The reinforcements are coming, it seems, to help the struggling running game at Ohio State.
As the Buckeyes prepare for their Big Ten opener Saturday at Northwestern (9 p.m., ESPN2), OSU will apparently have freshman tailback Antonio Pittman and senior fullback Branden Joe back in the fold.
Senior Lydell Ross will remain the starter at tailback with senior Maurice Hall up for some spot duty as well. It also looks like sophomore Stan White Jr. will make his second career start at fullback.
But having Pittman and Joe back in the fold can only help.
On the year, OSU is 84th nationally in rushing offense at 121 yards per game. Following a 21-carry, 51-yard performance at N.C. State, Ross has 282 yards on 66 carries (4.3 average) in three games.
Pittman Brings The Juice
Pittman graduated early from Akron Buchtel last winter, then enrolled in time for spring football.
Pittman burst on the scene with 66 yards on seven carries – including a 38-yard jaunt – in the season opener against Cincinnati. But he suffered a thigh bruise in that game and missed the second game against Marshall. He logged two carries for 9 yards in the win at N.C. State as OSU coach Jim Tressel did not want to “baptize” the freshman against the tough Wolfpack defense.
“When I came in early, it helped out a lot. I came into camp with no pressure on my back,” Pittman said. “I came in and got a chance to learn the plays. It was a chance for me to get better. I got injured the first week, missed the second game, played a little the third game and the bye week helped me a lot. This week, I’m 100 percent. I’m ready to roll.”
The 5-11, 190-pound Pittman talked about his style of running.
“I change the game because I’m a shifty runner,” Pittman said. “When I get in, the tempo changes and they’ve got to look for cutbacks. When Lydell gets in there, he’s more of a power back. The lanes just open up for him.”
When asked about his favorite running back, Pittman said, “Clinton Portis. He’s enough said. That’s my favorite back. He’s just so shifty. I’ve got to move my number up one next year (to No. 26) to try and be like him.”
Pittman was also asked about having to bide his time in OSU’s crowded backfield.
“It’s not frustrating at all,” he said. “When you have two seniors in front of you – one a captain – and they’ve paid their dues, they deserve what they get.”
Despite the offense’s struggles, Pittman said the Buckeyes believe things are close to coming together.
“We’re very confident,” he said. “If we weren’t confident, there would be no point in us stepping out onto the field on Saturday. We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to step up the running game up. The running game will open the passing game and we’ll be an all around team.
“I don’t see that we have a point to prove. We’ve just got to get better. Like any other team, we struggled. We went against a good defense with N.C. State. We had the bye week to work on it and also this week. The running game will be ready this week.”
Reporters asked Pittman how much he expects to see the ball Saturday.
“Only time will tell how many carries I get or how much action I see,” he said. “That’s up to Coach Tressel. Whenever I get in, I’m going to make the best of the situation.”
Joe Says Time Is Now
If Pittman seems anxious to get back on the field, the situation is much more urgent for Joe.
His career has been full of stops and starts. He missed a good portion of last year due to injury, then broke loose for 46 yards on 11 carries in the Fiesta Bowl win over Kansas State. Joe, from nearby Westerville South, expected to be in the rotation early and often this season. But then he suffered a high ankle sprain on the first day of contact in fall camp and went on the shelf.
“If it doesn’t kill you, it can only make you stronger,” Joe reasoned. “I guess you’ve got to live by that. I was looking forward to keeping the ball rolling and getting the ball a little bit more and being a major part of this offense. But then I get a sprained ankle. I am champing at the bit to let all my hard work over the summer show.
“I don’t think I’ve been overlooked. I haven’t been capable of playing at the speed I needed to be effective. I’ve been on the backburner until I was able to play.”
Joe talked about what role he might play Saturday.
“I’m in the rotation as far as practice,” he said. “I probably can’t let you know how much I’m going to actually play. That kind of depends on how the game goes. But I feel good and I’m excited to be back.
“It’s my season opener of my senior season. That pretty much speaks for itself. I’m excited to hit a different color jersey. I’ve been practicing against these guys for months now.”
Joe did get into the game at N.C. State and did deliver a key block on Ross’ 3-yard touchdown run. But he was seen on the sidelines throughout the game with trainers working on his injured ankle just so he could play a few plays.
“At N.C. State, it was still up in the air depending how the game went,” he said. “We kind of had the game under control. I did play sparingly.”
Joe discussed the state of OSU’s running game and the criticism Ross has received.
“It’s not been what we want it to be, but I think Tony and I offer a change in pace,” he said. “Not taking anything against Lydell, but I’m more of an inside the tackles guy and Tony is more of a speed guy. I think it will definitely help us to get us where we expect this running game to be.
“It’s tough. I hate when guys get the finger pointed at them because it’s more than one guy’s fault. If something isn’t going right, there are 11 of us on the field and we all like to take the blame. He’s our starting tailback and a senior captain. They’re going to praise him when things are going good and criticize him when things go wrong.”
Joe discussed the start of the Big Ten season.
“Any Big Ten road game, we’re going to get the team’s best shot,” he said. “We’re going up their with our A-game prepared. We don’t overlook anyone. We definitely noticed that stat. We see it as an opportunity to get off and be more productive than we have this season. We see it as somewhere where we can improve.”
And, even though he is not quite 100 percent, Joe is ready to go.
“I’m not where I want to be (healthwise), but I’m running out of time,” he said. “I’ve got to get this show on the road. I’m probably 85 or 90 percent. That’s as good as it’s going to be right now. I’ve got to get moving.”
Ross Deflects Criticism
Ross’ talked about his long day at N.C. State.
“It seemed at times like N.C. State was putting nine guys in the box,” he said. “Guys have been playing us hard and giving us some good competition.
“There were times when I was running ball when I should have just took it – I should have just hit the hole rather than trying to make a big play. Sometimes you’ve just got to go with what you see.”
Regarding the play of the offensive line, Ross said, “They’re playing good. They’re getting better. We’ve just got to come together more.”
Reporters also asked Ross about his emerging teammates.
“Do I feel them pushing me?” he said. “I don’t know if I feel them pushing me. I just know they’re there.
“I get out there and play hard without having someone to push me. That’s how I go about playing every Saturday anyway.”
In particular, Pittman appears to have a bright future. Ross has taken notice of that.
“He has a lot of tools,” Ross said. “As you’ve seen these last few games, he can run.”
Ross has averaged 22 carries a game this season. That could change, although he still figures to get the lion’s share of the work.
“I’m happy with that,” Ross said. “I could do more, but I’m happy with that.”
Ross lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown against Marshall. Then, he fumbled near the end of the N.C. State game as the Buckeyes were about to put the game away.
“I was stripped twice,” he said. “But that’s no excuse to fumble. Guys made good plays, but I need to just hang on to the ball.”
While message board posters, talk show callers and newspaper letterwriters have been negative about the offense, Ross is tuning all of that out.
“I just don’t listen to them,” he said. “It’s that easy because I haven’t heard any criticism from my side.”