Buckeyes pleased so far with fresh start

Published 3:45 am Friday, September 26, 2008

Fresh faces, fresh start.

The 14th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes bear little resemblance to the team that was in the midst of two-a-days seven weeks ago or even the one that opened the season in late August.

True freshmen now start at center and quarterback, there are new people dotting the two-deep on both offense and defense and there’s a whole new way of thinking as the Buckeyes open a clean slate with Big Ten play starting this Saturday against Minnesota.

Email newsletter signup

‘‘You never know how things are going to go,’’ coach Jim Tressel said this week. ‘‘You handle what happens as you start over and injuries happen.’’

Of course, most of the changes were precipitated by one foot — the right one, belonging to tailback Chris ‘‘Beanie’’ Wells. When Wells went down in pain in the third quarter of the opener, that may have toppled the first domino in the row.

Wells was replaced by Dan Herron at tailback. When the running game sputtered somewhat, it put more pressure on starting quarterback Todd Boeckman to throw more. That, in turn, meant that a veteran offensive line had to do a better job of pass protection and that the receivers had to get open — and fast.

Almost every one of those aspects of the offense broke down, however. That was made evident when the Buckeyes were belittled 35-3 by top-ranked Southern California in the regional showdown in Game Three.

That loss was painful but at the same time, liberating. With the pressure to make it back to a third straight BCS national title game all but erased, the players felt rejuvenated and the coaches were more open to make changes.

‘‘It’s more that the weight is lifted,’’ offensive tackle Alex Boone said. ‘‘People aren’t talking about USC, it’s over. We saw what happened. We know we have to work on that. But people aren’t like, ’Oh, my god. You have to play this team and if you lose …’ It’s not like that anymore. It’s more like, just go out and have fun and hit somebody.’’

In the two weeks since the loss in L.A., Tressel and his staff have tinkered with just about everything — Tressel has even taken to calling himself the ‘‘assistant offensive line coach’’ because he’s spent so much time working with that unit and (uncharacteristically) yelling and screaming at them.

He said Thursday that his message to them was a simple one: ‘‘We need to play faster. You need to relax, let loose and let’s go.’’

Now Boeckman has been shoved aside and replaced by true freshman Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. Pryor looked good in his debut as a starter, tossing four TD passes in an otherwise humdrum 28-10 win over Troy last week.

Up front, the Buckeyes went with a new starter at center, with true freshman Mike Brewster moving in and veteran Jim Cordle moving to guard to replace the injured Steve Rehring. Several other young linemen also moved into the rotation on the front wall.

While Wells was recovering from his injury — Ohio State has never revealed what the injury was — Herron did a decent job. Brandon Saine and Maurice Wells also filled in.

But now Wells is expected to be close to 100 percent against Minnesota, and that should make a world of difference in the offense while magnifying just how far Pryor and the offensive line have developed in such a short time.

‘‘It’s different without Beanie,’’ Cordle said. ‘‘But now with Beanie back, we can have two different things where defenses have to get prepared for both an inside run and a spread attack.’’

The line looked better last week, although it’s difficult to compare Troy’s Trojans with the USC variety.

‘‘I think this is best for the team,’’ said Tressel, a conservative man who is no fan of change.

Check back later to see if he still feels that way.