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Thursday, November 17, 2005

(continued from yesterday. Thanks again to Tom.)

How can I put this diplomatically... how in the damn hell is Troy Smith the fourth most efficient passer in the nation? His statistics are somewhat mindboggling: 10 completions for 249 yards versus MSU, 14 for 226 versus Indiana, 14 for 233 against Minnesota, 13 for 298 against Illinois. How much of that is Smith, how much is it Ginn and Holmes, and how much is four crappy defenses?

I’m going to have to give the Abe Simpson “a little from column A, a little from column B” routine, along with another couple columns thrown into the mix as well.

Column A: It’s almost certainly partly the fact that Smith has settled in as the full-time starting quarterback, getting all the reps and “not looking over your shoulder” confidence that comes with that lofty perch.

Column B: It doesn’t hurt that guys like Ginn and Holmes have repeatedly shown the ability to take a 10-yard out and turn it into a 60-yard touchdown pass.

Column C: Part of that is the fact that Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, Northwestern and Illinois are not exactly the ’85 Chicago Bears on the defensive side of the field. Especially in the MSU game, it was crappy tackling that helped Smith throw for eleventy billion yards on just a handful of short routes.

Column D: Antonio Pittman’s emergence (may be somewhat linked to column C, above), which has forced defenses to respect the fact that yes, Ohio State actually has a tailback who’s good at tackle football for the first time in three years.

Frankly, I don’t think that anyone can tell you what the exact mixture of these four elements is. There’s probably at least some of each factored in there.

And with all due respect to the fine folks they’ll face on Saturday, if the offense blows up for another orgy of points and yardage, I think there will still be some lingering questions from a few corners about just how good they really are. Unless they get a chance to face Miami or some other similarly stout defensive team in a bowl game, I think it may remain one of those great unanswered questions.

If they get shut down this weekend, we will have our answer. Of course, I won’t be too concerned about that, as I’ll be on top of the press box at Michigan Stadium trying to figure out if the impact with the ground will allow me the sweet, merciful release of death or just add extreme physical pain to the mental and emotion anguish that will already be coursing through my body.

How good is this offense in reality? It's hard to tell with the last five games against pushover defenses. (Granted, Michigan did not burn the field up against Minnesota.)

Well… we know they’re damn good against shaky defenses. This (and the next question) all really have the same answer as the last one.

I like the fact that the offensive line is getting a good push. I like the fact that Troy Smith now looks like he’s taking time to at least get to the second receiver on his progressions before tucking and running with the ball. I like the fact that Pittman is suddenly blowing people up, running over guys, and running past others. I like the fact that the coaches seem to be making a real effort to get guys like the tight ends and backs involved in the passing game.

I think their consistency over the last month has been an indication that they’re at least a good offense. Are they great? I’d love to be arguing this point next week with another 40 point game on the list of evidence.

I have essentially the same question about Antonio Pittman: is he for real? He's ran wild of late--against those sketchy defenses--but Penn State and Texas clobbered him pretty good. How would you rate him in the Big Ten?

He’s behind Maroney, for sure. He’s behind a healthy Michael Hart (remember him?) as well. Calhoun has been so good this year, but a lot of it came against dreadful defenses.

Beyond that? I have a hard time getting too scared about Albert Young, Tony Hunt, Jarod Void, Jason Teague, or any of the other guys in that next clump of “good but not great” backs.

Based on what we’ve seen out of Pittman over the last month or so, I think you could make a decent argument that he’s number three or four on the list, and maybe even a spot higher if you take Hart’s injuries into account.

How has the offensive line performed, especially true freshman Alex Boone? How do you think they'll hold up against the Michigan defensive line?

Boone has been a pleasant surprise, at least to me. All the recruitniks had him pencilled in as a first-year starter, but given the incredibly unreliable nature of recruiting and recruiting coverage, I was a little leery of lumping him in as “the next Orlando Pace” rather than “the next Derek Morris.”

I don’t know how much you’re going to see Boone. He was really playing recently because the normal RT, Kirk Barton, was banged up. He was back last week in some spot duty. You’ll probably see some combination of the two on Saturday. That could help them stay fresh against LaMarr Woodley, which would make me happy.

The line on the whole has been pretty good this year—they’re opening holes and giving Smith time to throw. I don’t think they’re going to blow Michigan’s line off the ball by any stretch of the imagination, but I think they’re going to be able to move the ball on the ground at least somewhat reliably (4 ypc, maybe? Please?).

I know Alan Branch and Gabe Watson have looked great at times, but Woodley is the guy on Michigan’s d-line that just scares the crap out of you. I would assume that OSU will keep a back or TE in to help block, at least until they can figure out how reliably they’ll be able to contain him without the extra assistance.

Do you think Michigan has a better handle on mobile quarterbacks?

Better? Sure, but that’s like saying France has a better handle on defending against Germany. “Better” doesn’t set the bar very high.

Troy Smith is not going to go off for 175 rushing yards or whatever he had last year, simply because I think Michigan is going to sell out to stop that from happening. There’s going to be at least one spy on him on every play.

Mobile quarterbacks have still given that defense some problems this year, especially when they’re able to roll out and throw.

The problem is not fixed, but it won’t be nearly as glaring an issue on Saturday. My guess is that Smith should finish with 50-60 yards rushing. If he gets more than that, the Wolverines could be in trouble.

How do you think Ohio State will attack the Michigan defense?

Based on the fact that I think Michigan is going to sell itself out to stop Pittman and Smith from running the ball, the Buckeyes probably have to stretch the field a little bit early to keep those safeties from creeping up. If I was Jim Tressel, I would seriously consider running Ginn and Holmes on fly routes on opposite sides of the field, and sending Gonzalez on a 20-yard post on the first play of the game. Just send a message that you’d better not get any ideas about cramming eight or nine guys in the box. You need to keep taking those shots every now and then, when you see those safeties getting nosy. It doesn’t always need to be a bomb, but a 20-yard out or slant every drive or so would go a long way toward opening things up for the run game.

If they can get those guys to back out, then look for a steady diet of runs up the gut (if they can get Watson out of the way), possibly off that fake end-around to Ginn, and plenty of those little speed option plays they’ve been running.

Tressel is still Tressel. You’re not going to see Smith putting the ball up 40 times on Saturday unless the Buckeyes fall way behind. He’ll probably run, run, run and try to set up that fake-option pass that killed MSU.

But he’s probably going to have to throw it early to get the run game going.

How many opportunities will Breaston get? Are Huston's kickoffs returnable? How is your punter doing?

Huston had something like 17 kickoffs in a row that went for touchbacks this month. He had a couple that were returned last weekend, but part of that was due to the fact that he was kicking into a stiff wind. I’m also not sold on the fact that the coaches didn’t tell him to kick short once or twice, just to get the kick coverage guys some game experience.

For most of the year, they’ve been like outfielders in one of those Little League games where the pitcher has hit puberty before anyone else and is consequently just blowing the ball past everyone. You want those outfielders ready on the off-chance that one of the hitters has hit puberty, too, and Steve Breaston has a 5 o’clock shadow in the batter’s box.

The punter (redshirt freshman A.J. Trapasso) has been pretty good this year. He had one screwy play early in the year where he dropped the ball on a snap, but other than that he’s been solid. The gunners (especially #14, a backup DB named Antonio Smith) have been good this year. They need to have a great game Saturday.

It would not bother me at all if Trapasso just kicked it out of bounds 35 yards down the field all day. I think Michigan is much more dangerous with the ball in Breaston’s hands on a return than they are with the offense against the OSU defense.

Finally: what's your prediction?

Ya know… I really don’t have a feel for this game. Normally, I at least have a feeling about how it’s going to turn out, even if it turns out to be completely wrong. This year, I think there are so many variables that it’s almost impossible to know how it’ll play out.

Is Hart healthy? Is the OSU offense for real? How much will it help to have Barringer and Englemon back at safety, instead of the Big Play twins? How will Michigan respond to their back-to-back bye weeks? What happens if Garret Rivas trots onto the field down two points in the final seconds, with a swirling wind, needing a 44-yarder to win the game?

I think most people would probably agree that on paper, the Buckeyes have a better team right now. I would take the OSU offense against the Michigan defense (but not by much), the OSU defense against the Michigan offense (but not by nearly as much as you might think), and the OSU special teams.

But we all know how often (2004, 2001, 1996, 1995, 1993… and maybe one or two others in between) the better team on paper loses this game.

Look at 1997 and 2002. Those teams combined to win 1.5 national championships (zing!). One needed to intercept a pass at the goal line on the final play of the game to pull out a win. The other needed a quarterback to go color-blind, then crap down his leg for 60 minutes to win.

This one is in Ann Arbor, and as nice as 2001 was, this will be my fifth time watching the Buckeyes play there in person, and I’ve already had three crappy, miserable drives home.

I guess I’m contractually obligated to pick the Buckeyes, but I get the feeling that either OSU wins by 10 or more, or Michigan finds a way to pull this out in the end.

OSU 27, Michigan 13 (If I’m wrong, I’ll be sobbing too loudly to hear about it anyway)