It was easy to miss after a midseason loss at Wisconsin took some of the wind out of its sails, but in case you didn't notice: Across the board, Ohio State's offense set a new standard for the Jim Tressel era in 2010, and was shaping up for an even more explosive 2011. With nine starters back from the '09 Rose Bowl team, the Buckeyes rolled up more than 40 points and 450 yards per game through the regular season, topping 30 points in ten different games and placing five different players — not including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, one of the nation's most efficient passers — on the year-end all-conference team. Eight of those starters (including Pryor) were set to be back as upperclassmen this fall with one final, record-breaking thrust at a national championship in their sights.
Then there was the whole suspension thing, which has now docked OSU its starting quarterback, leading rusher, leading receiver, starting left tackle and, eventually, its head coach and leading play-caller for the first games of the season. Instead of the tricked-out Escalade of an offense with a senior Terrelle Pryor behind the wheel that Buckeye fans have been dreaming about for the last three years, it's back to the station wagon with the wood paneling and the vanity plate that reads "3YDSDUST."
Given their history with station-wagon quarterbacks, though, the coaches facing the fateful decision on Pryor's stand-in are basically fine with that:
The debate seems to come down to [fifth-year senior Joe] Bauserman, Mr. Safe and Steady, versus [true freshman Braxton] Miller, Mr. Clueless but Flashy. Quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano did not shy away from that comparison.
"The best comparison I can make is when Trent Dilfer was the caretaker of the Baltimore Ravens, and he led them to a Super Bowl victory (in 2001)," Siciliano said. "He wasn't expected to go out and put up phenomenal numbers. He was supposed to take care of the ball, and they relied on their defense.
"I don't know throughout the course of time if we haven't ever had a different opinion. That's still what we want our quarterbacks to do."
[Michigan Translation: OMG They're going to pay Ray Lewis to fill the vacancy at middle linebacker!]
Three observations for everyone not wearing maize-and-blue glasses: a) They're still paying at least token lip service to the possibility of starting a true freshman quarterback, even though b) The conservative, close-to-the-sweater-vest mentality has so thoroughly ingrained itself in the program that it's the default setting even on occasions when Tressel is barred from contact with the team, sideline or press box. And c) The weird comparison to Dilfer, the most remote outlier of all Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (you want to model your philosophy on offense that at one point went an entire month without scoring a touchdown?), ignores the two greatest beacons of Tresselian virtue: Craig Krenzel and Todd Boeckman.
If you're going to talk about success behind the undefinable wiles of an otherwise uninspiring field general, certainly Krenzel is at the top of the list. The Buckeyes' undefeated BCS championship team in 2002 is the modern standard bearer for the defensively-oriented, run-first outfit that chips away with its big, Old Testament tailback (in the case of the '02 Buckeyes, 230-pound freshman thumper Maurice Clarett) and a penchant for fourth quarter heroics that instantly absolve three-and-a-half quarters of mediocrity. Behind Krenzel and his 12 touchdown passes — more than half of which came against Kent State, Cincinnati, Indiana and San Jose State — Ohio State gained fewer yards and scored fewer points per game in 2002 than any other BCS champion before or since, but rode Clarett hard in big games and somehow didn't lose en route to the title.
Ditto Boeckman, unheralded successor to the prolific Troy Smith in 2007, when 235-pound Beanie Wells carried a Herculean load for a plodding attack that unexpectedly found itself in the BCS Championship Game despite finishing ninth in the Big Ten in total offense. The only regular starter in the conference who passed less often than Boeckman, or for fewer yards, was Illinois' Juice Williams, and it took almost no time at all for Boeckman to be scuttled to the bench in favor of then-freshman Terrelle Pryor a year later. But the fact remains: As a full-time, first-year starter with limited ability, Todd Boeckman had Ohio State within grasp of another national championship.
Bauserman himself looks like a Krenzel/Boeckman clone, a within-the-offense type with enough experience in the system — Krenzel and Boeckman both took over a fourth-year juniors; Bauserman, a former pro baseball player, is a 23-year-old fifth-year senior — to at least keep everything from spiraling out of control. But the rest of the team around him looks like nothing like it did in 2002 or 2007. The '02 defense was loaded with veteran stars, a dozen of whom were snapped up in the NFL Draft over the next two years, and the '07 D (stacked with seven starters itself) led the nation in both yards and points per game allowed. The 2011 edition brings back just four of last year's top dozen tacklers, and bids adieu to all five of last year's All-Big Ten picks. Even with Herron in the lineup, there's no Clarett/Beanie-esque workhorse who'll carry it 30 times at Wisconsin or 39 times at Michigan.
Of course, Bauserman's situation is also entirely different in that (for now, anyway) he has no expectation of lining up against Wisconsin or Michigan over the second half of the schedule: He only has to successfully navigate five games until the reinforcements arrive in October for the Big Ten run, not a full season, and two of those games are warm-ups against Akron and Toledo. Is there enough reserve talent on hand for the Buckeyes to Tressel-ball their way through wins at Miami and back home against Colorado and Michigan State? Without a doubt, if the revamped back seven on defense finds its footing quickly enough to keep the score within striking distance of a timely turnover or big play by whoever's left to make big plays.
But if at any point they need that person to be the quarterback, the Tressel Ball approach will be decidedly out of its element.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.