Buckeyes following last year's recipe
Contrary to what people think in Columbus, it's not Buckeye bashing to question whether Ohio State has enough in the tank to go undefeated and win a second straight national championship.
Tight wins against San Diego State, NC State and Bowling Green are just one reason. Yes, it can be a good sign when a team pulls out the close ones, which has been the trademark of the Buckeyes' 19-game winning streak. But that's also a sign of danger.
An offense that has struggled is another one, raising the question of whether the Buckeyes have enough big plays in them without mercurial Maurice Clarett. The Buckeyes will answer the questions themselves in their next two games. They go to Wisconsin and play host to Iowa, a pair of bruiser teams that are much more capable of going toe-to-toe with Ohio State than its nonconference tormentors.
Meanwhile, Northwestern coach Randy Walker, the first coach to have the dubious distinction of losing to the Buckeyes this fall after losing to them last year, thinks Ohio State has the ingredients to follow last year's recipe.
"They are very similar to last year in a lot of ways," Walker said. "Everybody talks about their defense and their running game. But they have a great kicking game. That might be the strongest aspect of their team. They're just outstanding in the kicking game and they control field position so well. They make you play a long field and it ends up that they are always playing a short field."
Beyond the kicking game, Walker said, quarterback Craig Krenzel is underrated, but perfectly suited to run coach Jim Tressel's buttoned-down offense.
"Offensively, they're going to do what Jim does," the Northwestern coach said. "You can say what you want about it, but it's been very effective. Krenzel may be the most undervalued quarterback in America. Get him healthy and making the plays he can make, and they're very tough to beat. Everybody talks about all these other (quarterback) guys -- they have more stats, more this and more that. But all that kid does is win and find a way to make plays to beat you.
"When you look at it game after game, he has his signature on every victory. He gets overshawdowed by some other things on their team, but I think he's a heck of a player."
And Ohio State expects to have not only Krenzel, who has been sidelined by an elbow injury, back this week. Center Alex Stepanovich (ankle) and fullback Branden Joe, who's been down with an offseason torn pectoral muscle, also should be ready to go at Wisconsin.
Tressel won't cop an injury plea. But the injuries have taken their toll, he said.
"We've been a little bit thin in some areas at some times," the Ohio State coach said. "The less obvious thing is when you lose guys for practice time. (Tight end) Ben Hartsock missed most of the preseason with a broken hand and our running backs, Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall, missed virtually all of the preseason with some nagging injuries."
Put Krenzel and Stepanovich on top of all that, and Ohio State's maligned offense has been far from full strength.
Is Ohio State getting healthy at the right time? Will a healthy Ohio State have enough offense to weather some serious challenges in a Big Ten that has seven ranked teams?
"Time will tell," Walker said. "It's a long season and there are an awful lot of good football teams in our league. But there are a lot of similarities (to last year's unbeaten Buckeyes). They're an awful strong team."
Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.
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