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Ohio State preview

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The results of this week’s blogpoll can be found at the following link. This is important, as Purdue faces the #14 team in that poll this week in Columbus. Ohio State has been ranked in all polls of any kind all season long. There is a decent chance that this will be our final chance this season to end the long string of losses to ranked teams, though Michigan State could be another final chance later on. If history prevails, that streak will grow even longer because Columbus has not been kind to us.

It is no secret that Purdue has just one win at Ohio State and Michigan combined since Bob Griese was quarterback in 1966. That win came in 1988 as the Spoilermakers made an appearance and shocked Ohio State in the ‘shoe 31-26. They really shouldn’t be considered Spoilermakers, however, as Ohio State finished that year 4-6-1and lost 41-7 to Indiana.

We have come closer historically in Columbus than we have in Ann Arbor in the last 42 years. I was there during our last visit in 2003. That was an agonizingly close 16-13 loss in overtime that could have sent us on our way with an at large BCS berth that season. In my opinion, that team was Tiller’s best. Three of its four losses came by 11 total points, two of them in overtime. It marked our last appearance in a New Year’s Day bowl as well.

I don’t expect Saturday’s game to be as close. Our offense was better last year against a less experienced Ohio State defense and the Buckeyes pitched a shutout for 59 minutes in a nationally televised sellout at Ross-Ade. This year we are struggling even more offensively. Ohio State may still be figuring out things on their own offense, but their defense will likely stop us quite easily.

Ohio State offense:

Statistically the Buckeyes are more run oriented, but they aren’t exactly Navy when it comes to that preference. Their overall yardage gained is about 55-45 in favor of the run. These numbers also reflect a couple of games without a Heisman-worthy running back and a quarterback change to a more run-oriented player. Ohio State averages about 186 yards on the ground per game. It is probably a similar type of rushing attack that Penn State ran against us only Chris Wells is better than Evan Royster and Terelle Pryor is a better runner than Daryll Clark.

Wells is clearly the catalyst that makes things go, though Pryor has made them much more formidable in recent weeks. Wells has played in just three games so far, leaving one with an injury. He has racked up 385 yards and two scores in that time. Pryor has played in all six games and has 312 yards and four TD’s on the ground. 168 of Wells’ yards came a week ago at Wisconsin, but it was Pryor that made the game’s biggest running play with an unbelievable cut and burst for the winning touchdown. Any time you can use Wells as a decoy and the guy actually carrying the ball is just as good you have a great backfield.

Dan Herron is also a bit of a factor in the running game with 262 yards and a score. Maurice Wells and Brandon Saine can also provide a carry or two in spot duty. The main thrust of the ground game will come from Wells and Pryor though. Sadly, I don’t know if we have the personnel or the discipline to make one of them commit on option runs. Fortunately, Chris Wells hasn’t been as big of a threat catching the ball since we’re still vulnerable to the screen pass.

Speaking of the passing game, Ohio State’s isn’t very productive at just 151 yards per game. This was one area where we actually had some success a season ago. After two early touchdowns on we were able to pick off Todd Boeckman three times. Boeckman is on the bench now after throwing for 446 yards in five games with only three scores against a pair of interceptions. In is Pryor, who has 440 yards passing and five scores in six games. Ohio State doesn’t throw a lot, so if we can slow down the running game and make them throw we might have a chance. The Buckeyes throw an average of 24.5 times per game, completing 64% of those passes.

On the receiving end Ohio State has good, but not stellar receivers. Brian Robiskie (22-213-4) is the most important target. Ray Small (16-122-0) was the one who did the most damage to us a year ago with six catches for 70 yards and a score. Brian Hartline (13-226-2) and Dane Sanzenbacher (10-105-0) are the only others with significant numbers. Our biggest concern is containing this group when Ohio State has to throw. If we cannot make them throw by slowing down the running game they won’t have many receptions anyway. Ohio State had just 144 yards passing a week ago with a long of just 27. They have yet to complete a pass of more than 50 yards, so we’re not looking at a team that loves to throw the deep ball.

Another key element to any success we have will be the development of a pass rush. Ohio State’s protection hasn’t been the greatest all season. They have given up 16 sacks through six games, but Pryor’s scrambling ability allows him to escape some sacks other quarterbacks cannot. We simply must get a pass rush and get Pryor down once we get to him to have any chance. Ohio State has had an astounding 39 plays go for negative yardage as well. That’s 6.5 per game and we have to get at least that many on Saturday.

Ohio State’s defense:

They call it Tressell-ball, and this year’s Ohio State team is much like its predecessors. The offensive numbers aren’t eye-popping, but the defense makes sure it doesn’t need to be. Last season I felt even with a poor defense we had a chance if we held them below 25 points. We did that, but had no chance because the Buckeye defense smothered us all night long. When you take away USC’s 35 point outburst the Buckeyes give up a miserly 12.4 points per game. They also like to take the ball away with 14 forced turnovers on the year. Even if our defense does play well and holds them in the 20-25 point range we have to move the ball and get points when we have the chance to.

It all starts in the middle with All-American James Laurinaitis. He is on his way to making a lot of money in the NFL at this time next year. He is a linebacker that we can only dream of in that he plays the run and the pass well. He has 57 tackles on the season to go with a sack and an interception. He seems to be in on almost every play, so it is not like we can just run away from him.

Still, it’s not like Ohio State is completely shutting teams down. They are giving up more than 100 yards rushing per game. Statistically that is worse than Penn State from last week, so Kory Sheets may find a little more room to run. We have to commit to it though, as the Ohio State pass defense is very good at just 155 yards per game given up. They also have nine interceptions as a team. This means Curtis Painter cannot afford to sail too many passes.

Kurt Coleman and Malcolm Jenkins each have two of those interceptions. Jenkins leads the team in pass break ups with four. We also need to watch out for Chimdi Chekwa, a nickel back who seemingly had 4662 tackles in the game against us last year. All told this is a team-oriented defense. The numbers, outside of what Laurinaitis has put up, are actually fairly balanced across the board.

When it comes to getting into the backfield Ohio State isn’t great. They have just nine sacks on the season. Marcus Freeman leads the team in this category with three. The defensive end is also third on the team in tackles with 36 stops and a pair of pass breakups.

Ohio State Special teams:

Another major aspect of Tressell-ball is that his teams get points wherever they can get them. Special teams play a major role in this, and that is no different this year. Ryan Pretorius is a solid kicker, having made 11 of 14 attempts so far. He has a long of 50, while Aaron Pettrey made his only attempt of the season from 54 yards out. This means that the Buckeyes are a threat to score any time they get inside our 40 yard line.

A.J. Trapasso helps the defense out by being of the best punters in the country. He carries a 44.9 yard average per punt and drops the ball inside the 20 more than 20% of the time. His hang time is excellent as well. Only 9 of his 25 punts have had returns for an average of only 4.6 yards. Basically we can forget about returning punts all day, but we have to watch Ohio State. Small is a dangerous punt returner at 16.3 yards per return. He has already taken one back too.

On kickoffs Trapasso and Pettrey are very good at getting touchbacks. Both Ohio State and its opponents are averaging 18.7 yards per return with no touchdowns. Since Ohio State doesn’t give up many points they haven’t had many chances to return kicks. Brandon Saine is the main returner with an 18.4 yard average.

Final Thoughts:

Coming into the season I didn’t think we had a chance in hell of winning this game. Even after five games I have changed my tune a little. I feel like we have a better chance against Ohio State than we did against Penn State, but it still isn’t a great one. Against the Nittany Lions we played a nearly perfect game for the first 20 minutes. A pair of second quarter missed field goals killed our momentum, leading to a loss. Perhaps a bigger play was the fumbled snap by Painter on third down. Had we scored a touchdown on that drive the entire mojo of the game would have changed. Again, the ability is there, but we still have to put it all together.

For some reason, Tiller’s teams have always played Ohio State the toughest of the big three (Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan). We’ve grabbed a pair of wins from them. We very nearly derailed their national championship season. We’ve even been within a field goal twice (1999 and 2003) of escaping Columbus with a win. Last week we lost because of our own mistakes. We left at least 7 points on the field and a ton of momentum. If we can limit those mistakes this week we may actually have a chance.

Again, we must at least slow down the running game. If Pryor and Wells are allowed to run wild early we have no chance. If we can force Pryor to throw, that will be playing to the weakness of the Ohio State offense and the strength of our own defense. It has been a long while since we have forced a team to do what we want them to do. Usually it is the other way around, and Ohio State is very good at doing that.

Of course, holding them in the 20’s means very little if our offense takes 50 minutes to score again. Carson Wiggs is most likely going to get his chance as the placekicker this week. He needs to come through when we’re close, and he has the leg to give us points inside the 35. Chris Summers is a good, smart kid. In reading interviews with him about last week it is clear that no one is more upset than him over his performance. He still has enough talent to be very successful if it is punting, placekicking, or both. Like Travis Dorsch in 2000 though, I think pulling double duty has caused one area to suffer. Should he get a shot at redemption this week I hope he comes through.

We can solve the field goal anxiety if we start getting touchdowns again. Last week we were patient and moved the ball on time-comsuming, sustained drives for the first time in ages. We have to do the same. Do not discount Kory Sheet’s 59 yards last week. He earned every one of them. Purdue teams of old would have abandoned the running game long before he got to 20 yards in similar circumstances. That showed me that, however slowly, we’re actually learning some.

It’s also becoming very old, but Curtis Painter must start playing like we know he can play. Compared to his previous numbers, he has flat-out sucked this year. Ohio State isn’t the best team for him to break out against, but he must be patient, look for other receivers and not turn the ball over. Not looking for receivers cost us the Oregon game when Kory Sheets was wide open and could have walked in during the first overtime. Elliott even showed his elusiveness and ability to read the defense better on his one drive last week. His head actually moved through progressions. We need Painter to do this, but I fear it is too late.

The sad thing is that at this point, it is little things that could be easily fixed or shouldn’t even be issues in the first place that separate us from our opponents. We knew Central Michigan and Notre Dame were weak running teams, but they ran wild. We knew Central Michigan had a bad pass defense and Notre Dame had a bad run defense, but we struggled against both. We have to attack Ohio State’s weaknesses this week, even if they aren’t glaring ones. Those weaknesses are the passing game on both sides of the ball while at least containing or moving the ball on the ground as appropriate. Of course, we're the worst rushing team statistically in the Big Ten both offensively and defensively. it won't be easy.

Their offense isn’t nearly as scary or balanced as Oregon or Penn State, and we actually did alright in those games. Strangely, I think we have an excellent shot to win Saturday. It is only recent history and knowing who we are that prevents me from really believing it.