Buckeyes lacking running game
Now that it's "Goodbye, season" for Maurice Clarett, do the Buckeyes have what it takes to march into New Orleans for another national-championship game?
Even the most optimistic Ohio State fans probably weren't booking Sugar Bowl packages this week on the strength of the Buckeyes, a 32-point favorite, sneaking past San Diego State 16-13 without managing an offensive touchdown.
The Buckeyes were supposed to be a juggernaut this season. They returned 10 starters on offense even without the return of Clarett and six starters on defense, and they had their usual contingent of dazzling recruits ready to step in where needed. Squads like that aren't supposed to depend on a Clarett to hammer a team like San Diego State.
On the other hand, in winning their 16th straight game, you could argue that it was business as usual for the Buckeyes, if you remember the way they eked out their 2002 national championship.
Cincinnati, 23-19. Wisconsin, 19-14 after trailing in the fourth quarter. Penn State, 13-7, with no offensive touchdowns. Purdue, 10-6 on a very late touchdown pass. Illinois, 23-16 in overtime. Michigan, 14-9. And the national-championship win, 31-24 against Miami, was a double-overtime instant classic.
Conventional wisdom says, "Well, yeah, but that was last year." The voters in both major polls took a look at that San Diego State game and promptly moved Ohio State down a notch, to No. 3 behind Oklahoma and Miami.
The Buckeyes protest: Hey, we won!
"This reminded me of the Cincinnati game. But there's nothing wrong with winning ugly; 2-0 is lovely," said safety Will Allen, who gave the Buckeyes their only touchdown on a 100-yard interception return. "We found out in the face of adversity we can step up. That's what it's going to take."
It's probably going to take more scoring wizardry than an interception and three field goals to beat NC State. Even though the Wolfpack was surprised 38-24 by Wake Forest last Saturday, quarterback Philip Rivers, a top Heisman candidate, threw for three touchdowns and a career-high 433 yards.
If there's a key for Ohio State to stay in the hunt for a second straight national championship, it's probably to put together a running game. No doubt Clarett would have been the best option. But juniors Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross would be featured backs at all but a handful of schools.
Hall put up decent numbers, 91 yards on 19 carries, against San Diego State. Ross, nursing a sore foot, had 16 on seven.
Neither is a dazzler like Clarett. But with a gritty pass-and-run threat, Craig Krenzel, at quarterback, and the talent Ohio State has at receiver and on the line, it would seem that Hall and Ross should be enough.
But Tressel knows the running game needs to get better.
"We don't feel as if we played as good as we'll need to play, as good as we're capable of playing. That's the good news," the third-year coach said. "There's a lot we need to do better. But I think our guys have done a good job of looking in the mirror and saying, 'Well, these are the the things we've done well, these are the things we didn't do well,' and continued to grow. You can't grow unless you are focused."
There are two potentially positive issues for Ohio State as it readies for Rivers and NC State.
For one, unlike ho-hum San Diego State, the Wolfpack is a clear and present danger, a team that ought to get the Buckeyes' juices going.
For another, the messy Clarett business is virtually behind them. Tressel insists it hasn't been a distraction, saying, "The coaching staff and the team are resolved to the fact that we don't have him and we won't have him. We've been trying to put every ounce of our energy into preparing for Washington, San Diego State and now NC State."
It's one thing to say the Clarett affair hasn't had an effect. Now that it is clear Ohio State will be Clarett-less, the Buckeyes can really get down to the business of defending their national championship.
But if they don't start doing things better, there will be no Dixieland jazz in their holiday plans.
Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.