Wednesday, September 29, 2004

OSU toys with offense

Tressel hints at Joe, Pittman getting increased time at Northwestern

By Rusty Miller
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Even though No. 7 Ohio State is unbeaten in three starts, that doesn't mean coach Jim Tressel is without brush fires to stamp out.

Heading into Saturday's Big Ten opener at Northwestern, the Buckeyes have a lot of positives going for them. After all, teams such as LSU, Michigan and Florida State would love to be unbeaten while fielding critical questions about a bland and erratic offense or a bad turnover ratio.

On the other hand, the Buckeyes have several problems that must be fixed and fixed soon if they want to continue to brag about that zero in the loss column.

For instance, tailback Lydell Ross gained 141 yards on 17 carries in the season-opening win over Cincinnati. Since that time he has gained 141 yards on 49 carries. He also lost a late fumble against North Carolina State in the Buckeyes' most recent game prior to last Saturday's bye week.

Tressel is inordinately loyal to his seniors, and he has stuck with Ross even when the ground game appears to be stuck in the mud.

"Someone brought me a statistic that we're 15-0 when he gets more than 15 carries, so I told the staff, shoot, let's just give it to him the first 15 plays of the game and be done with it, if it's that simple," Tressel joked Tuesday.

Three years ago, Ross was inserted into the lineup as a 17-year-old freshman and responded with 124 yards against Indiana.

That spurred the starter, Jonathan Wells, to play better.

Now it's gotten so bad that Wells, who plays for the Houston Texans, is trying to counsel Ross. Wells called Tressel recently and asked for Ross' phone number, so he could call him up and boost his spirits.

Tressel doesn't believe that Ross' doldrums have anything to do with a lack of motivation, so he's not inclined to stick freshman Antonio Pittman or fullback-turned-tailback Branden Joe into the lineup to prod Ross to play better.

"Where I think Lydell needs a little boost of confidence is that he knows he can do better than leaving the ball on the ground, but you have to go out and prove (things) to yourself sometimes," Tressel said. "You've got to go out and earn the right to feel good about yourself."

Pittman, who joined the team for practice last spring, has learned the offensive sets and system and is ready to play. So is Joe, who like Pittman has been fighting off nagging injuries and now appears fully recovered.

"I would expect Branden Joe and Antonio Pittman to have a lot more presence (against Northwestern) than they've had thus far this year," Tressel said.

Pittman said he welcomes the opportunity.

"I don't feel we're performing up to expectations but we're just performing enough to win ballgames," he said. "We need to work on our running game more and I think with me coming back this week healthy that should give us much more of a boost."

Joe said he has not been promised any additional work. He said a twisted ankle isn't 100 percent healed yet, but that he still believes he has something to offer as he finally sees his first action of the season.

"(The running game) has not been what we want it to be, but I think me and Tony offer a change-up, a change in pace," Joe said. "Nothing against Lydell but I'm more of an inside type of guy, Tony's more of a speed guy and I definitely think it will help us get this running game where we want it."

Meanwhile, the offense has been burdened because sophomore Justin Zwick is still getting used to being the triggerman for the Buckeyes. He had two interceptions in each of the Buckeyes' first two games, then avoided any turnovers against North Carolina State.

However, the Ohio State offense was little more than Ross running up the middle for most of the second half as the Buckeyes tried to simply maintain rather than add to their lead.

Tressel said that Zwick has made giant strides.

"Justin's really come along and really I think he has an excellent grasp of what we would like to do," Tressel said. "I've been very pleased."

Told that a Northwestern player referred to the Buckeyes' offense as mediocre, Zwick said, "I think (we're) 3-0. We're happy with that. We wish we could do a little bit better here and there but you can't sit and worry about broken eggs. We're over and done with those three games and now we're trying to move on and get better."

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