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Published: Sunday, 9/5/2004

OSU fans need to take Zwick's bad with good

COLUMBUS - Ohio State football fans are going to love new starting quarterback Justin Zwick.

If he doesn't make them want to strangle him first.

One play, Zwick dazzles you with his thread-the-needle passing touch. The next play, he's doing something to make you cover your eyes.

Zwick makes you cheer. Zwick makes you groan.

As expected, Zwick was the chief topic of conversation following the Buckeyes' 27-6 runaway victory over Cincinnati yesterday in Ohio Stadium.

From the Buckeyes' perspective, Zwick's transition from substitute to starter was the most important story of the day.

Was Zwick ready, finally, for the big time?

Would coach Jim Tressel give him a free rein? Or would Tressel, as anticipated, rein him in?

Surprisingly, Tressel opened up the offense. Zwick was 14-of-26 for 213 yards and a touchdown.

Zwick's 17-yard scoring toss to tight end Ryan Hamby late in the first half provided the redshirt sophomore QB with a much-needed confidence boost.

"Before the snap, I said I hope they blitz because he's going to be running wide open. They blitzed, and that's what happened," Zwick explained.

Said Tressel, "You have to tip your cap to the quarterback for finding him."

Zwick, however, also showed his darker side. He tossed two interceptions and fumbled four times. Fortunately, the Buckeyes recovered two of those fumbles, or backup Troy Smith might have received more than mop-up duty.

"I felt comfortable out there except for the two picks," Zwick said. "I was anxious to get started. I had three turnovers. We can't have that if we want to win."

Tressel, as promised, played both quarterbacks.

Smith appeared for one series in the first half and he directed two scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

"We've been sharing reps the last two years," Zwick said. "It's something we're accustomed to doing."

Zwick's development is critical because Ohio State's ground game remains a work in progress.

On paper, the Buckeyes rushed for 220 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry against Cincinnati. Lydell Ross gained 141 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

In reality, the Buckeyes' first real test comes in two weeks, at North Carolina State.

For Zwick to be effective, the Buckeyes must be able to run successfully, or give the impression of being able to run.

"We're still a long way from where we need to be," Tressel said of the ground game.

As for those OSU worrywarts concerned about the defense picking up where it left off, the Buckeyes still swarm to the football.

They still tackle ferociously enough to make opposing running backs taste blood.

The Buckeyes are so good defensively it's no longer cause for celebration when they prevent a team from scoring a touchdown. Cincinnati was limited to a pair of field goals yesterday.

"We feel safe with our defense," Zwick said.

In time, hopefully, the feeling will be mutual about Zwick.

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