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Big Ten Week: How Much Does Ohio State's Offense Change? or Tresselballin'

Way, way back in July, almost an entire month ago, I looked at Troy Smith’s impact on Ohio State’s offense, both in its tendencies and production relative to Jim Tressel’s teams before Smith came on board:

OSU Offense Under Jim Tressel, Before/After Troy
B.T. (2001-04) A.T. (2004-06)
Pass Yds. 186.3 209.0
Comp. % 55.7 63.6
TD/INT 51/36 (1.4:1) 56/14 (4:1)
Total Off. 345.3 393.7
Scoring 29.0 32.7
vs. Big Ten 23.3 34.1
40-pt. Games 4 8
vs. Big Ten 1 8
Record 35-10 (.777) 27-4 (.871)

The overall goodness of the Smith years is obvious, and it seems just as obvious to everyone that Ohio State’s immediate future with the well-liked but very limited (compared to Smith) Todd Boeckman assuming the position is firmly with the left column, a return to the quasi-vaunted "Tressel Ball" of safe, between-the-tackles pounding, overwhelming time of possession advantages and a subtly crippling kicking game that occasionally relented with Smith’s talents on hand.

How different will OSU’s offense look without Smith and his amazin’ blazin’ receivers, Gonzalez and Ginn? We know Tressel can win big without a Heisman-challenging quarterback throwing two touchdowns a game, but was the Buckeyes’ championship run in 2002 so different from its last one? We can be reasonably certain this fall’s offense will be closer in production to the pre-Smith, 2001-04 version, but as far as the degree of outright conservatism goes, how well does the theoretical "Tressel Ball" model actually define what went before, and what’s clearly coming after?

Tressel’s two best teams offer a good contrast of styles:

Tressel Ball in Undefeated Regular Seasons
2002 2006
Pts./Game 29.2 36.3
Avg. MOV 16.9 25.9
Runs/Game 44.3 38.1
Yds./Carry* 4.4 5.1
Passes/Game 19.4 27.2
Yds./Pass* 8.9 8.5
Run:Pass % 69% Run 58.4% Run

Tressel smokes ‘em when he’s got ‘em, and runs the iso when he doesn't.
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The ‘02 team, rightly, was the face of Tressel Ball, and it is what we thought it was, and to a much greater extent of singlemindedness than I though it was. One one hand, this is not remotely suprising: the team with a Heisman contender at running back was overwhelmingly The * there indicates two areas that went in dramatically different directions when Maurice Clarett played in 2002 and when he didn’t; initially, I separated the games that season based on whether or not Clarett handled a full load, with the idea that strategy changes dramatically when a player like Clarett is in the backfield, but scrapped it because a) Clarett really only missed three games, and even played a little (four carries against Penn State) in one of those, way too small a sample size to tell very much, and b) the run-pass dispersal was basically identical either way.

What wasn’t identical was the Buckeyes’ average yards per snap, which soared with Clarett: OSU averaged a full yard more per carry in his games and, because defenses were so focused on him, about four yards more per pass on top of that. His presence lifted the enitre offense, and if Chris Wells has the same effect on defensive tendencies, the quarterback will have a lot of easy days.

The thing, though, is that the quarterback is already going to have a lot of easy days, against Youngstown State and Akron and the like, which is nothing new, and which tells us little about what to expect against worthy teams. Against ranked teams, the picture is the same, only moreso:

Tressel Ball in Big Games, '02 vs. '06
2002 2006
Pts./Game 16.2 29.5
Avg. MOV 8.0 15.8
Runs/Game 44.0 34.3
Yds./Carry 3.5 4.6
Passes/Game 16.6 28.5
Yds./Pass 8.2 7.7
Run:Pass % 72.4 54.4

2002 Games: Washington State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Michigan
2006 Games: Texas, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan

You might expect any team to strive for more balance against tougher opponents, or to throw more often in close games, but Ohio State approaches big games by asserting its identity and riding it nearly to the extreme: with Craig Krenzel at quarterback in front of Clarett, that meant a pounding run-first approach – i.e., typical Tressel Ball – even when that meant facing more close games. The Texas and especially Michigan games last season were specific examples of how far Smith allowed OSU to stray from that approach: he threw 41 times against Michigan, more than Krenzel ever threw in any one game in his two years as a starter and twice as many as CK threw at any point in the 2002 championship season. The Buckeyes spread the field as far as it could be spread, because Smith could handle it. And did, impressively.

Todd Boeckman isn’t going to be asked to handle that. For the rest of the Big Ten, this means it is almost certainly going to be fed unrelenting doses of Chris Wells, which I think is good for quality opponents (the few OSU faces at the end of the year) as long as Wells falls just short of reincarnating the on-field Clarett of scarlet and gray dreams (that is, a near-unparalleled mustang of a running back, minus the depressing spiral into professional, social and possibly mental oblivion); the spread not only exploited Smith’s talent for pressuring the defense in every possible way, but subsequently stretched it so thin that Wells and Antonio Pittman could deliver kill shots in the running game. Again, not going to happen like that: defenses will be waiting on Wells, and the subsequent one-dimensionality as much as the sheer exodus of talent will drive the scoring average back down to the low-to-mid-twenties, where very few champions reside.