OSU must overcome problems

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 19, 2003

COLUMBUS - The star tailback is suspended. The starting quarterback has a sore arm. The running game is missing in action.

No. 5 Ohio State is three games into the season and the Buckeyes must feel as if they're nearing the end of a 14-game marathon.

After surviving six overtimes in their last six games, Ohio State continues to lead a charmed life, blowing a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead but pulling out a 44-38 triple-overtime victory over North Carolina State on Saturday. Everyone close to the program is aware that the string of good luck is being stretched to the breaking point.

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''When you have five turnovers, as we did, and you win the football game, you need to consider yourself very fortunate,'' coach Jim Tressel said.

Ohio State has won its last nine games decided by a touchdown or less. The Buckeyes have come from behind to win in the second half nine times in a 17-game winning streak.

The Buckeyes are winning, but it hasn't been particularly pretty or efficient.

There are problems in several key areas. The running game - long Ohio State's trademark - has been awful. Turnovers have mounted. And the defense has been hurt repeatedly by dumb penalties.

The Buckeyes returned every starter on offense from last year's 14-0 national championship season. Yet offense - or the lack of it - has been the root of Ohio State's problems so far.

''It's an embarrassment for us right now,'' tight end Ben Hartsock said. ''We want to go out and try to become just, well, not the weak link of this team. It's frustrating for everyone on the offense to just go out there and not lose the game for us. We wanted to go out this season and really win some games and put some numbers up and we're not doing that right now. We've really got to try to figure something out.''

Tailback Maurice Clarett was suspended for the season for breaking NCAA bylaws dealing with accepting money and lying to investigators. That meant the subtraction of 1,237 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns from the 2002 season.

None of the players or coaches wants to admit it, but the Buckeyes badly miss Clarett, who was able to break tackles and turn a short gain into a long touchdown.

Last week his top two replacements, Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross, combined for 3 net yards on 17 carries in four quarters and three other possessions. Most times, they were snowed under an instant after taking the handoff.

''Everybody had a rough game,'' running backs coach Tim Spencer said. ''It's a combination of everybody.''

Ohio State ranks No. 100 out of 117 NCAA Division I-A teams in total offense (286 yards per game), is 93rd in rushing (102 ypg) and 80th in passing (184 ypg).

The absence of a running game also turns up the heat on the defense.

''It puts a lot of pressure on us,'' defensive tackle Darrion Scott said of the Buckeyes' inability to play keepaway by running the ball. ''It seems like you get on the field, get off the field and then you have to right back out there. (We've) been throwing the ball a lot and no time's taken off the clock.''

With the backs unable to gain yardage, defenses are able to tee off on quarterback Craig Krenzel. He has taken more hard hits in three games than he sustained all of last season.

Now Krenzel, 18-1 as a starter, has an injured right (throwing) elbow and the Buckeyes may have to go with seldom-used backup Scott McMullen against unbeaten in-state rival Bowling Green on Saturday.

Turnovers and penalties have also caused Ohio State to struggle.

The Buckeyes have turned the ball over nine times in their three wins. A year ago, they had played twice as many games before totaling nine turnovers.

A year ago, Ohio State averaged 41 yards per game in penalties. This year the Buckeyes are averaging 98 yards a game.

The defense was called for six pass interference or holding calls against North Carolina State. Cornerback Dustin Fox was flagged for four of them.

The Buckeyes have also been called for numerous late hits on opposing quarterbacks. But preaching to the linemen to avoid hitting the quarterback all but eliminates one of the Ohio State's biggest advantages - its active and aggressive line.

''I don't want our guys playing tentative,'' Tressel said. ''Some of them (penalties) we can live with; others we need to eliminate, if we're going to be as good as we need to be.''

So far, the Buckeyes have barely been good enough.