Wednesday, October 8, 2003

With each OSU win, questions multiply

Offense, schedule are concerns; defense still solid

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS - Ohio State's 19-game win streak by no means has been a scorched-earth tour. The last 12 victories have been by an average of 10 points. So all these Buckeyes seem to do well is win. Now, can they win it all?

Only one team since 1979 has won back-to-back national championships: Nebraska in 1994-95. As the Buckeyes (5-0) enter the heart of their Big Ten schedule, their fate remains in their hands.

Football analysts all cite the same reason the third-ranked Buckeyes could claim another crown: defense.

OSU ranks 10th nationally in total defense, allowing 273 yards a game, and leads the country in rushing defense with a 43.4-yard average.

We're still waiting, though, for an offense to develop.

"Because they play great defense, they've got a shot," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "But I think the lack of a legitimate running game will catch up with them."

Here's a breakdown of questions in the title chase.

• What does the schedule hold?

OSU played its first five games at home, so the journey gets substantially tougher. Four of the final seven games are on the road; five are against ranked teams.

These next two weeks could be telling: No. 23 Wisconsin on the road Saturday and No. 14 Iowa at home.

• What will OSU face that's different?

Teams will try running right at the Buckeyes. OSU's first five opponents utilized spread offenses and predominately passed.

Wisconsin ranks ninth nationally in rushing, averaging 222.5 yards a game.

• What could carry OSU to a national championship?

Its strengths, besides defense, are red-zone execution and special teams. OSU has scored on 18 of 19 trips inside the 25 - 94.7 percent, best in the Big Ten. All-American kicker Mike Nugent is 7-of-8 on field goals, and OSU ranks second in the league in net punting average (40.8 yards).

• What are the biggest concerns?

Despite returning 10 offensive starters, OSU ranks last in the league and 105th in the nation in total offense at 298 yards per game. It has committed 13 turnovers and averaged 72.6 yards in penalties, both second-worst in the league.

This team still lacks a replacement for tackle-breaking tailback Maurice Clarett. Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall, each averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, have been disappointments. Freshman Ira Guilford may get more chances there.

• Why could OSU improve?

It finally should be at full strength this week as QB Craig Krenzel, offensive lineman Alex Stepanovich and defensive lineman Darrion Scott return from injuries.

• Would one loss end national title hopes?

Not necessarily. Often, a one-loss team has been invited to the BCS title game. It depends when and to whom the loss is suffered.

"If you're going to lose, you'd better get it over with," Herbstreit said. "If they'd lose Saturday and fall to No. 10 or 11 (in the polls), that gives them six more games to work their way back up."

• What are the intangibles?

If Chris Gamble starts playing offense again and sparks that group. How OSU plays on the road. The pressure of the win streak vs. the acumen for winning in the clutch. The biggest reason for hope is that the Buckeyes haven't yet had a complete effort.

"There's not a guy on the team that thinks we've played as well as we can," Krenzel said.



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