Sputtering, stumbling, staggering, wheezing, foundering, floundering, flummoxing – pick your word to describe what many fans are now deploring as the late, great Ohio State offense.
My question to those who want to storm the castle and demand that Jim Tressel relinquish his play-calling duties: Just exactly what did you expect?
The Buckeyes are breaking in a new quarterback on the fly, have damaged goods at the running back position and resemble a patchwork quilt on the offensive line. Tell me how those ingredients bake into a nice, fluffy product that scores points at will.
For all of the flair and dynamism Terrelle Pryor brings to the quarterback position, we need to remind ourselves that he is just a freshman. I don’t care how good you are – moving from the high school fields of western Pennsylvania to major college football is a quantum leap. Purdue may not field anything resembling the most innovative of defenses, but I’ll wager it was head and shoulders above anything Pryor saw before this season began.
There is no doubt that Pryor has a wealth of football talent, but as a first-year player who is likely putting undue pressure on himself as the starting quarterback, the freshman’s chief problem is not allowing the action to come to him. He is trying to force the issue, holding the ball much too long when receivers are covered and attempting to make something out of nothing when throwing the ball away would be more prudent.
Still, with all of his troubles against the Boilermakers, Pryor still managed to complete better than 71 percent of his pass attempts. Better yet, he committed no turnovers.
There are still five more games on the Ohio State schedule and it’s a pretty good bet that Pryor will have another uneven performance somewhere along the line. When that happens, the Buckeyes will have to figure out other ways to pull out a victory.
They would love to rely on the running of Chris “Beanie” Wells, and they can do that as long as the junior tailback’s body holds out. It’s beginning to become of matter of what’s next for Wells. Last year, he had to fight through ankle and thumb injuries. This year, it’s been the big toe and a bout with the flu.
Unfortunately, Ohio State may never get the full benefit of what a completely healthy Wells can do. In the meantime, whatever the Buckeyes can get from their wounded star is better than what many college running backs can give at full strength. It just won’t be available for 30 to 40 carries a game like Tressel and his coaching staff had hoped when they were game-planning this past summer.
Likewise, the offensive line doesn’t resemble much of what it was supposed to look like heading into the 2008 season. With the notable exception of graduated right tackle Kirk Barton, the veteran line was purported to be one of the team’s strengths.
Instead, the unit got shredded by Southern Cal and then has seen its share of injuries. As a result, left tackle Alex Boone has been the lone constant in an ever-changing litany of lineups.
An injury to left guard Steve Rehring prompted the move of center Jim Cordle, putting the line calls in the hands of true freshman Mike Brewster. I know many recruiting aficionados believe the battery of Pryor and Brewster are destined for great things, and throwing them into the deep end of the pool so early in their careers gives testimony to how good the OSU coaching staff thinks they are.
But again, they are freshmen and they are prone to freshman mistakes. The experience they gain this season will be hugely beneficial down the line, but any team that relies so heavily on freshmen at such skilled positions does so at its own peril.
Likewise, the right side of the offensive line remains in flux. Sophomore Bryant Browning has spent time at both guard and tackle on that side, and it’s worth remember that he, too, is a first-year starter. The mystery is senior Ben Person, who would be at or near the top of the Big Ten lead in offensive line penalties if the conference kept such a stat.
All of this, and I haven’t even talked about the injuries to ballyhooed freshmen such as J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams, which have robbed the offensive line of its depth. Then there is the ankle injury sustained by senior tight end Rory Nicol, the lingering shoulder problems of senior receiver Brian Robiskie, and the concussions that have temporarily sidelined such valuable backups as tailback Dan Herron and receiver Dane Sanzenbacher
Put all of that together in the same pot and you have a starting offensive lineup that has players getting their first taste of collegiate playing time, others being asked to switch positions and veterans trying their best to gut their way through painful injuries.
To blame all of that on Tressel and his play-calling seems more than a little unreasonable.
Among the luminaries celebrating birthdays this 13th day of October: former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher; world-class poker player T.J. Cloutier; film actress Melinda Dillon (she’s Ralphie’s mother in “A Christmas Story”); Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Paul Simon; Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones; keyboardist and Chicago founding member Robert Lamm; rocker and former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar; nine-time Triple Crown race winning jockey Pat Day; screenwriter, director, producer and “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter; Sacramento Kings head coach Reggie Theus; Boston Celtics head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers; U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.); entertainer Marie Osmond; Minnesota Gophers head football coach Tim Brewster; former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer; film actress Kelly Preston (also Mrs. John Travolta); TV actress Kate Walsh (Dr. Addison Montgomery first on “Grey’s Anatomy” and then “Private Practice”); NFL Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice; San Diego Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman; Boston Celtics forward/guard Paul Pierce; Toronto Raptors center/forward Jermaine O’Neal; Olympic silver and bronze medal-winning figure skater Nancy Kerrigan; Olympic gold medal swimmer Summer Sanders; Grammy-winning singer Ashanti Douglas; “Access Hollywood” co-host Billy Bush; and Borat himself, actor Sacha Baron Cohen.
** For a guy already running with a bad wheel, then to be felled much of the week by flu symptoms, Wells had a fairly impressive afternoon against Purdue. He stoned safety Dwight Mclean late in the first quarter with one of his patented stiff-arms, and then showed why he’s a difference-maker early in the third period. Wells broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and then ran through three more Boilermakers before finally being brought down after a 12-yard carry.
** Perhaps it is finally time to get freshman Lamaar “Flash” Thomas a little more involved. His 36-yard return on the game’s opening kickoff was the longest this year for the Buckeyes, and he later made some nice moves to turn a short pass from Pryor into a 16-yard gain. Forget your “Boom and Zoom” offense. Get Thomas in there alongside Pryor and Wells for some “Flash and Dash.”
** To be brutally honest, I’m not real broken up about Michigan’s loss to Toledo. Nevertheless, the Wolverines’ continued struggles this season only help serve as fodder for the Big Ten naysayers. U-M’s home loss to a bottom-of-the-pack MAC team isn’t going to help any Big Ten team’s chances when determining national title game berths.
** After losing to the Rockets, Michigan has to turn around and head for Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions are mindful of the fact they have lost nine times in a row to the Wolverines and are practically salivating at a chance for some payback. Remember that 63-14 pounding Penn State administered to Ohio State back in 1994? This one could be worse.
** Here are some sobering numbers for those in love with spread offenses. Juice Williams of Illinois threw for 462 yards on the same day Chase Daniel of Missouri, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame each topped 380 yards for their respective teams. And every one of them lost. Despite all the newfangled attacks of today’s game, the old coach’s mantra still rings true: “Offense gets headlines but defense wins championships.”
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