At first glance, it was not a pretty sight.
Ohio State finished Saturday’s last game with Akron with just 20 points in a 20-2 win in Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes left for the halftime break with just three points on the board, and had given up two on a first-quarter safety. Perhaps worst of all, OSU turned the ball over five times, all of which came past its own 40-yard line.
After the game, offensive tackle Kirk Barton said he would be miserable all night, while tailback Chris Wells echoed his frustration. Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman was animated in his frustration, especially at the five turnovers. When most members of the offense were asked if the team had improved from week one to week two, they were unable to say yes.
Then, three days later, after looking at the film, a new message emerged: Things just weren’t that bad after all.
“I think there was some growth in a lot of areas,” head coach Jim Tressel said. “It wasn't all of a sudden we went from rushing for whatever, 100 yards to 400 yards, it wasn't that, but I thought our guys … saw some progress, our guys learned some lessons. I think we got a little bit better during that second week.”
The next obvious question: How so?
“Just from awareness and understanding and knowing what we were trying to accomplish, and plus I think we gained more yards than we did the last time rushing, I think,” Tressel said. “I don't look at it that closely, but I think we moved it a little bit better on the ground than we did the week before, so that's why I felt there was improvement.”
Of course, the intelligent seventh-year coach had his numbers right. The Buckeyes have carried the ball 41 times each in the first two games, but after piling up 147 yards on Youngstown State in the opener, Ohio State had 196 yards against Akron for an average of 4.8 yards per carry. Those numbers ballooned up to 125 yards on 22 carries (a 5.7-yard average) during the second half.
Also in the second half, quarterback Todd Boeckman, maligned for two first-half interceptions, threw for 87 yards and a touchdown before giving way for much of the fourth quarter to Robby Schoenhoft and Antonio Henton.
As for the first half foibles that plagued Ohio State, the general consensus was that each play was undone by a simple mistake or two, not a team-wide breakdown.
“One guy on offense can make an error up front and the whole play happens to be shredded in that particular instance,” offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. “You can have five different plays and five different guys making errors and everybody’s grading 80 percent and you have five bad plays. You wish if you’d have bad plays, everybody would have a bad play at once. But that has to get rectified.”
Bearing the brunt of most of the abuse thus far has been the offensive line, which many feel has been unable to generate the push expected of an Ohio State team. But there have been many factors to that, the players and coaches said. Against Youngstown State Sept. 1, the Penguins often played with eight players in the box, and Akron’s defense bunched safeties and linebackers near the line and brought blitzes from different directions on each play.
Thus, the early games have come against looks Ohio State is not that used to seeing that often, so the progress might be muddled a bit. Sophomore center Jim Cordle, who was the team’s offensive player of the week after the Akron game, said that it has, in fact, been there.
“We did make progress from week one to week two with our cohesion on the offensive line, which is going to be key in this game,” Cordle said. “Especially for the Akron game, the stats and score don’t show a lot of the progress. I think we have gotten a lot better.”
But the Buckeyes know that probably will not be good enough against a 2-0 Washington team. The biggest thing the team would like to improve on were the turnovers, which included two second-half fumbles that helped to short-circuit promising drives that could have added to the 17 points in the half.
“I’m not satisfied yet,” Bollman said. “I wouldn’t be satisfied no matter what we did. We have to keep improving. We didn’t get some things done last week that we wanted to. It’s just turnovers. We can’t have those turnovers. If we didn’t have the turnovers last week, I think we would have been fine.”