Can the Horns Halt the Buckeye Ground Game?

It's readily apparent to anyone following Ohio State football that Coach Jim Tressel prefers running the football to throwing it. Like the long shadow of Woody Hayes that falls upon any Buckeyes' coach, Tressel too is an old school, play for field position, win with run and defense kind of guy.

While Terrelle Pryor can pass the football effectively enough for a mere true freshman and leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency, Ohio State's 148 yards passing per game (#104 nationally) is all you need to see that no air traffic controller is required when the Buckeyes have the ball.

So what about Ohio State's ground game, then—the heart and soul of Tressel's offense?

As they say, it all starts up front, and the Buckeyes boast four returning starters from 2007, including first team all-Big Ten performer Alex Boone (6-8, 312, senior) at left tackle. The senior is joined by left guard Jim Cordle (6-4, 297, junior), center Mike Brewster (6-5, 296 true freshman), right guard Steve Rehring (6-7, 335, senior), and right tackle Bryant Browning (6-4, 312, sophomore).

Ohio State's staff obviously thinks highly of rookie Mike Brewster. After former starting center Jim Cordle was manhandled against USC and moved to left guard for the injured Steve Rehring, the highly touted Brewster started at the crucial center spot and kept it. He should head the line hub for the next several seasons.

The OL's starting five following USC remained that way until right guard Ben Person's injury forced the now healed and former left guard Rehring to move in at right guard against Penn State. That five listed above started the last four games together.

In the more overland-oriented Big Ten, Ohio State's third, averaging 192 yards per game, or 28th nationally. However, in games where junior Chris "Beanie" Wells performed, the Buckeyes averaged 211 per contest. In their three-game home stretch to close the season, that figure blew up to 260 yards. It is true those latest numbers came against less than stellar stop forces, but it's also key to note Wells and company had a week to heal after Penn State. Additionally, the Buckeyes' final starting five upfront now had a game under its belt together going into those last three tilts.

Beanie has 1091 yards
The catalyst, as noted, has been Beanie. He's 6-1 and 237 pounds of muscle, with a tough stiff-arm to match. He doesn't merely wear down the opposition, though, as early-game long jaunts versus Michigan State, Northwestern, and Michigan attest.

Had it not been for a foot injury in the opener against Youngstown State that caused him to miss three games, Wells might have broken into the quarterback-dominated Heisman mix. Still, he's garnered 1091 yards and played a huge role in the Buckeyes' re-emergence following a sorry start.

Beanie's also been consistent, hitting the 100-yard mark in all but two games, with one (Purdue) coming close with 94 yards. Penn State's the only team that controlled him, as Joe Paterno's defensive focus held Wells to a season-low 55 yards on 22 attempts. Wells, still troubled by his earlier foot injury, also had missed some practice during the week after taking on his heaviest load of the season (31 carries) the week before.

The Nittany Lions' determination to control Beanie by frequently loading the box did provide quarterback Terrelle Pryor the opening to throw for his season high in passing yardage (226), but the overall defensive strategy worked, as Ohio State lost 13-6.

Beanie's obviously the mainstay: what about the other Buckeyes' running backs? Maurice Wells is Beanie's equal—in last name only. The senior sub generates just three yards per rush (131 yards) this fall and has been equally pedestrian throughout his career.

The far more productive option Tressel has gone to this fall is redshirt freshman Dan "Boom" Herron (listed as 5-10, 193), who has 409 yards (4.9 average per carry) and five touchdowns. Herron was rated the No. 7 recruit in Ohio and is considered a good between-the-tackles ball carrier.

"Boom" is no Beanie, but he produced pretty well during the latter's injury period. Herron's been quiet since Wells' return until he exploded for 80 on just eight carries against Michigan. Boom's 49-yard scoring burst early in the third quarter turned a 14-7 game into a 42-7 demolition.

Since the early season struggles, another runner of sorts has emerged, and he's also the guy who passes the football, Terrelle Pryor. Though just a true freshman, Pryor possesses excellent size (6-6, 235) - somewhat reminiscent of Vince Young, though the Pennsylvania native has a lot to live up to in that regard.

While the USA Today Player of the Year has, as noted, improved in the passing game, his running adds a dimension of worry for defenders, naturally causing the back seven to keep a wary eye for him taking off on scrambles at any moment. The fact Pryor's biggest passing plays often come out of those situations relays that ever-present anxiety they face.

Pryor breaks pocket
Terrelle's rushing stats are solid enough, as he's totaled 553 yards (4.5 ypc) and six scores. But those numbers include 19 sacks and nearly 200 yards in losses the freshman's endured. As Pryor learns to throw the ball away more effectively, his ground numbers should only improve.

It's apparent that Ohio State will try to establish the run against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl, an area where the Buckeyes normally succeed. However, the two toughest run defenses they've faced—Penn State and USC—have held Tressel's squad below their respective averages allowed (though Beanie was absent against the Trojans).

Texas ranks #2 nationally on defense against the run, though playing in the pass-hyper Big 12 means it has faced few gargantuan ground gobblers. Results against those three opponents with bigger rushing averages than Ohio State are mixed.

Oklahoma State and Baylor each garnered over 200 ground yards (the latter mostly on QB scrambles and end-arounds), but Oklahoma was shut down in that area. For the game, the Longhorns stymied the Sooners to a timid 48 yards on 26 attempts (1.7 yards per carry), with 1,000-yard rushers Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray struggling for just 35 yards on 14 rushes (2.5 ypc).

Even with these mixed results, UT defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has to like the fact Terrelle Pryor's not likely to beat the ‘Horns throwing from the pocket (unlike Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson is capable of). With Pryor's biggest aerial results coming from breaking outside containment, the Longhorns' ends must hold their lanes. Still, the main focus is on Beanie Wells.

Can the Texas defense, geared toward the pass nearly all season, bust up the Buckeyes' ground game? It's a test Will Muschamp—hailing from smash-mouthed SEC ball—likely relishes. He'll have Herculean performers Roy Miller, Brian Orakpo, Rod Muckelroy, and Sergio Kindle in the Fiesta fight.

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