- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- The formula that Jim Tressel has used to win at Ohio State is Midwestern simple. The Buckeyes depend on defense and special teams to pin the opponent in its own territory until it makes a mistake. If the offense contributes, as it did last season, great. If it didn't contribute much, as was the case in the previous three years, that was OK, too.
It is known as Tresselball, and you would have to say it has worked pretty well. In five seasons, Tressel has won one national championship and two Big Ten titles. He has won 50 games and lost 13, which makes his .794 winning percentage third in Buckeyes history behind John B. Eckstorm, who went 22-4-3 (.810) during 1899-1901, and Carroll C. Widdoes, who went 16-2 (.889) during 1944-45.
As Ohio State prepares for its Sept. 2 opener against Northern Illinois, however, up is down and down is up. The Buckeyes' offense returns eight starters, including smooth quarterback Troy Smith and quicksilver wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. The defense returns only two starters: tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson. There is no one on the roster who has ever attempted a collegiate extra point or field goal.
All of which is to say: Has Tressel gone all Mike Leach on us? Whatever happened to the game plans as conservative as the head coach's sweater-vest-and-tie look?
The answer, Tressel said, is nothing. There has been no change in outlook, only one in experience.
"There may be an awareness shift externally," Tressel said, referring to the unknown names on the Buckeyes' starting defense. "Internally, we won't change a thing as to what we deem important. That's the only way we know how to do it."
No change? No clock-milking by the offense in September to keep a young defense off the field? No patient grinding out of first downs to shorten the game?
Tressel listened to the question with the patience of a first-grade teacher, which just may have been his assessment of the level of the inquiry.
"Defense and special teams still have got to be at the root of our excellence," Tressel said. "I don't think you can win a championship without excellent special teams. Again, I haven't experienced everything, but I've experienced a lot, and I just don't think you can. I've seen teams win it a little more offensively, a little more defensively. We're not going to change any emphasis.
"Will we go into the game thinking we have to outscore people? No. That's not what we do."
You can say that again. These Buckeyes are 180 degrees different from the 2002-03 Buckeyes, who went 25-2 with an offense whose every first down was cause for a school holiday. Take the 16-13 overtime victory over Purdue in 2003. Ohio State failed to score an offensive touchdown, and in the second half never got within 23 yards of the Boilermakers end zone.
"We've never de-emphasized offense," Tressel said. "We've always tried to play both sides of the ball to make sure we're in harmony. We need to be in concert with what we do. Sometimes, I've seen teams make mistakes in who they're trying to be doesn't relate. You try to work on these things in concert."
After that Purdue game, the Buckeyes defensive players bristled at the notion that they might ever tire of carrying the offense. Three years later, that's pretty much the same reaction that came from Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith.
"It's a team effort in every sense of the game," Smith said. "Whether it's special teams, offense or defense, we all rely on one another to get to the next level, to get that victory."
Not only that, Smith said, but after a summer of seven-on-seven drills, he doesn't see much cause for concern.
"I think they're going to do more than enough to keep us in every football game," Smith said. "I think one thing I've seen thus far is a fast bunch. Year after year we produce a good defense. I think this is going to be another year where we got a group of guys who are going to fly around the ball and make plays."
You can make the case that Ohio State isn't as in need of defense as two returning starters might suggest. Senior linebacker Mike D'Andrea, for example, is a medical redshirt who played extensively in 2002-03 before a knee injury knocked him out of most of the last two seasons. Fellow senior linebacker John Kerr started 12 games as a freshman in 2002 at Indiana, before transferring. Fifth-year senior end Jay Richardson started six games as a sophomore and came into most games last season on the second series. Sophomore corner Malcolm Jenkins started three games last season.
"I think it's the recognition factor," Tressel said. "People recognize Troy's name and Teddy's name and [tailback] Antonio Pittman's name and [center] Doug Datish's name. They just do. There'll be some names they recognize a little bit on our defensive side. But right now the experience is those guys like Quinn Pitcock, who's not going to have gigantic numbers. But turn on the film in our last two games. If he doesn't make a few plays, who knows what the difference is? And you can't even read it in the stats."
OK, maybe there's no need to panic. But there's no question that, for the first time in Tressel's time at Ohio State, the offense is the most experienced and most accomplished unit on the field. The 2006 edition of Tresselball is new. The onus is on the Buckeyes to see whether it's improved.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Armed with an explosive offense, Tresselball will have a new look in 2006. The onus is on Ohio State to see if it's improved, writes Ivan Maisel.