Heisman Trophy--winning running backs are the tradition at Ohio State: Les Horvath, Vic Janowicz, Hopalong Cassady, Archie Griffin and Eddie George. "When I got here, it was power football all the time," senior wideout Santonio Holmes says. But Holmes's play in '04 was one reason for the team's offensive transformation.
He got off to a hot start, catching 14 passes for 315 yards in the first two games but was the lone playmaker on an inexperienced offense. After opening with three nonconference wins, Ohio State totaled only 223 rushing yards and 47 points in losses to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa. "The best way to defend [us]," says coach Jim Tressel, "was to put two guys on Santonio."
Then the coaches unleashed electrifying freshman Ted Ginn Jr. Pairing with Holmes at wideout, Ginn caught 25 passes for 359 yards and carried 13 times for 113 more on reverses and direct snaps. The Buckeyes' production jumped from 398.5 yards per game to 493.3 as they won five of their last six. "With Ted and me on the field," says Holmes, "it brought a threat to every play."
Ohio State now has so many experienced receivers, including junior Roy Hall and sophomore Anthony Gonzalez at wideout, plus senior tight end Ryan Hamby, that Tressel is experimenting with the spread offense. He has depth at quarterback, too, with juniors Justin Zwick (4--3 as a starter) and Troy Smith (5--1) sharing duties as they did last year. A more diverse offense figures to help boost a rushing attack that ranked 70th in the nation. Sophomore Antonio Pittman and redshirt freshman Erik Haw will get blocking from a veteran line led by center Nick Mangold. Says offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, "Sometimes I feel like I'm going to need more than one football."
Throw in a defense that has nine returning starters, including All-America linebacker A.J. Hawk, and Tressel is talking national title. There's great anticipation for the Sept. 10 date with Texas in Columbus, a game that will determine whether such talk is realistic. "I do like the evolution that our guys are taking," he says. "We're not going to be afraid to spread the field out." --M.B.
2004 RECORD 8--4 (4--4, T5 in Big Ten)
FINAL AP RANK 20 RETURNING STARTERS 18
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
LB A.J. Hawk (Sr.) 11.8 tackles per game, fifth in the nation
WR Santonio Holmes (Sr.) 224 yards, two TDs in win over Marshall
WR Ted Ginn Jr. (Soph.) Punt-return TDs of 65, 67, 60 and 82 yards
S Donte Whitner (Jr.) Fourth in tackles despite missing two games
Ted Ginn Jr.'s average yards per punt return, which led the Big Ten. His four punt-return scores were a conference record.
Junior cornerback Ashton Youboty began 2004 as a reserve and ended it as one of the best DBs in the Big Ten. It helped that every day in practice he played against flashy wideouts Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. Youboty finished with 14 passes defended and four picks, including one at the goal line in the fourth quarter of the win over Michigan.
Sept. 3 MIAMI (OHIO)
17 SAN DIEGO STATE
Oct. 8 at Penn State
15 MICHIGAN STATE
22 at Indiana
29 at Minnesota
Nov. 5 ILLINOIS
19 at Michigan