Saturday, November 15, 2003
Tresselball just keeps winning
By Ivan Maisel ESPN.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Every Saturday, Ohio State adds another block to its Jenga stack of a season. Every Saturday, the Buckeyes teeter. And every Saturday, the Buckeyes rise a little higher.
For the fifth time this season, Ohio State won by a touchdown or less.
For the third time this season, Ohio State won without scoring an offensive touchdown. This is something like playing a piano concerto with your toes. It's a great accomplishment, but why go to the trouble?
The Buckeyes do it because they have to do it. Ohio State beat Purdue, 16-13, in one overtime, before 105,286, the second largest crowd ever in Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes, fourth in the polls and third in the BCS standings, will go to Michigan next week with a 10-1 record and the hopes of defending their national championship still standing.
Will Smith and the Buckeyes D have plenty to celebrate in the win over Purdue.
"We feel going into games like this," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said, "that whoever wins special teams and whoever wins turnover margin wins the game."
You'd feel that way, too, with an offense like this. The Buckeyes gained 351 yards of total offense, true, but to what end? Forget the end zone. The Buckeye offense regards the red zone like a dog inside an invisible fence. Ohio State penetrated the Purdue 20 twice in the first half and got field goals out of it. The Buckeyes never got closer than the Purdue 24 in the second half. That happened on the next-to-last play in regulation.
On other teams, the way the Buckeye defense played would have been enough for a four-touchdown, bench-emptying victory. In other locker rooms, there would be finger-pointing. The defense would regard the offense as a burden. It happens all the time. It just doesn't happen in Jim Tressel's locker room.
Ask the Ohio State defensive players why they don't point fingers at their offense, and they look at you as if you ask why they breathe.
"We like to take the pressure off the offense," said defensive end Mike Kudla, who recovered a fumble by Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton at the Purdue 1 and fell into the end zone. "It's a team. That's what we strive to be. Some days they are clicking. Some days we are clicking. That's why we play a team sport. You are there for your buds."
"Not here," said cornerback Dustin Fox. "Not with this team. If the offense isn't getting it going, the defense says, 'OK, let's go. We've got to make something happen.'"
They call it Tresselball here. If you want pyrotechnics, go to Oklahoma. Tresselball depends on defense, regards field position as paramount and slowly, inevitably pressures the other team until it cracks.
It's not always pretty, or even interesting, unless you're wearing scarlet and gray. Somewhere there is someone outside the state of Ohio who appreciated the nuance and subtleties of the first three quarters of this game. Nothing against a good defensive battle, real blood-and-guts football and all that. But there is beauty in a long pass completion, art in the way a tailback breaks into the open field.
They showed very little of that in Ohio Stadium. Buckeyes quarterback Craig Krenzel completed a 60-yard pass to Michael Jenkins, the longest play of the season. Ohio State turned it into three points.
Ohio State doesn't need the opponent to commit a physical mistake, such as a turnover, to create points. The Buckeyes can work with a mental mistake. When Purdue punt returner Anthony Chambers caught a punt inside his own 10-yard-line -- uh, Anthony, you don't want to be in the special teams meeting Sunday -- Ohio State pounced.
OK, pounced may be a little strong. Ohio State forced a punt and took over at the Purdue 37. Five plays later, Mike Nugent kicked a 52-yard field goal. The scoring drive, if you're scoring at home: five plays, two yards, three points.
Ohio State won for the very reasons that Tressel suggested. Punter B.J. Sander dropped seven punts inside the Purdue 20. Kicker Mike Nugent, unfazed by getting a 41-yard field goal blocked on the last play of regulation, nailed a 36-yarder in overtime, his third three-pointer of the day.
Ohio State came into the game with a turnover margin of even. Purdue, at plus-15, came in tied for third in the nation. Purdue turned it over twice, and Ohio State didn't give it away at all.
"Offensively, we did a lot of good things today," quarterback Craig Krenzel said. "Coach Tressel talks about special teams and winning the turnover margin and I think that's the two things that our offense did a great job today. We helped move the field position...and (had our) first zero turnover game of the year if I'm not mistaken. We couldn't have picked a better time."
And Ohio State won because its defense continues to be the best in the nation. Purdue kicked two field goals and scored its touchdown on a trick play. Kicker Ben Jones missed a 28-yarder in the third quarter. In overtime, his 37-yard attempt drifted a foot wide of the left upright.
"I got a little of my finger on it," Fox said. "I thought I was going to get a full hand on it. I don't know if it made a difference or not."
There are those who say the Buckeyes are lucky, and that's simply a lazy explanation. Ohio State is not lucky, even if Sander, the holder, said someone got a finger on Nugent's overtime field goal. That one went through the uprights, and Jones' did not. No one goes 24-1 by being lucky. No one wins three games in one season without an offensive touchdown by rubbing a rabbit's foot.
"We've got to score more points," Tressel said. "We understand that. We'll go to work on it."
No hurry, coach. It's just Michigan Week. Why treat the Wolverines any differently than anyone else? Tresselball may set the cause of offense back a few decades. But it seems to be working out pretty well at Ohio State.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.