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September 23, 2010

Defenses still hope Pryor passes

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - By his own admission, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor has a long way to go before he can be regarded as a pass-first quarterback.

Thus far this season, though, Pryor has led the Buckeye offense to big point totals in the team's first three games as a passer.

Ohio State (3-0) has employed a pass-first offensive scheme in the early portion of the season, an immense contrast to the offensive philosophy the team relied on for the great majority of last season.

But opposing teams have continued to defend Ohio State in a similar fashion that may have been appropriate when trying to slow the Buckeyes down during the course of last season - by stacking the box and attempting to stop the run.

"There is no question (opposing teams) are still stacking the box," said running backs coach Dick Tressel. "There is no question that Ohio U said, 'Hey, we're not going to let these guys run the ball.' There is no question about it."

Despite the fact that Pryor has completed over 60 percent of his passes this season and Ohio State is throwing for 254.3 yards per game - which is third best in the Big Ten - the opposing defenses have continued to stick to the theory that stopping the Buckeyes run will stymie the team's offense.

Perhaps it is a lack of belief that Ohio State has changed its offensive philosophy from a run-heavy team to one that relies on the pass more than half the time. Or maybe the opposition is still willing to make Pryor beat them with his arm.

Whatever the reason, Tressel doesn't believe defensive strategies against Ohio State will vary too much in the near future, even with Big Ten play looming just two weeks away.

"I would think (opposing team's defensive strategies) would stay the same," Tressel said. "Because the extra guy in the box also helps deal with a running quarterback.

"I still think people feel like 'give me a choice between Terrelle running in the open spaces and him throwing to someone else,' they would still rather have him get it into someone else's hands," Tressel continued. "So they get someone else in the box and get him to throw it."

The Buckeyes have broken the run-first trend in their last four games, the first of which came in Ohio State's big win in the Rose Bowl over Oregon to cap off last season.

Before the game, players on the Oregon defense made bold comments suggesting that if Ohio State's rushing attack was stopped, the Ducks would be very hard to beat.

"Our goal as a defense, and especially as a defensive lineman, is to stop the run," said Oregon defensive tackle Brandon Bair in the week leading into the Rose Bowl. "Then it's got to go to the air, and as we've seen, their track record with that is it's going to be tough for them to beat us in the air.

"Pryor is their biggest threat on offense," he continued, "but if we can make him throw the ball instead of running, we feel pretty good about our chances."

It's hard to blame the Oregon defense for carrying that philosophy, as the Buckeyes only attempted 17 passes per game in their final three games of the regular season. Last November the Buckeyes averaged over 235 yards per game rushing, and in those games the team knocked off Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan en route to the Big Ten title.

But the trend was broken in the Rose Bowl. Instead of coming out as a run-first team, Pryor led the Buckeyes offense by throwing the ball 37 times - a career high - and completed 23 of his attempts for 266 yards and two touchdowns. Pryor would later be named the Rose Bowl's MVP for his performance.

"We threw it a good amount in that game and it worked," said tight end Jake Stoneburner. "We won the Rose Bowl off that and I feel the coaches saw Terrelle getting better, making better decisions, being more of the quarterback that we expected. That's leading us to be able to throw the ball more (this year)."

The Buckeyes offense has been more balanced than it has in the past, drawing extra attention to the frequency Pryor has thrown the ball. However, the deep backfield has also been as effective as it was last season.

Through three games this season, both starting tailbacks Brandon Saine and Dan Herron have combined for just under 300 yards and five touchdowns. But the tailbacks have also contributed through the air, catching nine passes for 128 yards and two more touchdown receptions.

But the Buckeyes have handed it off to the running backs considerably less this year, which has turned into a concern for a large portion of the fan base. While the pass game continues to click, the running backs have accounted for less than 40 percent of the play calls this year.

Tressel, the running backs coach, certainly isn't concerned with the Buckeyes' running game. The passing game, he said, is just what the Buckeyes think is working.

"I haven't heard anybody say we haven't been running it effectively," said Tressel. "I'm not unhappy with the running game."

Stoneburner, who caught his first career touchdown catch in Ohio State's 43-7 win over Ohio last week, actually believes the Buckeyes have made the transition toward being a pass-first offense.

The opposing defenses, though, may not agree with the redshirt tight end.

"I just don't think teams believe Terrelle can throw yet and I don't know why. They're baiting Terrelle to throw and we're beating them by throwing," Stoneburner said. "I think eventually they're going to have to take some guys out of the box, but if not we'll keep on throwing it."

For now, the Buckeyes are enjoying one of the most prolific offensive attacks in the country. Backed by Pryor and his playmaking ability with both his arm and legs, Ohio State is ranked No. 2 in the country in total offense with 460.7 yards per game.

"I don't know why people don't think Terrelle can't throw yet," said senior wide receiver Taurian Washington. "I hope they continue to think that. If they do, we'll just keep passing. And I like that idea."

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.



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