October 9, 2002 at 8:26 PM EST - Updated July 1 at 8:45 AM
By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - There is no question that No. 5 Ohio State's offense hinges on the churning legs of freshman tailback Maurice Clarett.
With opponents putting more and more defenders near the line of scrimmage to try to pen in Clarett, the Buckeyes are looking at ways to open things up by airing it out.
"Right now, we need to improve on the deep ball because teams have to play us a little more honestly," quarterback Craig Krenzel said.
As the Buckeyes prepare to host San Jose State on Saturday, they are working at finding ways to give Clarett more daylight while adding to their quick-strike capability.
In last week's 27-16 victory at Northwestern, which improved Ohio State to 6-0 and 2-0 in the Big Ten, Krenzel stretched the defense -- and his arm -- several times with long, looping throws over the Wildcats' secondary.
The Buckeyes have gained almost 50 percent more yards running the ball than passing it. Eighteen of their 24 touchdowns have come on the ground. They have run the ball 266 times and passed it 126.
It's only natural for a defense to cheat up on the line, expecting to help out if and when Clarett takes a handoff or a pitch from Krenzel.
Slant passes, out-cuts and short curl patterns are almost extensions of the running game. They don't require linemen to hold their blocks for long and they don't take advantage of defensive backs who face the line while they anticipate a run.
Ohio State has fleet wide-outs fully capable of turning a game with one over-the-shoulder catch of a long pass. Chris Gamble and Mike Jenkins are used interchangeably on deep patterns.
"We always talk to him that it's impossible to overthrow Gamble and Jenkins," head coach Jim Tressel said. "They just have a gear where they can go out and get it. Then the last deep one we threw (at Northwestern), Craig threw it and it almost went through the goal posts for a field goal."
Krenzel completed just 11 of his 22 pass attempts, but they gained 170 yards. Six times he went deep, completing two.
"If you really study the angle we're throwing the deep ball and the trajectory and the timing, we've improved," Tressel said. "That's something that's going to pay dividends."
With the linebackers cognizant of backs crossing the middle of the field and the corners and safeties occupied with receivers streaking on deep routes, a defense isn't presented many options when it comes to stopping Clarett. If he breaks a tackle at the line or finds a gap, he has an opportunity to build up some speed before defenders out on pass coverage can close the gap.
"That will hurt them," Jenkins said of the threat of the long pass. "If we get the right protection and get the ball off, with the receivers we have we can make a big play."
Jenkins had his arm pinned at his side by a defender on Ohio State's third play of the game, preventing him from pulling in what might have been a long touchdown.
Krenzel, who has completed 12 passes that have covered at least 20 yards, is averaging just under 8 yards per completion. He would like to pump that number up with some 48-yard gainers such as the one he threw to Gamble at Northwestern.
"The worst thrown deep ball of the day was the one we completed for (48) yards over the middle. It should have been a 75-yard touchdown," Krenzel said. "Between myself and the receivers, we have to get that timing to where it's perfect. Right now, we're very close."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)