At his weekly Tuesday press luncheon, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel reviewed the Buckeyes’ 45-31 win over Minnesota, looked ahead to this week’s match-up against visiting Illinois, and tackled a number of questions from reporters.
Tressel was happy to report that right tackle Kirk Barton has been cleared and could play this weekend.
“We were told that Kirk could go today,” Tressel said. “Now, we'll see what that means. To what effect. (Getting him back) would be great.”
Also on the injury front, tight end Ryan Hamby will likely miss at least another week, and running back Brandon Schnittker is likely out until the bowl game. But the Buckeyes should get defensive back Tyler Everett back this week.
“I don't expect Hamby and Schnittker,” Tressel said. “We expect Tyler Everett, yeah.”
The coach was asked if true freshman Alex Boone will lose his starting spot once Barton returns.
“I think it would depend how far back Barton is,” Tressel said. “I think Alex has come along. Graded a winning performance for the first time which is pretty good and he's coming along. But we always talk about, ‘You don't lose a position by injury as long as you’re 100 percent effective when you come back.’ So, we'll have to assess that.”
Late in the fourth quarter against Minnesota, Tressel decided to insert freshman quarterback Todd Boeckman into the game. Boeckman hadn’t played since the opener and the Buckeyes were only going to hand off the ball at that point of the game. But, as expected, the move raised some eyebrows. Many wondered why Justin Zwick wasn’t put in the game.
(Maybe Tressel simply felt Zwick didn’t need much extra work handing the ball off. Or maybe he didn’t want to “insult” him by putting him in during garbage time.)
“Where was Justin? I'm not exactly sure,” Tressel said. “At the moment in time we knew we had a couple -- minute and a half, two minutes, whatever it was, to chew up and I was looking around to get some eye contact with a guy to send in and I happened to see Todd. And, you know, I'd asked on the phone, ‘Hey, where's Justin and so forth,’ and contrary to when Troy got banged up early in the game and it was third and three and all of a sudden looked like he might be out, obviously. ‘Hey, Justin, get going, get a snap, you're going to have to complete a pass here.’ Didn't feel like it was that kind of situation and had we thought about throwing a little bit there with a minute and a half to go, probably would have had Justin go in and get those reps, but, you know, didn't see the need for it.”
A reporter asked if Zwick was not where he was supposed to be on the sidelines.
“Oh, no, no,” Tressel said. “It was -- you know, we don't get many of those 1:30 to go and the game's still not in doubt. So, he was probably just, you know, elsewhere. Nothing negative though. Don’t – not that you would – but don't turn it into something it's not.”
The Buckeyes’ special teams was a big factor in the win over the Golden Gophers. Ted Ginn returned a kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown and Josh Huston prevented any returns from Minnesota with eight touchbacks on as many kickoffs.
“Well, we've been fortunate with our return game,” Tressel said. “Remember earlier in the year, Santonio (Holmes) had two or three called back that could have made games a little different than they were, and when we get hot with our returns, we can be even more explosive. And the field position situations, and even scores, you know, those are -- those are great emotional lifts for us when we hit home runs or get the ball out to the 50.
“And that's one thing that I really think that goes unnoticed in the Illinois situation. I think their punter's perhaps one of the best in the league, is going to hit it a long way, and he's also the kickoff guy and he's had 18 out of 27 touchbacks, making people start on the 20 like we're used to. We like getting those kickoff returns. We've got a chance to either score, or start on the 40. But that's huge and we spend a lot of time on it, we take a lot of pride in it.”
And regarding Huston, Tressel said: “Josh had a lot of life in his leg and making them start 80 yards away, making anyone start 80 yards away for our defense will make their job harder.”
Ohio State is an early 35-point favorite over last-place Illinois and Tressel was asked if such a big point spread makes him uncomfortable.
“I didn't know it until this moment,” he said. “Yeah, it makes you uncomfortable because we're not 35 points better. If we do everything perfectly, and so forth, you know, let the chips fall where they may. But we've really got to focus on Ohio State becoming the best team we can be in November. Because that's where you win championships and it happens to be Illinois, it happens to be a team that’s hungry. I'm sure they feel a little improvement. I'm sure that locker room after the Wisconsin game was a lot different than that locker room a couple games earlier. But it's still going to be about what we do.”
In the Minnesota game, for once, it was Ohio State’s offense bailing out the defense and not the other way around. The Buckeyes’ defense was torched for over 500 yards.
“You know, that was -- that was a different situation there,” Tressel said. “Eight of those plays were 297 yards. I've never seen that happen. To Minnesota's credit, they jumped up and caught some balls, made some plays. The thing I liked best about the whole scenario was that our guys weren't going to sit and sulk about that, they were going to keep playing and keep pounding. As the second half unfolded, I don't know how many yards they rushed for in the second half, but it wasn't very many. And take away that last 80-yard drive, we really dominated the second half with our defense, but we can not afford to have eight plays like that. That's for sure.”
No one questions OSU quarterback Troy Smith’s toughness. He runs the ball like a tailback, putting his head down and trying to run over defenders. But with Smith getting smacked in the jaw against Minnesota (which required stitches following the game) there might be some concern that he’s taking too many big hits.
But Tressel doesn’t plan on telling Smith to tone it down, or change his running style.
“I don't think you can tell guys how to run,” Tressel said. “The minute you start telling them to … you know, before the game I told them every inch is important. During the game, I can't tell them, well, you know, don't go for that extra inch. He's a tough kid and he got banged pretty good and his head was a little wobbly after the ballgame, but he's a tough kid.”
Some of OSU’s players have mentioned that Smith is not as aggressive in terms of chewing his teammates out when they make mistakes. He’s still a good leader, just not so much “in your face” as he was last year.
“I think whenever you have more confidence in what you're doing, you know, that kind of evens your keel a little bit,” Tressel said. “You know, I've never really seen him jump on guys too bad. Sometimes you do step over that line of competitiveness and wanting us all to do well and we all say something wrong at times but I've never seen it being a big issue. But I think Troy has done a good job, especially in the last month of really focusing hard on simply what he needed to do and not worry about, you know, things beyond his control and outside of his realm and I think it's paid well for him.”
Tressel was asked why he thinks Smith has been more focused in the last month.
“I think more opportunity,” he said. “He went through a period from December, really, through the first game where he didn't get to saddle up behind the center the whole time and do it every day, every snap. And so I think the opportunity, as he earned it back, if you will, and then taking advantage of it -- a lot of times it's just a matter of, you know, a guy getting a chance to get better and get focused and so forth.”
Smith leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency with a 155.6 rating. Less and less of his critics seem to be popping up.
“What it says to me is that's why we're contending,” Tressel said of Smith’s statistics. “And if he'll remain excellent -- he doesn't have to be the top ranked guy -- but if he remains a top guy passing efficiency wise, then we will contend. I think it's not a surprise or a coincidence that that's the case.”
Tressel was also asked about Holmes, who has established himself as of the top receivers in the country.
“Santonio grew up with expectations that you win every time you compete, whether it's in a race or a baseball game or a football game or a conference championship or whatever,” Tressel said. “When you go to Glades Central and you're not the state champ, you had a bad year. That's just what he was raised with and brought that here and added that to our football team in 2002 and you talk about all the little things that piled up to have a great 2002, Santonio Holmes' competitiveness and expectations and all that against our defense every day was huge. And he's carried it on now that he's been the guy we go to and we constantly look for ways to get the ball in his hands so that he can make things happen and I think he gives the rest of the offensive group some energy and the return units energy and you know, that's why he's a special player.”
Sophomore tailback Antonio Pittman was the Big Ten’s co-offensive player of the week with 23 carries for 186 yards and two scores against Minnesota. For the first time since 2002, the Buckeyes appear to have a bell-cow tailback.
“I think Antonio Pittman, we've said it since last spring and everything else, he's going to grow into being an outstanding Big Ten tailback,” Tressel said. “I think he's doing that and, you know, it was exciting for him to get in the end zone this past weekend. I thought he played a complete game. Assignment wise, he graded a winning performance. Assignment wise was excellent, pass pro he was solid, did a good job on the screen play and made a big play and of course got to carry it 23 times. I know he'd like to carry it 30 and maybe one day we'll mature into that and grow into that. But I think any time we can spread the ball out and Santonio can get it X number of times and Teddy and Gonzo (Anthony Gonzalez) and Antonio carry it a bunch … we still need to get a second tailback, in my opinion, a few more carries for us to be complete and that's what November is to become a complete team. But Antonio Pittman, I think, has progressed just exactly as we hoped.”
Pittman was also named OSU’s offensive player of the week.
Senior center Nick Mangold was the Jim Parker offensive lineman of the week and Holmes was the choice for the Jack Tatum hit of the week (for a crack-back block on Pittman’s statue of liberty run).
The defensive player of the week was junior strong safety Donte Whitner, the attack force player of the week was junior defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock, and the special teams player of the week was junior safety Antonio Smith.
The scout team players of the week included: Ryan Franzinger (special teams), Juan Garnier (defense) and Will Crall (offense).
The players’ view
It seems fairly obvious that this is Holmes’ final season at Ohio State. He’s a fourth-year junior with two kids back home in Florida and he’s projected to be a late first round pick in the NFL draft. Also, Holmes said himself that this was his “money year” coming into the season.
But he’s not ready to say for sure that this is his last year in a Buckeye uniform.
“There’s a possibility for both,” Holmes said.
When asked if he still views this season as his money year, Holmes replied: “With the two losses on our schedule, I don’t think I put together the money year for this team. That was my focus on being a money year was more for this team. How much am I going to contribute? How much am I going to put forth in every effort as far as in the meeting rooms, on the field for practice and every game and carry myself outside of football. Just by those two losses kind of dropped it down a little bit – my focus. But right now I’m just trying to finish out the season and hope we win the Big Ten.”
Holmes takes a lot of pride in blocking and was pleased to win the Jack Tatum hit of the week award.
“We’ve been working on it with (receivers coach Darrell) Hazell,” Holmes said. “I think we do a pretty good job of getting in there and making some good crack-back blocks on safeties and linebackers.
“I remember one game back in high school where I had no catches, but I had eight pancakes. That was something that I really like grew on after that.”
On the long returns from Ginn, Holmes was asked what percentage is Ginn’s natural ability, and what percentage is good blocking from the other 10 Buckeyes out there.
“I’d give about 85 percent of that to Ted – his ability to get free,” Holmes said. “And I’d probably give the other 15 percent to the guys blocking. I don’t credit myself a lot for blocking, but I know a lot of times I’ll have a key block here and there for him to make big returns.”
Holmes feels that OSU’s offense has finally turned the corner. Just like last season, it took a while to click, but everything seems to be running smooth now.
“I just think our offense is really getting the job done,” Holmes said. “Guys are really sticking together and fighting it out as hard as they can and not making mistakes. I think (Tressel) has really been talking to us a lot about, ‘How hard do you want to play and how much do you really want these games, these last few games?’ And I think our guys have taken a lot of pride in it.”
Holmes has been a big play guy throughout his career, but especially in the last three weeks.
“I just know I have to get out there and run the right routes and get open,” he said. “That’s the biggest key of getting the ball. I just think our coaches are giving me the opportunity to make plays and I’m taking advantage of them.”
* Whitner led the Buckeyes with 10 tackles against Minnesota and is third on the team this season with 47 stops. Whitner brings a physical presence to the secondary and he also brings a lot of attitude. If he hits someone, he will tell them all about it.
“I just try and play hard and always play to the whistle,” he said. “We want to make sure those receivers and backs know that we’re there and we will hit them hard.”
Whitner says OSU is still focused on winning the Big Ten championship.
“I’m not sure who all Wisconsin plays, but with a little help and winning out, we have a good chance of being Big Ten champions,” he said.
There’s also a chance OSU could play in a BCS bowl game for the third time in four years.
“We do talk about that sometimes, but it’s not our main focus right now,” Whitner said. “Our main focus is to win the Big Ten championship and going out and playing Illinois as well as we’re capable of playing, and then coming out against Northwestern and Michigan.”
Being out of the national championship race hasn’t taken any of the intensity away from OSU’s players, according to Whitner.
“We’re very interested,” he said. “Coach Heacock always says, ‘Break records.’ He always wants us to break records. We went out and had all those sacks against Michigan State. Just because we don’t have a chance to go to the national championship doesn’t mean that we can’t be the best defense and the best team in the country. We had two tough losses and we still believe that we are one of the best teams in the country.”
Whitner shook his head when asked what went wrong at Minnesota. The Buckeyes are accustomed to dominating defensively. Giving up 31 points and over 500 yards is unfamiliar territory (not including games played in Iowa City in 2004).
“We went out and we didn’t perform like we’re capable of performing,” Whitner said. “We all know that. Special teams stepped up, offense stepped up. The defense didn’t really do what we’re capable of doing and what we expect to do. We gave up too many big plays and we know that. On one play you see a guy doing his job, and on the next play you see a guy not doing his job. We can’t have that. Everybody has to do their job at the same time and when we do that, we’re very successful.”
Whitner warns that Illinois is better than its record indicates.
“They have good athletes on their team – guys that can make plays,” he said. “Their quarterback is a good athlete. He can scramble; he can run the football. It’s just mistakes. Mental mistakes. It’s not that they don’t have good athletes and good coaching. It’s the mental mistakes and if they clear up some of those mental mistakes their record will be a lot better than what it is.”