The students are back on campus and that time of the year means the Big Ten season is now the focus of the football season. Navy, USC, and Toledo are in the rearview mirror and the Buckeyes look to capture their 5th straight (outright or shared) conference title and salvage an early season loss en route to a possible 5th straight BCS bowl.
Jim Tressel addressed the media today at his weekly press luncheon at the Jack Nicklaus museum and discussed last week's game against Toledo and the upcoming conference opener against Illinois. Obviously a big topic this week was the memory of 2007's loss to Illinois and how/if the team would use that game for motivation. When asked about the motivation tactics of using that game to pump the players up for this week, Tressel said:
I think for the people that were a part of it, it's relevant, and for the people that weren't a part of it, if you bring it up, they might not have even known it happened. So I'm sure some of the guys that were a part of that game, like the coaches that were here and which is, I guess, all of us, and some of those kids, that will be a reminder, but I don't know what it will do for us. I mean, we've got to go out and do the things we have to do and get focused in on what we have to do against their current personnel. But it's real, and so if it's real, then you better consider it.
No matter what Tressel says, this game has to be in the back of the players' minds. Seeing the Illinois players stomp on the Block-O at midfield is an image that still haunts my dreams and although things worked out and the Bucks made the National Championship that season, the loss still hurt, as Illinois has won 7 of the last 10 games at Ohio Stadium. Tressel was asked about that streak as well and said:
Well, these guys were in third grade in 1999 or whatever. It's brought up in all the releases and all the stuff that they are privy to as well, but, no, I haven't mentioned to them, hey, did you guys know, we have talked about the fact that it's a long rivalry, it's for the Illibuck, the last 18 meetings, each team's won nine, I mean, it's a long standing rivalry, but I haven't really brought that one up about the stadium.
While it is true that many of the current players in the Battle For Illibuck game were young for most of those seven victories, it is an interesting statistic. Out of all the Big Ten teams I feel that Illinois is at the top in terms of confidence coming into Ohio Stadium and Juice Williams and the other members of the Fighting Illini that were on the 2007 team carry a lot of that confidence into this year's game. Illinois clearly has a history of playing the Buckeyes tough, splitting the last 18 games in the series and even though they have been nursing some injuries early in the season, expect them to go on all cylinders on Saturday after having a bye last week.
After playing three games and getting ready to head into conference play the coaches have had a chance to evaluate the returning players and get a better look at some of the newer players that have broken onto the scene thus far. Two of the freshmen that have impressed people early are John Simon and Jordan Hall. Simon has played consistently throughout the season, seizing the most of his opportunity to rotate on the defensive line, while Hall was impressive in his debut last week, rushing for 44 yards on 7 carries in the win against Toledo. Tressel talked about the freshmen's play today, highlighting Simon and Hall especially:
You know, Jordan's been impressive since he's been here. He's a hard-nosed kid, studies the game, has done well running the football every chance he's gotten, so now that we've seen him in a game, obviously it makes it easier to put him into a game, but, no, he's going to be a good player. He's a tough oh he's a tough kid.
John Simon is a great player, active guy, first guy into the meeting room, first guy into the weight room, he's going to be a good football player. He really enjoys it. You can tell the guys, you see the Homan brothers in the weight room and you see Simon in the weight room and you've got to throw them out -- Spitler, you've got to throw those guys out. John Simon -- John Simon loves it.
It's good to hear that players like Simon and Hall have taken the bull by the horns in terms of getting in and working hard at getting on the field early. Their work has paid off thus far and it shows as they both have been effective in their game play. Simon will continue to be a big player in the defense and Hall should take on a larger role in the running game, especially with the production of Brandon Saine and Boom Herron not meeting expectations, at least through the first three games. Tressel was asked about the running game so far and tells fans they shouldn't worry too much:
I think Boom had a couple chances last week where he just got shoestringed and you could see where he might pop it and all you need is to pop it and all your yards per carry is totally skewed. I haven't seen his grade and so forth as being anything less than excellent. He's where he's supposed to be. He has been called upon at times when it was loaded up in there, but he's not unlike someone asked, well, was that good for Terrelle to pop that long one to start the game Saturday, that's what a running back needs is, go hit one for about 27 and all of a sudden, you get a little bit of that momentum going. No, Boom will be fine.
Tressel doesn't seem to be too worried just yet about Herron, but I think most fans would agree that they want to see a little bit more of Brandon Saine in the game plan. Herron thrived last year during conference play and I expect him to have some big games this fall, but Saine seems to have his burst back and is running well so far this season. Add in Jordan Hall's potential to be effective as a third back and you may just see Boom's carries decrease if he proves he cannot produce to the level that is expected of him. Don't forget Jaamal Berry either, who is still in the mix to play, and Tressel still maintains that once he returns from a sore hamstring that he will not red shirt.
FInally, Tressel addressed the play of Terrelle Pryor. Pryor was criticized for his play after the loss to USC, but came back to have a strong game against the Rockets. TP threw for a career high in yards and added three scores through the air, as well as one with his legs. Tressel was asked about Pryor's game last week, as well as if he feels his development could be similar of Troy Smith's in the 2005 season and said:
I thought he played a little more relaxed and I think getting that momentum helps that. You hit a homerun right off the bat and the next few at-bats you have a little confidence about you. I don't think it was perfect and that's the thing that when the game ends and it was 38-0 and statistically 500 some yards and all this and that, when you go back to watch the film, there are still a number of things we have to get a lot better at and we understand we're entering the league and the difficulty ratchets up when you're playing against people that you play every year that know what you do and how you do it and so forth, but I thought it was a good step, I really did.
Well, the '05 situation was, you know, after about five games we had lost a couple tough ones, hadn't really gotten going on all cylinders consistently. When we lost to Texas and we came back against Iowa, I think it was, maybe, and played really, really well and we go to Penn State and didn't play as well, it wasn't until significantly into that season that we really started doing what we needed to do, so I'm not sure we're far enough along. Hopefully we'll get consistent more quickly this time.
When looking at last week's game, I am certainly pleased with some things Pryor did, but the two interceptions do not make me feel as comfortable as I would like to. I feel on of Pryor's issues is that he is trying to prove to everyone that he is a passer first and not only a runner and when he has to make a decision to throw the ball away or make a pass down field, he is choosing the latter more often than he should. It is good that TP is looking to keep plays alive once he is rushed out of the pocket, but he needs to learn when he should make the throw and when he should eat the play.
Taking a glance at the 2005 season, I think Tressel hit the nail on the head when talking about consistency. Early in that year Tressel was flip-flopping Smith and Justin Zwick and because of that the offense wasn't flowing as it should have when the team traveled to Happy Valley to play Penn State. This year the offense has not found it's identity yet and until that happens, the team will struggle to put points on the board. The good news for OSU is that the next six games (Illiois, @ Indiana, Wisconsin, @ Purdue, Minnesota, New Mexico State) allows for the offense to get going before they face a rough November slate against Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan. If Pryor can get the ball rolling by that game in State College than I feel confident with the way the season will go. If he can't, it's going to be a long year for the young Buckeyes and all of the fans who has such high expectations for this group of players in 2009.
The first segment of the presser is below. To see the rest, head over to our YouTube page.