COLUMBUS - No. 3 Ohio State might be 5-0, but its offense is running on empty. The national statistics tell the ugly story for the Buckeyes, who have been doing just barely enough to get by.
OSU, which has been winning with defense, ranks 77th among 117 Division I-A schools in rushing offense (127.20 yards per game, 3.26 average), 94th in passing offense (171.2 yards), and 106th in total offense (298.40). In addition, the Buckeyes are 56th in scoring offense (26.40).
“Everybody is frustrated,” tight end Ben Hartsock said. “I don't think offensively we've said, `This is what we're going to do, just not keep blowing it.' The coaches are pulling their hair out. [Offensive coordinator Jim] Bollman especially, he's about to have a heart attack. He doesn't know what he needs to do. Everybody's trying to do everything they can, but it's just not working all the time.
“It''s frustrating, yes, and everybody is talking about it. Everybody is frustrated, including coach [Jim] Tressel. We're just still trying to figure out what we need to do to make it work consistently. When we have it working, it's just like clockwork. And you wonder why we can't do that all the time.”
Senior right tackle Shane Olivea has the same concerns.
“The only good thing is we're 5-0,” Olivea said. “A lot of teams would like to have our record. But we can't keep winning like this. Winning ugly, it's a `W,' but you want to give your defense rest, you want to showcase the talent you have on offense. There's no reason why we can't put up 40, 50 points a game.
“For whatever reason, we haven't had a complete game.”
Tailback was considered one of strongest positions with Maurice Clarett. Without him, it has proven to be one of the weakest. Juniors Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall continue to struggle, with rushing totals of 43 and 29 yards Saturday against a Northwestern defense that was the worst in the Big Ten against the run last season.
No. 1 fullback Branden Joe played for the first time and freshman defensive back-turned-tailback Ira Guilford was unimpressive as OSU beat Northwestern 20-0 for its 19th consecutive win.
“Those running backs, I don't think they're not able to run the plays we run,” Hartsock said. “It's just the experience we're trying to get. It's a tricky environment to be in. There's a lot to live up to with the success Clarett had and that's stressful for them. All we can ask of them is to put out what they can. If that's not going to work, we're going to have to find something else.
“The ironic thing is, we've had more success with the pass than the run. When you've got guys like Drew Carter and Mike Jenkins and Bam Childress, it's not that bad of an idea to develop an offense around them.”
Tressel certainly would like to see more production out of his offense, which has been missing center Alex Stepanovich for the last 31/2 games with a high ankle sprain, and quarterback Craig Krenzel for the last two games with a hyperextended right elbow.
“One of our goals offensively was to become a zero turnover football team,” Tressel said. “And obviously we wanted to run the football better and throw it more effectively and score when our great defense gave us opportunities. I think perhaps we have seen a little bit of improvement, but not nearly as much as I think we need to have a Big Ten championship team.
“We really haven't had the same cast very much here over the first five games, yet we're still surviving and doing what we need to win football games. But we need to get much better before we go to Camp Randall [Stadium].”
The Buckeyes are off this week, but Tressel said yesterday he expects both Stepanovich and Krenzel to be ready for the Oct. 11 game at Wisconsin.
“It will be good to get Alex back in there, and we'll have the luxury of him playing both center and guard, especially with the way Nick Mangold's been playing [center] in Alex's absence,” Tressel said.
Krenzel, expected to make his first start in a month against the Badgers, is coming off his best career passing game in a 44-38 triple-overtime victory over North Carolina State on Sept. 13, although his performance was marred by three interceptions and a second-quarter injury that was not diagnosed until after the game.
He led the Buckeyes' fourth-quarter comeback last season at Wisconsin - his three-yard touchdown pass to Hartsock with 9:59 remaining rallied OSU to a 19-14 win. Krenzel's experience would be a bonus in Madison for the Buckeyes, who will be playing their first road game of the season.
“If we had a game this week, Craig, in my mind, would be playing,” Tressel said. “Now I haven't heard the doctors say that, but the doctors thought he was nearly ready last weekend.
“He'll practice significantly [this week]. He threw a lot in pre-game [Saturday]. In fact, someone said in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 good, hard throws, and didn't seem to have any ill effects. He was in Sunday watching film and so forth, and he said he felt fine. He would have liked to have played last Saturday.”
While the offense struggles, Ohio State's defense continues to excel, just like it did during last year's national championship run. The Buckeyes rank first in the country in run defense (43.4), 12th in total defense (273.0) and seventh in scoring defense (15.4).
And the unit, which has been without starting tackle Darrion Scott due to a sprained ankle, is coming off its first shutout in five years Saturday.
“Our defense was so good last year, we're just trying to do what they did,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “It's a lot to live up to.”
NOTE: Lawyers for Clarett and the NFL met in New York , with the judge saying he hoped to rule by Feb.1 on the suspended tailback's lawsuit against the league. Clarett is challenging the NFL's rule that a player must be out of high school three years to be eligible for the draft. Clarett's attorney said the two sides set a timeline for legal briefs to be filed during a conference with the judge in open court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.