COLUMBUS - After a loss to Southern California threw a muzzle over anyone whispering sweet nothings about Ohio State and a potential trip to the national championship game this season, the Buckeyes have had to recalibrate their agenda.
The cordon bleu for 2009 will be a fifth straight Big Ten championship, and the pursuit of that begins Saturday when Illinois comes to Ohio Stadium.
“Once we get into the conference, all of our attention has to be focused on trying to win the Big Ten,” Ohio State junior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said after the Buckeyes shut out Toledo 38-0 in Cleveland over the weekend.
“Every game is tough, every game is a battle, so we have to be ready for that. And since everybody seems to save their best shot for Ohio State, we have to be even more prepared for those Big Ten games.”
After hosting the Illini, the Buckeyes (2-1) will face Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa in Ohio Stadium the rest of the way, while their Big Ten road games take them to Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, and Michigan. A nonconference game with New Mexico State is stuck in the middle of the Big Ten schedule - on Oct. 31 at Ohio Stadium.
The scheduling in the 11-team Big Ten calls for eight conference games, with two Big Ten members not on the schedule each year. This season, the Buckeyes will not face Northwestern or Michigan State.
After a dominant performance against Toledo that saw the Buckeyes prevent the Rockets from running a single play in OSU territory until just four minutes remained in the third quarter, and an OSU offensive output of 522 yards, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel did credit his team with improvement.
“I thought our kids really stepped up and took a step toward that decision of wanting to be a good team,” Tressel said.
The Buckeyes are wary of a Big Ten opener with Illinois, a team that on its last trip to Columbus in 2007 stunned a previously unbeaten Ohio State 28-21.
“That’s Big Ten football - anybody can beat anybody else,” Ohio State senior defensive tackle Doug Worthington said. “We have to be really focused in our preparation because in the Big Ten, there’s no easy ones. The team that’s not fully prepared is probably going to lose.”
Tressel said after a trio of nonconference games that featured the unusual running attack of Navy, the talent-laden offense of USC with its drop-back quarterback, and the hurry-up spread of Toledo, his team needs to be ready for a little bit of everything from its Big Ten opposition.
“We all know we have a long way to go,” Tressel said. “The Big Ten begins now. All discussions turn now to see if you’re capable of competing for your conference championship. We’ll go back to work.”
Ohio State senior safety Kurt Coleman, who forced a fumble at the 1-yard line to preserve the Buckeyes’ shutout against Toledo, said OSU will benefit from seeing such a diverse group of offenses.
“These past three games have given us any type of offense that you can experience,” Coleman said. “This defense is ready to go into Big Ten play with all cylinders firing.”
Tressel said he hoped the games against Navy, USC, and Toledo provided the Buckeyes with an adequate tune-up before Big Ten play and had prepared OSU for those upcoming challenges.
“We’re going to assume we are [prepared] because there is no other alternative,” Tressel said. “We are going to test ourselves in practice. We also have to do a great job of studying Illinois and all of the rest.”
DANE PICKED: Among the OSU coaches weekly awards, wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher (5 catches for 126 yards, 2 TDs) was named the top offensive player against Toledo.
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