Saturday, August 14, 2004

Bucks' defense: Business as usual

The (Newark, Ohio) Advocate

COLUMBUS - In what's becoming a seemingly annual ritual, Ohio State players got together earlier this week and answered a bunch of questions about how the defense is going to have to carry the offense.

These questions have been commonplace during Jim Tressel's short reign as Buckeye head coach. Ohio State has had some great defenses lately, units that have for the most part picked up the slack for yawn-inducing offense.

Under Tressel's direction, Ohio State's offenses have been about as wild and crazy as one of his signature grey sweater vests, relying on a run-first, punt-often philosophy. Only 10 teams in Division I college football punted more than the Buckeyes did last year.

This is a fine approach when you have a stud running back as Ohio State did two seasons ago in Maurice Clarett. When you don't, you can forget about winning championships.

All of this leads to the one person who will most influence Ohio State's success or failure this year. America, meet Lydell Ross.

Ross is not garnering much attention at this point of the preseason, because a full-fledged QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY is in its embryonic stages in Columbus. Everybody loves a QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY, and thus, most of Buckeye Nation is focused squarely on whether golden-boy Justin Zwick or scrambling Troy Smith will garner most of the snaps this year.

In the meantime, Ohio State is in search of a running game.

Two seasons ago with Clarett carrying the load, Tressel's offense worked like an efficient machine. The Buckeyes ground away at teams, rushing an average of 45 times per game for a hefty 191 yards per contest. Those numbers allowed the Buckeyes to accomplish Tressel's offensive core goals of controlling the clock, maintaining field position and keeping the defense out of bad situations.

Last year, with Clarett out of the picture, the Buckeye running game slumped badly. Ohio State averaged less yards per carry than the previous year (3.3 to 4.3), less carries (38 to 45) and less rushing yards per game (126 to 191). Conversely, the defense ran out of gas as the season progressed, something clearly evident when the Buckeyes got thumped by Michigan 35-21 in the regular-season finale.

This lack of a running game is the biggest reason Ohio State was unable to repeat as national champions in a season that saw it return the great majority of starters from its title team.

Which brings us to Lydell Ross.

Ross was the tallest midget last year and led the low-impact Buckeye running game with 826 yards. He averaged 63.5 rushing yards per game, a pedestrian number for a team that prides itself on Woody Hayes' ground-bound approach to football.

Ohio State needs Ross to be better this year. They need him to run more and more productively because the other backfield options aren't that promising in the short term.

Branden Joe is a fullback. Maurice Hall has never fulfilled the promise that made him one of the nation's top running back recruits. Freshmen Antonio Pittman and Eric Haw are talented, but expecting another first-year back to come in, grab the starting job and run with it is unrealistic.

For a number of reasons Ross is the Buckeyes' best bet at running back.

Ross is a senior and Tressel loves to put the fortunes of his club on the seniors' backs. At 6-feet and 225 pounds, he's big enough to be a workhorse. And Ross has talent, maybe not first-round NFL draft pick talent, but enough skill that he should be making a bigger difference than he's made up until this year.

The reasons for Ross' lack of production are shadowy. He's been great at times, then average. He burst onto the scene as a freshman, then disappeared into Clarett's shadow. He started out hurt last year, then got healthier and more productive.

This can be Lydell Ross' year.

If it isn't, it probably isn't going to be a year worth remembering.

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