I asked Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik to assess both signal callers with regard to perceived strengths:
"Zwick has got a very commanding presence of the offense," Chizik replied. "He runs the offense well. He's efficient. He doesn't make bad decisions. He looks like he can control it. I'm not saying that Troy can't. Maybe Troy's a step faster than (Zwick) is. Troy is very athletic. You're scared to death if you miss a tackle on him. He's like a tailback. It's really scary to think of him, Ginn and Holmes all at once because they're all like the same guy. Troy is just very athletic, and you have to be aware and on your toes when he's in there."
Zwick, with eight career starts, is the most experienced QB in Columbus. He out-dueled Smith for the top spot last season and started the first six games of 2004. He got the Buckeyes off to a 3-0 start (against Cincinnati, Marshall, North Carolina State) but then went 0-3 when conference play began (consecutive losses to Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa). He injured his left shoulder against the Hawkeyes and sat out the remainder of the regular season.
Smith ran the table and orchestrated last year's thumping of Michigan, but Zwick was thrust back into the lineup once Smith became temporarily ineligible. Zwick pulled a hamstring in the first quarter of the Alamo Bowl but still completed 17 of 27 passes for 189 yards to level Oklahoma State, 33-7. (I'm not sure how much of a barometer that is, though. The Cowboys never recovered from their loss to Texas last season, managing only to get past Baylor the rest of the way.) Zwick was 17 of 23 passing for 155 yards and one TD in Saturday's 34-14 win over Miami (Ohio).
The question is not who will start. The concern is the extent to which the Buckeyes change their offense when either is in the game, and which QB's style can best exploit soft spots in the Longhorn D.
"It will certainly be interesting," Chizik said. "I'm sure they'll have some new wrinkles with Troy. I think that if there are new wrinkles, we'll see them fairly early and see them throughout the game. We're just trying to take our best educated guess right now and prepare for things that we see that could possibly come up with this offense that we've seen. We're preparing for both of them. In the end, Coach (Jim) Tressel's not going to change the offense. They're going to run the football. He's a running football guy from way back and he'll continue to do that. He'll just find different ways to do that."
In other words, Chizik doesn't anticipate the kind of 'feeling out' process characteristic of games of this magnitude.
"It's (Ohio State's) M.O. that, if they do have something new, to show it to you early and to see what you do," he said. "And they are really looking intently to see what you do so that they will know where to go with the next step. It's a chess game. If you don't play it well, they'll come back and do it again. If you do play it well, they'll go to Plan B."
Several pigskin pundits expressed surprise that Ohio State departed from its time-honored blue-collar power running game in its home opener Saturday. Chizik said he lost count of all the different formations the Buckeyes showed but added that it is a misperception that coach Jim Tressel unveiled a spread offense for the first time against Miami (Ohio). The Buckeyes ran a spread offense much of last season, Chizik said.
"We've seen every game," Chizik he added.
Yet, the spread offense took on a life of its own last season when Tressel replaced Zwick with Smith and moved Ginn from defense to FL. A general misperception is that a spread offense is one that emphasizes the passing game, but when Ohio State is in the spread, the intent is clearly to open the running lanes.
"(Tressel's) philosophy, in my opinion, doesn't change," Chizik said. "He wants to run the ball. He's just creating different ways to do it by trying to get people out of there and run a power football game up inside. They may use their guards and fullbacks in a different way. They may use tailbacks as fullbacks when they're spreading everybody out. They try to make you thin and pull you apart and still be able to run a power offense."
For Chizik, it's not a matter of preparing separate game plans but rather making his players more cognizant of each quarterback's tendencies.
"The major thing, in my opinion, when you have a quarterback issue where they are different players but they still want to do the same thing, I think you just make your guys aware of who is in the game and the things they would choose to do more so with one than the other," he said. "You've got to prepare for the whole offense and then prepare your guys for who's in there. I think it's more of an 'alert system' than anything."
Chizik's defense against Louisiana-Lafayette was about as base as it could get. And for those inquiring minds who want mid-week specifics about Saturday's scheme, Chizik would suggest that it's ultimately about personnel.
"You've got to play base defense to be good all the time," Chizik said. "When you have really good players, base defense is a way of life. Anything other than that is a change-up."