Sunday, September 28, 2003

No. 4 Ohio State 20, Northwestern 0

Ohio State trudges on; Signs of improvement are slow in coming for veterans

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS - At 5:20 p.m. Saturday, a couple walked through a vacant Ohio Stadium and lay their baby at midfield to snap pictures. The infant's movements mimicked the Buckeyes offense on display hours earlier.

"Baby steps."

That's the phrasing Ohio State tight end Ben Hartsock and offensive lineman Shane Olivea used to describe a group still finding its footing five games into its national championship defense.

Despite 10 returning starters on offense, the OSU team on display Saturday in a 20-0 beating of Northwestern is one that would be lost without its dynamic defense.

"Our defense is definitely the strength of our team," Hartsock said. "It's really frustrating for a team to be as inconsistent as we have been on offense. ... Our coaches are starting to pull their hair out."

The Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) entered the game ranked last in the league in total offense and rushing offense, and first in turnovers committed.

They operated in fits and starts Saturday, producing two strong drives yet continuing to struggle running the ball. Beset with injuries, they are scaling back their game plan in to restore focus on fundamentals.

"You shouldn't be taking too many baby steps when you've been in this system for three, four years like some of us have," Olivea said.

"At certain points, you have to look at what you've got. Maybe the coaches decided to cut back the playbook (to say), 'We're only going to run a certain amount of plays; we're going to have to execute these.' "

OSU entered Saturday averaging just 295.2 yards a game - 15 fewer than any other Big Ten team. Its 311 yards Saturday weren't impressive against a Wildcat team (2-3, 0-1) that had allowed 394.2 per game against a middling nonconference schedule.

Maurice Hall had another woeful day with 12 yards on nine carries. Lydell Ross had 43 yards and a touchdown on nine carries but left with a sprained knee.

The Buckeyes rushed for 125 yards Saturday, lowering their season average to 127.2 per game.

"We can't be successful continuing to do that," Hartsock said. "With such a physical style of football they play (in the Big Ten), you've got to be able to run the ball to open up the pass, and we've been kind of doing the backwards of that right now."

Meanwhile, OSU extended the nation's longest winning streak to 19 games, thanks to its defense. It posted its first shutout since a 41-0 victory over Illinois in 1998, holding a Wildcat offense that had averaged 424 yards to a season-low 185.

On offense, coach Jim Tressel shuffled his linemen and gave several different players their first extensive action of the season in an effort to spark his team.

Behind fifth-year senior QB Scott McMullen, OSU scored on its first two drives. Then Tressel made the surprise decision to insert freshman Justin Zwick at QB for the third series.

The Buckeyes went three-and-out, and Northwestern promptly drove 70 yards to the OSU 8.

The Wildcats botched their chance to get back in the game, as a holding penalty on lineman Zach Strief (Milford High) negated a TD run by QB Brett Basanez. After a sack and another penalty, NU missed a 35-yard field goal.

But the Buckeyes' momentum was gone; OSU had just one first down on its last four drives of the half.

After this week's bye, the Buckeyes play their first road game of the season Oct. 11 at Wisconsin.

"I think we are seeing a little bit of incremental improvement in some things" on offense, Tressel said, "but probably not as much as any of us would like."

Ohio St.10073-20

First Quarter

OSU-Ross 12 run (Nugent kick), 8:39.

OSU-FG Nugent 32, 4:24.

Third Quarter

OSU-Hamby 1 pass from McMullen (Nugent kick), 8:31.

Fourth Quarter

OSU-FG Nugent 42, 8:34.


First downs1116
Return Yards1030
Time of Possession28:4331:17


RUSHING-Northwestern, Wright 16-55, Basanez 9-32, Herron 8-27, Aikens 2-14, Jordan 1-1, Webb 4-(minus 8). Ohio St., Ross 9-43, Guilford 8-29, McMullen 3-23, M.Hall 9-12, Smith 2-12, Joe 3-4, Schnittker 1-2.

PASSING-Northwestern, Basanez 10-24-0-64, Webb 0-1-0-0. Ohio St., McMullen 16-25-1-166, Zwick 3-7-0-20.

RECEIVING-Northwestern, Jordan 3-28, Philmore 2-15, Aikens 2-10, Patrick 1-6, Herron 1-4, Bogenrief 1-1. Ohio St., Jenkins 5-51, Hartsock 5-50, Carter 3-39, Hamby 2-6, Ross 1-15, Childress 1-13, R.Hall 1-8, M.Hall 1-4.

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