TBs missing in Buckeyes’ offense

Published 6:04 am Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS — Ohio State, home to Woody Hayes and “three yards and a cloud of dust,” built a lot of its black-and-blue tradition on a big offensive line controlling the front wall and a tailback bedeviling the defense.

But things have changed.

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Now the second-ranked Buckeyes are allowing quarterback Terrelle Pryor more freedom to determine what direction the offense takes — often resulting in a diminished role for the tailbacks.

It’s not as if Ohio State (4-0) has gone to the run-and-shoot. And it’s not as if all the Buckeyes do is pass or have Pryor run.

But make no mistake, the current attack rests firmly on the right arm and feet of Pryor — or, more accurately, his brain. More and more plays come down to Pryor making a decision after he gets the snap.

“We feel as if the ’step up and run’ part of the game is a huge part of our pass game,” coach Jim Tressel said this week.

Heading into the Big Ten opener at Illinois, Ohio State has passed for 1,066 yards while rushing for 961, and Tressel believes a lot of those yards on the ground should be credited to Pryor running out of a called pass play.

To pass for more yards than they run for is not a huge deal for the Buckeyes, surprisingly. They’ve done that in 12 of the last 16 years. But what is different is that the quarterback and not the tailbacks are now the focal point. Not even when Troy Smith was becoming Ohio State’s first true quarterback to win a Heisman in 2006 did he have the freedom that Pryor has.

In a 73-20 romp over Eastern Michigan last week, Pryor ran on only one called rushing play, a quarterback sneak. His other six carries netted 89 yards — and all were created out of thin air by Pryor.

Pryor, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound bundle of athleticism, has been accurate when throwing the ball (66 percent completion rate, 10 TDs and two interceptions). He’s fast and hard to bring down when he takes off. Maybe that’s why Ohio State coaches give him more leeway than any other quarterback in recent memory. The defense is bull-rushing off the edge? Then he can run it up the middle. There’s a full blitz coming? Then Pryor can either throw a quick pass to a receiver in single coverage, or pick an opening and run.

It’s a sea change for a program that has built its glowing tradition on shifty tailbacks daring a defense to stop them. Quarterbacks seldom freelanced; they ran the play that was sent from the sideline or they stood on the sidelines next to the head coach.

For a school that produced two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, 1995 Heisman winner Eddie George, Beanie Wells and dozens of other topflight tailbacks, the current batch are inching toward being not just a second but maybe even a third option of the offense.

Not only is Pryor Ohio State’s leading rusher with 269 yards, he’s also carrying it more often than the tailbacks. Starter Brandon Saine has gradually seen his carries cut (he only had three attempts on Saturday against Eastern Michigan) and No. 2 tailback Dan Herron is only averaging 10.5 carries a game.

Some of that might be attributable to the opposition. The Buckeyes have only played one top-shelf team, Miami in Week 2. But Saine carried nine times for 103 yards in the opener and his role has diminished steadily ever since. He’s only gained 66 yards on the 33 carries since the first game.

In the first three quarters of Saturday’s game, the Buckeyes threw on first down 18 times compared to 11 runs.

There’s no question that the Saine and Herron see where this is headed.

Saine even faced this question: “Is Ohio State a passing school now?”

“Yeah, I think we have the ability to do both,” Saine said. “The passing’s been working for us. We have great receivers out there and our running backs can catch the ball out of the backfield, too. I feel like we’re good in both.”

The last three games of the 2009 season, Pryor had an injured knee that kept him from running much. So the Buckeyes, as they always seem to, turned to their tailbacks to carry the load. Saine and Herron averaged 37 carries a game as Ohio State won all three games to win its fifth consecutive Big Ten title.

Over their most recent three games this season, Saine and Pryor are averaging 22 carries a game.

Asked what the tailbacks’ role is in the current offense, Saine said, “I guess I don’t really know who determines where we should be. But I feel like we’re doing a great job. Pass protection and all that different stuff factors in too.”

Saine did not express any displeasure with how little he’s carrying the ball.

“He’s going to bring his A game every week, even if he doesn’t get his carries that he feels he should get,” Herron said of his friend. “He doesn’t really complain about it. He stays up.”

Tressel believes Pryor is a weapon that must be used.

He can almost picture the dilemma facing a defensive coordinator gameplanning against a dual-threat quarterback like Pryor.

“The discussion would be, ’We’ve got to not let this guy out the gate but on the other hand, we can’t have so many guys hanging around keeping him in that we let him have free lanes to throw the football,”’ Tressel said. “It would be hard to refute that if your quarterback can keep plays alive … that adds a lot more pressure.”