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Sunday, October 28, 2007
Buckeyes make statement with offensive power at Happy Valley

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Three hours before kickoff, a guy in a grim reaper outfit was swaggering through Penn State's sprawling tailgate acreage. On his chest was a checklist that read:

10/6 -- #1 USC
10/13 -- #1 LSU
10/13 -- #2 California
10/18 -- #2 South Florida
10/27 -- #1 Ohio State

Don't fear the reaper, Buckeyes.

Meanwhile, the rest of the nation had better commence fearing The Vest. Again.

In a season where being highly ranked is a veritable death sentence, Tressel Ball seemingly has everlasting life. The upset scythe was not coming down on any Buckeye necks Saturday, no matter how loud the night or bright the white in Beaver Stadium. Their regular-season winning streak now stretches across 27 games after shredding Penn State, 37-17, avenging their last loss right here two years ago.

This season has not followed anybody's script, and that prominently includes this Ohio State team. After losing the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner and seven other NFL draft picks, the Buckeyes are right back where they were a year ago: undefeated, largely unchallenged and in command of their own destiny.

Ohio State had done little to dazzle anyone up to this point, but this was a statement. Not only did it win in a brutally difficult place to play, it dominated from start to finish. Still, the Buckeyes are quite willing to keep the chips on their shoulders even after this rout.

"I'm sure somehow they [the critics] will figure out Penn State wasn't that good, or something else," said receiver Brian Hartline.

Jim Tressel
Jim Tressel has Ohio State poised to make a repeat appearance in the title game.

Now that you mention it, Brian …

If Penn State is one of the top three or four teams in the Big Ten, it's a sorry Big Ten. I'm convinced Ohio State could wind up in the BCS Championship game undefeated and dangerously untested -- and honk if that sounds familiar. That same recipe produced a blowout title loss last year to Florida -- a 41-14 mauling that Tressel beat into his players' heads by making it the digital passcode to enter the football facility during the offseason.

So the skeptics can and will remain skeptical. But the Buckeyes did show one very important thing in the process of silencing 110,134 fans on a white-out Saturday.

"We proved we have an offense now, too," offensive tackle Alex Boone said.

Until now, this Ohio State team has been all about stopping people; it ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring and total defense coming into this game. With Penn State ranked seventh in total D and fourth in scoring D, this figured to be low-scoring grinder.

Then they kicked off, and Ohio State spent all night pounding through, sprinting around and throwing over the bewildered and beaten Nittany Lions.

Stat of the day: Against a team that had forced 60 punts this year, Ohio State never kicked it away once. Punter A.J. Trapasso might as well have stayed in Columbus.

Runner-up stat of the day: A Penn State team that came in leading the nation in sacks at 4.4 per game got one -- and it didn't record that one until the fourth quarter.

Third-place stat of the day: Opposing offenses were converting 32 percent of their third downs against Penn State. Ohio State converted 12 of 16 Saturday night.

That is domination in triplicate -- of a previously dominant defense.

The fact that this domination was perpetrated by an offense that lost its leading rusher (Antonio Pittman), two leading receivers (Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez) and the Heisman-winning quarterback (Troy Smith) is fairly astonishing. But if you talk to the Buckeyes, they'll tell you the 2007 offense can do plenty that the 2006 offense could not.

Todd Boeckman
Todd Boeckman has made the Buckeyes' transition from Troy Smith smooth.

"We have more balance than last year," running back Chris "Beanie" Wells said.

"The amount of big plays this year vs. last year is significantly more," Hartline said.

The big revelation is the guy playing quarterback, Todd Boeckman. Nobody knew what to expect of the 23-year-old junior coming into the season, but he's gradually becoming a star.

"Todd's talented, man," said voluble offensive tackle Kirk Barton. "He's not a caretaker. He's more of a franchise-type quarterback. He's not a Trent Dilfer with the Ravens. He's more of a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning."

Boeckman certainly possesses the physical tools. He's 6-foot-5, 243 pounds and can throw smoke. And he's got enough touch on his deep balls to make Ohio State's vertical passing game lethal.

Boeckman launched a 60-yarder Saturday night to Ray Small, and also had completions of 28 yards to Hartline and 27 to Brian Robiskie. On the season, five different Ohio State receivers have caught passes of 35 yards or more, as Tressel has been unafraid to turn his offense loose for big plays.

"If we get an 80-yard touchdown pass, I can go back to the bench and watch our defense," Barton said. "I'm a big fan of the deep ball. Chicks love the deep ball."

And head coaches love a good offensive line. Barton and Boone might be the best tackle tandem in America, and they bookend an excellent front five. Tressel knows how important that is to making an offense look this good.

"I thought [Boeckman] threw with a lot of confidence tonight," Tressel said. "That starts with not having a lot of people in your face."

The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Barton was knocking back defenders so ferociously that at one point in the third quarter, Ohio State ran it six straight times to his side. In the first half, the 6-foot-8, 313-pound Boone showed his athleticism by pulling out to lead a Hartline screen into the end zone by knocking aside a defensive back -- then leap-frogging all the way over Hartline's head and landing on his feet.

Of all the impressive things Ohio State did, that might have been the best.

"I just felt him up there with his hands on my shoulders," Hartline said. "I bent over and just let him go. I didn't want to catch him."

Said Boone: "I got some ups, man. You better watch out."

All of America better watch out. Ohio State isn't just rebuilding, isn't just winning with defense and isn't just passing through at No. 1. The Buckeyes don't fear the reaper.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.