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Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Loss to Florida still resonating with revamped Ohio State

By Bruce Hooley
Special to ESPN.com

The 86,000-square-foot Woody Hayes Athletic Center on the Ohio State campus is a testament to Big Boy Football decadence.

Todd Boeckman
Todd Boeckman has done a masterful job of managing Ohio State's offense through the midpoint of the season.

It's the epicenter of OSU's football universe and where the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes report for practice every day.

"The Woody" also is where coach Jim Tressel's players hang out, because not many college dorms or apartments feature more plasma TVs than Circuit City, in-water treadmills, whirlpool and therapy tubs that rival any day spa, a weight room the size of Rhode Island, an Xbox arcade, pool tables and a fully stocked juice bar.

The place cost $21.5 million to expand and remodel this past summer.

And it costs the Buckeyes something incalculable to get inside every day.

There is, after all, the indignity of the ever-changing but unrelenting security code of the main entrance keypad.

"I probably shouldn't say what the numbers are," quarterback Todd Boeckman said. " But it's not hard to get the message when you punch it in."

At various times since the remodeled Woody opened this fall, the four-digit entry code has rotated without ever straying from one central axis.

For a while, it was 41-14, the score of Ohio State's loss to Florida in the BCS National Championship Game.

Then came 01-08, the month and day of the debacle in Glendale, Ariz.

And finally, 01-07, the record thus far for this calendar year.

The way things are going, as OSU (7-0, 3-0) prepares to host Michigan State (5-2, 1-2) on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), the Buckeyes might not suffer another defeat until the calender flips to the January 2008 bowl season, if then.

Picked in August to finish third in the Big Ten, Ohio State is the conference's lone unbeaten team at the midpoint of the season and faces a remaining schedule laden with potholes and paved with pushovers, showing the way to a second straight trip to the BCS title game.

Michigan State is the first of five straight opponents that currently sport 5-2 overall records.

That's a dramatic improvement over the dregs OSU has played so far, with Purdue the only vanquished opponent that sported a top-25 ranking.

Still, it's also true that Ohio State's finishing sprint of MSU, at Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois and at Michigan features just one team in the top 25 of the BCS standings: No. 25 Michigan.

Big Ten notebook
The showcase game in the Big Ten is Ohio State-Penn State, but the weekend slate is full of meaningful games for other conference teams.Notebook Insider

No other BCS title contender is afforded the luxury of a path strewn with rose petals to New Orleans.

Yet whether OSU reaches the bayou unbeaten or not, its advance to this point in the aftermath of massive personnel losses to the NFL and the emotional wounds of that 41-14 Gator chomp is noteworthy.

The official media guide Ohio State released for this season contains no mention -- nada, zip, bupkis -- of what took place that Monday night in the desert.

All the gory details, along with other game recaps and the assorted glowing statistics of OSU's 12-0 regular season frolic in 2006, were in the spring guide. But once August rolled around, any mention of Troy Smith's Heisman Trophy numbers, the No. 1 versus No. 2 thriller against Michigan and all other vestiges of last season were purged.

That fueled understandable speculation that Tressel would turn the page on the most humiliating night of his career and not pound it for motivation going forward.

But that would be wrong.

"I think anytime you come up short in anything it helps you," Tressel said. "I wish life were different, but things that maybe I haven't done as well have helped me the next time I've tried to do them. [Using Florida for motivation is] probably more subtle than direct. We don't start every team meeting with, 'Now, don't forget,' because you don't have to. Now, if you thought there was ever a point in time where someone forgot something and hadn't done as good as they could, then it would be a good time to remind them."

Like, uh, every day to open the front door?

"There are little things the coaches do every week to keep reminding us and keep us humble," Boeckman said. "It's not necessarily always about Florida. A lot of times it's about what's happening to other teams around the country, with the upsets that happen every week. We don't want that to be us. We know how that feels. It's the worst feeling in the world."

Boeckman said the Buckeyes talked openly about that frustration during winter conditioning, and it drove them throughout the summer.

Popular logic had Tressel resorting this season to the tactics he used in 2002, relying on more power rushing with tailback Chris Wells, who OSU hoped could be another Maurice Clarett, without the requisite baggage.

Marcus Freeman
Marcus Freeman and the Buckeyes' D have stepped up after Ohio State lost key offensive players.

Wells has been OK, rushing for 642 yards on a balky ankle.

What's driven OSU back to the top of the rankings has been Boeckman's development and his continuing rapport with wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline, who have stepped in for NFL first-rounders Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez.

Robiskie has six touchdown catches and averages 91 receiving yards per game, while Hartline has four scores and produces 45.6 receiving yards per game.

OSU has scored 250 points -- 15 more than it managed with Smith at the controls through seven games last season.

And Boeckman (104-of-159, 65.4 percent, 1,346 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions) has thrown for just 142 fewer yards and one fewer touchdown than Smith entering Week 8.

Defensively, Ohio State has given up the fewest points in the nation (6.6 per game), ranks first overall in the country (211.9 yards per game) and is second against both the run (62.9 yards per game) and pass (149 yards per game).

Naysayers will point to the baby-soft schedule conquered so far, and there's no refuting that argument unless Ohio State proves its worth against the best of some other conference in January.

Until then, the idea will persist that another Florida is waiting to victimize the Buckeyes with grit, guile, speed or savvy.

That might be true, but it's also true that OSU is much more skilled in the back seven this year than last season.

The only new starter at linebacker, senior Larry Grant, can run with most wide receivers.

Safety Anderson Russell's return from a knee injury that sidelined him in the latter part of 2006 gives the Buckeyes a blitzer, coverage-defender and downfield enforcer all in the same jersey.

Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa comes off the bench to man the nickel spot, offering man-to-man skills that allow All-Big Ten corner Malcolm Jenkins to slide to safety in a 3-3-5 alignment.

Jenkins, then, can't be avoided by teams throwing down the middle or away from his side of the field.

James Laurinaitis and the underrated Marcus Freeman are roaming from their respective linebacker spots behind a largely unknown front line that's applying adequate pressure and has yet to be exposed on the ground.

"I know the rest of the country is probably surprised we're back at No. 1, but I don't think anyone in our locker room is surprised," Boeckman said. "We know we've benefited from some teams' losing ahead of us. But I think all of our guys believed we could do this, in spite of what we lost last year. We were maybe more determined to do it because of what happened to us. None of us want to relive that ever again."

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for more than two decades and now is the host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.