April 02, 2009
Pop quiz: Which coach said the following about his offensive philosophy?
"We've always gone by the theory of if it ain't broke, then break it."
If you said "Jim Tressel," you probably cheated by reading Rob Oller's Columbus Dispatch commentary on the likelihood -- or lack thereof -- that the rumored tweaks in Ohio State's offense will come to fruition after OSU coaches spent part of March in North Carolina, learning from ACC staffs on teams with even less offensive pop than the Buckeyes. (Or, like, looked at the picture). If you managed to guess Tressel by any other means, please make your way back to the door that returns you to Earth -- even Oller can't put that quote into a context that makes sense within his own column, much less with Tressel's close-to-the-sweatervest reputation. Or, for that matter, with Ohio State's on-field persona over the last eight years: The Buckeyes have consistently run at a 60 percent clip in Tressel's tenure, and -- when not boasting the eventual Heisman winner at quarterback -- have tended to be even more conservative in big games. Last year's attack, which ran 67 percent of the time, was his most run-oriented to date.
But it does beg the question: What is Tressel's theory when it is broke? Even if you take into account the late-season surge against the likes of Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan, the '08 offense was by far Ohio State's least productive in terms of yards and points since 2004, and the gap was wider against the best teams on the schedule: In 12 quarters against USC, Penn State and Texas, OSU's 15 points in the final frame of the Fiesta Bowl matched its five-field goal output in the first 11 quarters combined. Is that "broke" in big-picture, compete-for-the-Big-Ten-title terms? Not necessarily. But "broke" in terms of seriously competing for the mythical championship? Hard to argue otherwise.
Add to that the loss of the leading rusher, two leading receivers and three offensive linemen -- eight starters in all, with no apparent stars-in-waiting at running back or receiver -- and Tressel's appeal to less diversity on offense is either very encouraging for Buckeye partisans or very encouraging for Ohio suppliers of nighttime dental guards:
"Our future might be less diverse than it was a year ago," Tressel said [Wednesday]. ... We had an unusual situation (last season) in that we had different styles of guys all playing. Beanie was, 'Let's line up in the "I" and feed me the ball for a while,' then we're back there in the shotgun spreading them all out. We may be a little more focused in (this season) ..."
If "more focused" means "more willing to spread the field and let Terrelle Pryor work in space," I'll be thrilled to watch it operate. That's mostly because, as I've written before, I'm one of those who's reminded all too much by Pryor of the last big, loping, top-ranked quarterback recruit in the country who inherited an offense built for burly I-backs that run 20-25 times a game. Working predominantly in that kind of philosophy, Vince Young split time with Chance Mock in 2003 -- it was Young who took the brunt of the 65-13 beating at the hands of Oklahoma that year, the most lopsided game in the history of the OU-UT series -- and was the full-time starter for a shutout loss to Oklahoma and a lackluster offensive effort in a win over Missouri in back-to-back games 2004.
The next week, Young ran 25 times for 158 yards and four touchdowns in a 51-point outburst over Texas Tech, and the Longhorns were off: VY averaged 19 carries for 125 yards over the last six games, all UT wins, including his 192-yard, four-touchdown masterpiece in the Rose Bowl win over Michigan. In 2005, operating overwhelmingly from three and four-wide, shotgun sets, it was bar the doors: Texas obliterated Oklahoma and averaged well over 500 yards and 50 points per game as Young became the first player in history over 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing in the same season, while also posting sky-high efficiency. It was not "diverse": In his second Rose Bowl masterpiece, Young lined up in the same formation on every passing play against USC, which also produced most of his 200 rushing yards in that game. But it was a conscious decision by Texas to adjust an offensive philosophy based on pounding Ricky Williams and Cedric Benson to one based on Vince Young's ability to outrun everyone (even if he didn't have to do it on every play), which proved to be the only way UT could break through on the biggest stage.
Ohio State is in the same kind of rut; Pryor -- while the Fiesta Bowl made it abundantly clear that he's definitely not there yet as a passer -- has the physicality to be the same kind of player over the next two or three years, and to have the same kind of impact for OSU. The comparisons are explicit enough to make the direction of the Buckeyes' offense one of the most interesting memes of next season. But if "more focused" means more of the same focus, i.e. predominantly between-tackles running and low-risk passing with only occasional -- and therefore fairly obvious -- nods to Pryor's athleticism, I don't know why anyone would expect the results to be any different.