That meant tight ends and backs had to block on pass plays more often.

Now, former five-star recruits Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts appear to have those spots locked down. The result could be a lot of creativity for the Buckeye offense.

On The Road: I spent the first edition of a football Friday night at Gahanna Lincoln High School with my buddy Seth Shaner of Suburban News watching the home Lions take on perennial power DeSales.

The main draw, as an OSU observer, was 2012 tailback Warren Ball. The 6-2, 200-pounder certainly passed the look test as I hung out on the DeSales sideline. As far as the on-field play goes, Ball ran 11 times for 75 yards, more than half of it coming on a 39-yard second-half touchdown as he took a counter play, bounced right, broke a tackle and was gone from there.

Ball already seems to have excellent vision, setting up his runs from the instant he gets the ball. His physical abilities appear excellent, though his stats were curtailed by a Gahanna team that played swarming defense and rarely let him get into the open field.

The two criticisms I have of Ball would be that he needs to lower his pad level and he could be more of a physical rusher – something I've heard he is, so maybe this was just an off night in that regard. However, for a player who is only one game past the halfway mark in his high school career, Ball has the goods.

One thing that will be interesting to watch is how DeSales' offense evolves during the course of the season. The Stallions run the triple-option, but with Ball in the fold, the team has tried putting him in the I-formation (one he should get familiar with at his future school).

"We're an option team," DeSales head coach Ryan Wiggins said. "One knock on the option is you don't always control who gets the football. It gets spread around, but we still want to be an option team because we feel we're good at it.

"We obviously have to do things to get Warren the ball and that counter play was a good example."

This upcoming week, I'll be taking in the Huber Heights Wayne vs. Canton McKinley game that will be part of the Kirk Herbstreit event in Ohio Stadium.

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