Ohio State’s Offensive Woes Not Unexpected

Sputtering, stumbling, staggering, wheezing, foundering, floundering, flummoxing – pick your word to describe what many fans are now deploring as the late, great Ohio State offense.

My question to those who want to storm the castle and demand that Jim Tressel relinquish his play-calling duties: Just exactly what did you expect?

The Buckeyes are breaking in a new quarterback on the fly, have damaged goods at the running back position and resemble a patchwork quilt on the offensive line. Tell me how those ingredients bake into a nice, fluffy product that scores points at will.

For all of the flair and dynamism Terrelle Pryor brings to the quarterback position, we need to remind ourselves that he is just a freshman. I don’t care how good you are – moving from the high school fields of western Pennsylvania to major college football is a quantum leap. Purdue may not field anything resembling the most innovative of defenses, but I’ll wager it was head and shoulders above anything Pryor saw before this season began.

There is no doubt that Pryor has a wealth of football talent, but as a first-year player who is likely putting undue pressure on himself as the starting quarterback, the freshman’s chief problem is not allowing the action to come to him. He is trying to force the issue, holding the ball much too long when receivers are covered and attempting to make something out of nothing when throwing the ball away would be more prudent.

Still, with all of his troubles against the Boilermakers, Pryor still managed to complete better than 71 percent of his pass attempts. Better yet, he committed no turnovers.

There are still five more games on the Ohio State schedule and it’s a pretty good bet that Pryor will have another uneven performance somewhere along the line. When that happens, the Buckeyes will have to figure out other ways to pull out a victory.

They would love to rely on the running of Chris “Beanie” Wells, and they can do that as long as the junior tailback’s body holds out. It’s beginning to become of matter of what’s next for Wells. Last year, he had to fight through ankle and thumb injuries. This year, it’s been the big toe and a bout with the flu.

Unfortunately, Ohio State may never get the full benefit of what a completely healthy Wells can do. In the meantime, whatever the Buckeyes can get from their wounded star is better than what many college running backs can give at full strength. It just won’t be available for 30 to 40 carries a game like Tressel and his coaching staff had hoped when they were game-planning this past summer.

Likewise, the offensive line doesn’t resemble much of what it was supposed to look like heading into the 2008 season. With the notable exception of graduated right tackle Kirk Barton, the veteran line was purported to be one of the team’s strengths.

Instead, the unit got shredded by Southern Cal and then has seen its share of injuries. As a result, left tackle Alex Boone has been the lone constant in an ever-changing litany of lineups.

An injury to left guard Steve Rehring prompted the move of center Jim Cordle, putting the line calls in the hands of true freshman Mike Brewster. I know many recruiting aficionados believe the battery of Pryor and Brewster are destined for great things, and throwing them into the deep end of the pool so early in their careers gives testimony to how good the OSU coaching staff thinks they are.

But again, they are freshmen and they are prone to freshman mistakes. The experience they gain this season will be hugely beneficial down the line, but any team that relies so heavily on freshmen at such skilled positions does so at its own peril.

Likewise, the right side of the offensive line remains in flux. Sophomore Bryant Browning has spent time at both guard and tackle on that side, and it’s worth remember that he, too, is a first-year starter. The mystery is senior Ben Person, who would be at or near the top of the Big Ten lead in offensive line penalties if the conference kept such a stat.

All of this, and I haven’t even talked about the injuries to ballyhooed freshmen such as J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams, which have robbed the offensive line of its depth. Then there is the ankle injury sustained by senior tight end Rory Nicol, the lingering shoulder problems of senior receiver Brian Robiskie, and the concussions that have temporarily sidelined such valuable backups as tailback Dan Herron and receiver Dane Sanzenbacher

Put all of that together in the same pot and you have a starting offensive lineup that has players getting their first taste of collegiate playing time, others being asked to switch positions and veterans trying their best to gut their way through painful injuries.

To blame all of that on Tressel and his play-calling seems more than a little unreasonable.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among the luminaries celebrating birthdays this 13th day of October: former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher; world-class poker player T.J. Cloutier; film actress Melinda Dillon (she’s Ralphie’s mother in “A Christmas Story”); Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Paul Simon; Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones; keyboardist and Chicago founding member Robert Lamm; rocker and former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar; nine-time Triple Crown race winning jockey Pat Day; screenwriter, director, producer and “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter; Sacramento Kings head coach Reggie Theus; Boston Celtics head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers; U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.); entertainer Marie Osmond; Minnesota Gophers head football coach Tim Brewster; former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer; film actress Kelly Preston (also Mrs. John Travolta); TV actress Kate Walsh (Dr. Addison Montgomery first on “Grey’s Anatomy” and then “Private Practice”); NFL Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice; San Diego Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman; Boston Celtics forward/guard Paul Pierce; Toronto Raptors center/forward Jermaine O’Neal; Olympic silver and bronze medal-winning figure skater Nancy Kerrigan; Olympic gold medal swimmer Summer Sanders; Grammy-winning singer Ashanti Douglas; “Access Hollywood” co-host Billy Bush; and Borat himself, actor Sacha Baron Cohen.

AND FINALLY

** For a guy already running with a bad wheel, then to be felled much of the week by flu symptoms, Wells had a fairly impressive afternoon against Purdue. He stoned safety Dwight Mclean late in the first quarter with one of his patented stiff-arms, and then showed why he’s a difference-maker early in the third period. Wells broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and then ran through three more Boilermakers before finally being brought down after a 12-yard carry.

** Perhaps it is finally time to get freshman Lamaar “Flash” Thomas a little more involved. His 36-yard return on the game’s opening kickoff was the longest this year for the Buckeyes, and he later made some nice moves to turn a short pass from Pryor into a 16-yard gain. Forget your “Boom and Zoom” offense. Get Thomas in there alongside Pryor and Wells for some “Flash and Dash.”

** To be brutally honest, I’m not real broken up about Michigan’s loss to Toledo. Nevertheless, the Wolverines’ continued struggles this season only help serve as fodder for the Big Ten naysayers. U-M’s home loss to a bottom-of-the-pack MAC team isn’t going to help any Big Ten team’s chances when determining national title game berths.

** After losing to the Rockets, Michigan has to turn around and head for Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions are mindful of the fact they have lost nine times in a row to the Wolverines and are practically salivating at a chance for some payback. Remember that 63-14 pounding Penn State administered to Ohio State back in 1994? This one could be worse.

** Here are some sobering numbers for those in love with spread offenses. Juice Williams of Illinois threw for 462 yards on the same day Chase Daniel of Missouri, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame each topped 380 yards for their respective teams. And every one of them lost. Despite all the newfangled attacks of today’s game, the old coach’s mantra still rings true: “Offense gets headlines but defense wins championships.”

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A Few Random Thoughts

It’s pretty easy to draw comparisons between Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State’s last great quarterback except Pryor got the job much quicker than Troy Smith.

Smith always seemed to be a work in progress despite the fact he attended the Elite 11 quarterback camp before his senior year in high school. Because of his size, no one ever seemed to know if Smith was going to be a viable option at quarterback – Jim Tressel balked at the possibility just the way the Baltimore Ravens are now. As a result, Smith spent time returning kickoffs and backing up Craig Krenzel, Scott McMullen and Justin Zwick before getting his chance.

There is no such doubt about Pryor, especially since his 6-6, 235-pound frame is a classic quarterback’s body. Whereas Smith needed Zwick to get hurt to get his chance, Pryor simply had to wait for Todd Boeckman to struggle.

Since taking over the starting job, the OSU freshman is now a perfect 3-0 as a starter and already has a marquee victory, leading a fourth-quarter rally against Wisconsin and scoring the game-winner himself.

How Pryor continues to mature into his role on this team will be most interesting. It took some time for Smith to gain the confidence of his teammates, especially after he spouted off about a lack of playing time in 2004 and then got himself suspended later that year – a suspension that probably cost the Buckeyes any shot they had to beat eventual national champion Texas the following season.

Once the 2006 season began, however, you could tell it was Smith’s team. He took that Ohio State team by the throat and willed it to win every game that regular season. Conversely, when he took his eye off the ball between the Michigan game and national title contest against Florida, the team suffered. Smith didn’t think he had to practice hard, and like it had all season, the rest of the players took their cue for their quarterback. Result: Smith played the worst game of his career and so did many of his teammates.

If Pryor is to maintain the legacy of Smith – and avoid his problems – he will have to keep his head from now until the moment he walks off the field as a Buckeye for the last time. That’s an awful lot to ask from a kid who is only beginning a journey during which everyone – and not just those with his best interests at heart – is going to want a piece of him.

From my brief encounters with Pryor, I think he can handle the white, hot spotlight of fame. By the same token, it probably wouldn’t hurt to keep a candle burning somewhere just in case.

WHITHER UNCLE WALT

In an ongoing message board mystery, there seems to be a lot of love in the Buckeye Nation for former Ohio State quarterback coach Walt Harris.

Harris, who may or may not have been hanging around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center lately, is fondly remembered for his 1995-96 stint on John Cooper’s staff when Ohio State was an offensive machine. In case you are among the handful of people who don’t remember what those two seasons were like, the Buckeyes went 22-3 and averaged 37.2 points per game.

Harris gets a lot of credit for that offensive output, mainly because he was able to turn Bobby Hoying from an average quarterback into a very, very good one. But Harris can’t take all the credit for how OSU performed on offense in ’95 and ’96. Give me Eddie George, Terry Glenn, David Boston and Orlando Pace, and chances are I’d be pretty good with the offense, too.

Fans who long for the day Harris joins Tressel’s staff may as well wish for a million dollars to fall out of the sky and into their laps. Besides the fact that Harris’ big personality would not mesh very well on the present-day staff, Tressel will never relinquish play-calling duties unless he is told to do so by his boss. And last time I checked, Gene Smith was offering JT an unsolicited pay raise and contract extension.

NOT EXACTLY MOVIN’ ON UP

Perhaps the fix really is in.

Three weeks – and three victories – after Ohio State was unceremoniously dumped by USC, the Buckeyes continue to languish outside the top 10 of the major polls. This week, OSU was 11th in the USA Today coaches poll and 12th in the AP and Harris rankings.

Obviously, there is still plenty of time to make up ground. The first BCS rankings won’t be released until Oct. 19 and there are six more weeks for that poll to recalibrate itself. Remember that Ohio State tumbled to seventh after its loss to Illinois and still wound up leading the final rankings of the regular season.

Next week’s human polls should jumble again after a weekend schedule that features No. 1 Oklahoma taking on No. 5 Texas and No. 11 Florida hosting No. 4 LSU. All things being equal, the Buckeyes should be able to crack next week’s top 10 if they take care of business against Purdue. We’ll see.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

OSU offensive tackle Alex Boone came out this week and said he and his teammates will not look past Purdue despite the fact the Boilermakers have lost three of their last four games and appear on the verge of having a full-blown quarterback controversy.

Of course, we have heard similar pronouncements in the past from young Mr. Boone and his compatriots and what we got were performances against LSU, Ohio, USC, etc. My simple wish: If you’re going to talk the talk, please follow up and walk the walk.

That said, if the Buckeyes are to make a run at a third consecutive appearance in the BCS National Championship Game, they must win out. And if they win out, that means they will have won a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship and an unprecedented third outright crown in a row.

Throughout the long and storied career of the Big Ten, which began with seven teams in 1896, no school has ever won back-to-back-to-back outright championships.

Minnesota was the first to make an assault on a three-peat. The Gophers went undefeated in Big Ten play between 1909 and 1911, but because teams played uneven schedules in those days, Minnesota had to share the crown in 1910 with Illinois, which also finished unbeaten in conference play.

Michigan has come close a couple of times over the years. The first time was more than a half-century ago when the Wolverines won outright titles in 1947-48 and then shared the crown with Ohio State in 1949 before winning another undisputed championship in 1950. U-M had another run between 1988 and ’92 – the team went back-to-back with outright championships in ’88 and ’89, finished in a four-way tie for the co-title in ’90, and then went two more outright crowns in ’91 and ’92.

OSU’s best shot at three straight outright championships came during the 1968-70 glory years. The Buckeyes were undefeated in league play in both ’68 and ’70, but that upset suffered to Michigan at the end of the ’69 regular season forced them to share the title with the Wolverines.

One final note: It seems there should have been some team win three outright championships by now. After all, in the Big Ten’s previous 112 seasons, there have been 72 outright titles – just never three in a row by the same team.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Those celebrating birthdays this 10th day of October: singer John Prine; actor/dancer Ben Vereen; romance novelist Nora Roberts; Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth; country singer Tanya Tucker; film and TV actor Bradley Whitford (evil businessman Eric Gordon in “Billy Madison” and thoughtful Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman in “The West Wing”); former Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney; actress Wendy McLendon-Covey (voluptuous Deputy Clementine Johnson on “Reno 911!”); actor/dancer/host Mario López; Detroit Tigers infielder Plácido Polanco; Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell; Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki; San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry; Buffalo Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny; NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Jr.; and three-time NFL MVP and current New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre.

OHIO STATE-PURDUE MINUTIAE

** This marks the 51st meeting between Ohio State and Purdue. The Buckeyes hold a 36-12-2 record in the overall series, including a lopsided 24-5-2 in Columbus. The Boilermakers haven’t won in Ohio Stadium since 1988 and have lost 12 of their last 13 games in the Horseshoe. Their last visit was a 16-13 overtime loss in 2003.

** Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel is 4-1 against the Boilermakers, including last year’s 23-7 victory in West Lafayette. Purdue’s lone win over Tressel was a 24-17 decision in 2004.

** Purdue head coach Joe Tiller is 2-5 against the Buckeyes. In addition to his team’s victory in 2004, the Boilermakers took a 31-27 win in 2000 at Ross-Ade Stadium. Four times during the seven games in which Tiller’s team has faced OSU have the contests been decided by four points or less.

** Tiller is 85-57 in his 11-plus seasons at Purdue, making him the school’s all-time winningest coach. He has one more victory than Jack Mollenkopf, who compiled an 84-39-9 mark during 14 seasons in West Lafayette between 1956 and ’69.

** Despite his overall success, Tiller has not had very much luck against ranked opposition. Last week’s loss to Penn State ran Purdue’s streak to 16 consecutive losses against top 25 teams. Under Tiller, the Boilermakers are 12-36 against ranked foes. That includes a 3-18 mark on the road.

** With Minnesota’s win over Indiana last weekend, Purdue now holds the dubious honor of the longest losing streak in conference games. Dating back to last year, the Boilermakers have lost four Big Ten games in a row.

** Something has to give Saturday. The Buckeyes enter the contest with the Big Ten’s top pass defense while Purdue has the No. 1 passing offense in the conference. OSU allows an average of 155.0 yards through the air while the Boilers are averaging 254.2 yards per game in the passing department.

** A stat that offers a little insight into how the Ohio State defense is performing so far this season: After six games, the Buckeyes have forced opponents into 27 three-and-out possessions. Last year after six games, OSU had forced 42 three-and-outs.

** Purdue is one of the least penalized teams in college football, averaging only 4.4 penalties for 37.0 yards per game. Last week, the Boilermakers committed only one infraction against Penn State – an illegal substitution call that was declined by the Nittany Lions. That meant Purdue had no penalties in a game for the first time in the Tiller era.

** Purdue kicker Chris Summers used to be one of the most reliable kickers in college football, but he missed a PAT last week and that snapped a school-record streak of 111 consecutive extra points. That streak was the third-longest in Big Ten history, trailing only J.D. Carlson of Michigan (126, 1989-91) and Brett Conway of Penn State (119, 1994-96). Summers also missed a pair of field goals last week – and four of his last five – and Tiller has benched him in favor of freshman Carson Wiggs.

** Boilermakers QB Curtis Painter has struggled so far this season, but he has still managed to pull into second place on his school’s all-time passing list. Painter, now with 9,988 career yards, trails only Drew Brees, who threw for 11,792 yards from 1997-2000. With just 12 more yards, Painter also becomes only the fourth quarterback in Big Ten history to throw for 10,000 yards or more during his career. The others: Brees, Brett Basanez of Northwestern (10,580, 2002-05) and Chuck Long of Iowa (10,461, 1981-85).

** Painter also holds the distinction of having the longest active starting streak of all Division I-A quarterbacks. Currently, he has 37 consecutive starts, one more than Rudy Carpenter of Arizona State and three more than Mike Teel of Rutgers.

** Purdue running back Kory Sheets is running with some illustrious company. He scored the 40th rushing touchdown of his career last week against Penn State to move past Mike Alstott (1992-95) and become the Boilermakers’ all-time leader in rushing TDs. Sheets now 45 total touchdowns for his career, tying him with Eddie George of Ohio State (1992-95) for eighth place in touchdowns scored in Big Ten history. Ron Dayne of Wisconsin (1996-99) holds the conference record in that department with 71 TDs.

** OSU tailback Chris “Beanie” Wells, with his 168 yards against Wisconsin, has now cracked the century mark in eight of the last nine games he has played. Over that nine-game stretch, he has rushed for an average of 150.2 yards per game. Also, his last four touchdown runs have averaged 50.8 yards – 62 at Michigan, 65 vs. LSU, 43 against Youngstown State and 33 at Wisconsin.

** Kickoff for Saturday’s game will be shortly after 3:30 p.m. Eastern. ABC will broadcast the game on a regional basis with the announce crew of Ron Franklin (play-by-play), Ed Cunningham (color analysis) and our old friend Jack Arute (sideline reports).

** Remember that ABC will employ its reverse mirror effect for the game. That means if the game is not on the ABC station in your area, it will be shown on ESPN – and vice versa.

** Next week’s game at Michigan State is another 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff. It will also be telecast regionally by ABC and employ the reverse mirror.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** The ranks of the undefeated keep dwindling, leaving only 15 teams at the Division I-A level still without a loss. Those left standing: Alabama, Ball State, Boise State, BYU, LSU, Missouri, Northwestern, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Texas, Texas Tech, Tulsa, Utah and Vanderbilt.

** Special congratulations to Vandy. The Commodores are 5-0 for the first time since 1943.

** Northwestern remains unranked in the Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters, but the Wildcats made their season debut in the USA Today coaches poll at No. 22. The team’s last appearance in the rankings came in mid-November 2005 when Northwestern was ranked 25th by the AP.

** Vanderbilt (14th) and Northwestern (22nd) are joined in this week’s coaches poll by Wake Forest at No. 21. The last time those three teams were all ranked at the same time was the final AP poll of 1948.

** Tuskegee, Ala., is now known for something more than George Washington Carver and its famous airmen of World War II. Tuskegee University, which plays in Division II, has the longest active winning streak in NCAA football. Last week’s 34-24 decision over Division I-AA Alabama A&M gave the Golden Tigers their 21st consecutive victory.

** BYU has the longest win streak at the I-A level – 15 in a row.

** During their 27-0 win over Duke last week, run-oriented Georgia Tech completed nine passes for 230 yards – all to sophomore receiver Demaryius Thomas.

** Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, courtesy of his team’s win last week over Purdue, moved into a tie with Robert Zuppke of Illinois (1913-41) as the seventh winningest coach in Big Ten history. Paterno now has 131 victories since his team joined the conference. Currently sixth on the list is Henry Williams of Minnesota, who totaled 136 wins from 1900-21.

** Illinois quarterback Juice Williams has moved into fifth place on the Big Ten’s all-time list for most rushing yards by a QB. Williams now has 1,735 yards in that department and needs only 33 more to pass Brooks Bollinger of Wisconsin (1,767, 1999-2002) to move into fourth place. Antwaan Randle El of Indiana (1998-2001) is far and away the conference’s career leader with 3,895 rushing yards.

** The Southeastern Conference, Big 12 and Big Ten account for better than two-thirds of this week’s teams in the coaches poll. The SEC and Big 12 each have seven teams in the top 25 and the Big Ten has five.

** Former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz is going to get one more chance to lead the Fighting Irish into battle. Holtz will lead a group of former Golden Domers against a team of Japanese all-stars in the Japan Bowl, set for next July in Tokyo.

** Ohio University is making a name for itself this season in milestone victories for its opponents. On Sept. 6, the Bobcats lost a 26-14 decision to Ohio State, marking the 800th all-time victory for the Buckeyes. Then last weekend, Ohio dropped a 41-20 verdict to Western Michigan. That was the 500th win in WMU program history.

** Oklahoma needs only to score 10 points this Saturday against Texas to become the first college football team in history to score 30,000 points.

** Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell threw for 454 yards during last week’s 58-28 rout of Kansas State and moved past Kliff Kingsbury as the Red Raiders’ all-time leading passer. Harrell now has 12,709 career yards, but that is still a long way away from the NCAA career leader. Timmy Chang of Hawaii may still be icing his elbow somewhere after throwing for 17,072 yards during his career. (Actually, Chang is currently on the roster of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.)

** Nine years ago yesterday, a legend was born – sort of. For the first time in nearly 20 years, Michigan and Michigan State entered their instate rivalry with undefeated records and gave those in attendance in East Lansing their money’s worth. The Spartans stormed out to an early lead before U-M head coach Lloyd Carr replaced starting quarterback Drew Henson with backup Tom Brady. Brady went on to complete 30 of 41 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns, but his rally fell just short as the Spartans held on for a 34-31 victory.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Oct. 6, 1956, Penn snapped a 19-game home losing streak with a 14-7 win over Dartmouth. It was the Quakers’ first official Ivy League game, while Dartmouth’s lone touchdown came from quarterback Mike Brown, the same Mike Brown who is now owner of the Cincinnati Bengals.

** Meanwhile, on Oct. 7, 1996, College Football Hall of Fame coach Wallace Wade died in Durham, N.C., at the age of 94. Wade was head coach at Alabama in 1925 when the Crimson Tide became the first Southern school invited to the Rose Bowl. A guard for Brown during his playing days, Wade became the first man ever to play and coach in a Rose Bowl. His Brown team lost to Washington State, 14-0, in the 1916 game, but his Alabama squad took a 20-19 thriller over Washington a decade later. Wade later coached at Duke – the football stadium there bears his name – and led the Blue Devils to their only Rose Bowl appearance, a 20-16 loss to Oregon State in the 1942 game.

** Today marks the 21st anniversary of a 42-17 victory over Colorado by Oklahoma State, allowing the Cowboys to open their season with five straight wins for the first time since 1945. Leading the way for Oklahoma State was a couple of fairly decent running backs – Thurman Thomas rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown while Barry Sanders added a score on a 73-yard punt return.

Times Have Changed In Cheeseland

My first visit to Camp Randall Stadium was in 1990, one of those early years in the John Cooper era. That was back when it always seemed Ohio State got within a whisker of going to the Rose Bowl only to lose to Michigan and wind up playing at 11 o’clock in the morning on New Year’s Day in some nondescript bowl game.

Anyway, I don’t remember too much about the trip other a 35-10 win by the Buckeyes and sitting beside a nice lady on the flight back from Madison. She was a relative of Wisconsin defensive tackle Don Davey, and I told her that Ohio State needed only to beat Michigan the following week to achieve its first Rose Bowl trip in six years. I remember her eyes widening as she said, “Wow, the Rose Bowl. We’d settle for any bowl.”

That was then, of course, and this is now. The Buckeyes went on to lose to Michigan, 16-13, and then lose to Air Force in the Liberty Bowl. But at least they made the postseason. In 1990, Davey was one of the few stars Wisconsin had on its way to an 0-8 finish in the Big Ten and a 1-10 overall record. It was the sixth consecutive losing season for the Badgers and they would eventually run that string to eight in a row. Then they hired Barry Alvarez and the rest is history.

Alvarez led Wisconsin to Rose Bowl trips after the 1993, ’97 and ’98 seasons and his team won all three games. Since the beginning of the 2004 season, the two winningest programs in the Big Ten are Ohio State (45) and Wisconsin (43).

And while the Buckeyes have displayed several distinctly different offensive personae during their recent run, the Badgers have achieved their success the old-fashioned way. Alvarez recruited huge road graders for his offensive line, found one dependable running back to carry the load and featured a straight-up defense that relied on playing mistake-free. Fancy it was not but very successful it certainly was.

Alvarez is gone now, accepting a promotion to athletic director and leaving the sidelines to Bret Bielema, who had joined the Badgers in 2004 as defensive coordinator. But the beat goes on.

Alvarez was (and still is) a gruff sort who really doesn’t give a rip for tradition. Perhaps some of that was because Wisconsin didn’t have much of a tradition before he got to Madison. Before winning the Big Ten championship in 1993, the Badgers hadn’t won one since 1962. And before winning three Rose Bowls in a row, the team had never won any of its previous three trips to Pasadena. No wonder Bucky and his fans got so full of themselves in Nineties.

Bielema seems like the perfect successor. Outwardly, his personality seems to fit a guy who spent his playing days as a defensive lineman, and he has adopted most of the tenets of his predecessor. This year’s starting offensive line averages better than 6-6 and 319 pounds, making it one of the beefiest in the Big Ten. Their featured back is senior P.J. Hill, a 5-11, 236-pound bowling ball with 636 career carries to his credit. And the Wisconsin defense, while nothing spectacular, is solid enough to give up only 17.0 points per game so far.

The purpose for this history lesson is two-fold. First, unlike during the entire Woody Hayes era when the Buckeyes enjoyed a 25-1-2 record against the Badgers, Wisconsin is now one of the top programs in the Big Ten. With all of their success has come a bit of a swagger that doesn’t go down well with some of its rivals who believe Bucky ought to be a little more humble. Nevertheless, opponents who play at Camp Randall find one of the most intimidating venues in all of college football. It is even moreso at night.

Secondly, what you see is what you get against Wisconsin. Bielema likes to find weaknesses in his opponent’s game plan and exploit them. But he will not try to guess along with the guy on the other sideline. Bielema has confidence in what he does – what the Badgers have done for most of the past 15 years – and what Ohio State will find on Saturday night is a team that will try to control both lines of scrimmage.

If you are the Buckeyes, that should play into your comfort zone – at least on offense. It is no great secret that OSU offensive linemen excel better at run blocking, and the combination of Beanie Wells’ power and Terrelle Pryor’s shiftiness should allow the Buckeyes to operate fairly well on the ground.

On the other side of the ball, it will be interesting to see if Jim Tressel continues to employ four defensive ends along the front wall or elects to get some more girth in there with Dexter Larimore, Nader Abdallah and Todd Denlinger (if his ankle allows him to go).

Last year’s game ended in a 38-17 rout for Ohio State with Wells running for 169 yards and three touchdowns of 31, 30 and 23 yards. But what some may forget is that Hill was sidelined for that game – and the Badgers gained only 12 yards on the ground. Even with that kind of futility, the Buckeyes trailed 17-10 at home late in the third quarter.

My point is this: Ohio State can and should beat Wisconsin on Saturday night but the Buckeyes cannot afford to be lollygaggers. They must take the fight to the home team and make the most of every scoring opportunity, especially early in the game, if only to break some of the will of what will undoubtedly be a boisterous crowd tuned up after a daylong affair with their favorite cold beverage.

I guess what I’m talking about is some display of killer instinct. If they show it Saturday night, the Buckeyes are going to return home with a victory. If they don’t, they run a huge risk of the 2008 season turning into 2004.

OHIO STATE-WISCONSIN MINUTIAE

** This marks the 74th meeting of Ohio State and Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes hold a decidedly lopsided 51-17-5 record in the overall series, including 24-10-2 in Madison. However, the Badgers have closed the gap in recent years. Since 1980, OSU has only a 6-5-1 advantage.

** Ohio State head Jim Tressel is now 77-17 with the Buckeyes, but only 2-3 against Wisconsin. The Badgers are the only Big Ten team with a winning record against OSU during the Tressel era.

** For all of his success with the Buckeyes, head coach Jim Tressel is only 4-3 in Big Ten road openers. Included in the three losses is a 17-10 defeat at Wisconsin in 2003, the last time OSU visited Madison.

** Since joining the Big Ten in 1913, Ohio State is 59-32-5 in conference road openers.

** On 14 previous occasions, the Buckeyes have traveled to Madison for their Big Ten road opener. OSU has a 7-6-1 edge in those games, but the Badgers have won three of the last four – 24-21 in 1981, 20-16 in 1992 and 17-10 in 2003. Ohio State last won a conference road opener at Camp Randall in 2000 with a 23-7 victory.

** Tressel has compiled a record of 21-7 in games during the month of October, including 11 victories in a row. The last time the Buckeyes lost during October was a 17-10 setback at Penn State on Oct. 8, 2005.

** This is the second of three regular-season night games scheduled for the Buckeyes this year. Earlier, OSU absorbed a 35-3 loss at USC and the Oct. 25 game against Penn State will be a rare night-time affair at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes are 31-13 all-time in night games (defined as games beginning at 5 p.m. or later local time).

** Wisconsin has won 21 of its last 22 night games, including a 13-10 decision earlier this season at Fresno State. The Badgers are also working on a streak of 11 straight victories in night games.

** Over the last six seasons, Wisconsin has the sixth-best home winning percentage in Division I-A football. The Badgers are 31-4 since the beginning of the 2003 season, good for an .886 winning percentage. Boise State and Oklahoma lead that list at 34-1 (.971), followed by USC (30-1, .968), Ohio State (36-3, .923) and LSU (35-3, .921).

** The Badgers are currently working on a 16-game home winning streak, the second-longest in I-A. (Oklahoma has won 20 in a row at home.) The current streak is second in school history only to a stretch between 1900 and ’03 when Wisconsin won 25 consecutive home games.

** During its 16-game home win streak, U-Dub has outscored its opponents by a 559-218 margin. That’s good for an average win by 21.3 points.

** The game should be a good, old-fashioned, smash-mouth game for which the Big Ten is famous. Wisconsin averages 218.5 yards rushing while Ohio State gives up an average of only 95.2 yards on the ground. Eleven of the Badgers’ 15 touchdowns this season so far have come on the ground – OSU has given up only two rushing TDs to five opponents.

** The Badgers will likely try to keep the game a low-scoring affair. In the four years head coach Bret Bielema has been on staff, Wisconsin is 31-1 when allowing 20 or fewer points.

** After last week’s 106 yards against Minnesota, Chris “Beanie” Wells has 2,402 career yards and is now 598 away from becoming only the sixth player in Ohio State history to rush for at least 3,000 yards in a career. Wells needs 175 more to move past Calvin Murray (2,576, 1977-80) in the school’s top 10 all-time.

** Brian Robiskie had a season-high eight receptions against Minnesota and that pushed his career total to 105. He is four away from moving past Billy Anders (108, 1965-67) and Joey Galloway (108, 1991-94) into ninth place in school history in career receptions.

** Congratulations to Robiskie, who has made the semifinal list for the Draddy Trophy, referred to as the “Academic Heisman.” That list will be pared to 15 finalists by Oct. 29, and each finalist will be recognized as part of the 2008 National Scholar-Athlete Class and receive an $18,000 post-graduate scholarship. The Draddy winner, who will receive a $25,000 postgraduate scholarship, will be announced Dec. 9. Past Ohio State winners are Bobby Hoying (1995) and Craig Krenzel (2003).

** James Laurinaitis had a game-high 12 tackles last Saturday against the Gophers, giving him 292 total stops for his career. Eight more makes him only the 14th Buckeye ever with 300 or more tackles. Once he hits that mark, Laurinaitis should begin moving up the all-time tackles chart quickly. Al Washington (345, 1977-80) currently sits in seventh place followed by Ed Thompson (338, 1974-76), Glen Cobb (336, 1979-82), Mike Doss (331, 1999-2002), Randy Gradishar (320, 1971-73), Kelton Dansler (316, 1975-78) and Aaron Brown (314, 1974-77).

** Kickoff for the game in Madison will be shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern. That’s 7 p.m. local time if you are going to Camp Randall. ABC will broadcast the game on a regional basis with Mike Patrick handling play-by-play duties and Todd Blackledge providing color analysis. Holly Rowe will be the sideline reporter.

** Remember that since this is a night game and not subject to ABC’s reverse mirror effect, if you are not in a region carrying the game you will have to pony up for one week’s worth of ESPN GamePlan.

** Next week’s game against Purdue is back home at the friendly confines of the Horseshoe. Kickoff is scheduled for shortly after 3:30 p.m. Eastern and the game will be telecast on a regional basis by ABC. That game will employ the reverse mirror, so if you don’t get the contest on your local ABC-affiliated station, it will be available on either ESPN or ESPN2.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

There are a pair of Buckeye birthdays today: former offensive lineman Jeff Davidson and current men’s ice hockey coach John Markell.

Jeffrey John Davidson was born Oct. 3, 1967, in Akron but moved to the Columbus area at a young age and played his high school football at Westerville North. He lettered at Ohio State from 1986-89, and was a starting offensive guard as a junior and senior, earning All-Big Ten honors in 1989. Davidson was a fifth-round draft choice in 1990 had a five-year playing career in the NFL, mostly with Denver, and began his coaching career in 1995 as a volunteer assistant in New Orleans. He has also spent time on the staffs in New England and Cleveland, and is currently in his second season as offensive coordinator on John Fox’s staff at Carolina.

John Richard Markell was born Oct. 3, 1956, in Cornwall, Ontario, and played collegiately at Bowling Green. He was a three-time, first-team All-CCHA member for the Falcons, and he played in the NHL with Winnipeg, St. Louis and Minnesota. Markell began his coaching career in 1991 as a player-coach for ESC Wolfsberg (Germany), and joined the staff at Ohio State in 1994 as an assistant on Jerry Welsh’s staff. When Welsh was dismissed in 1995, Markell was named as successor and was hired as full-time head coach the following season. He has led the Buckeyes to five NCAA tournament berths and was named CCHA Coach of the Year in 1998.

Also celebrating birthdays this third day of October: author Gore Vidal; singer/songwriter Ernest Evans (a little better known as Chubby Checker); TV actor Alan Rachins (Douglas Brackman on “L.A. Law” and Dharma’s father on “Dharma & Greg”); illusionist Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy fame); “The Late Show with David Letterman” stage manager Biff Henderson; film critic Michael Medved; singer, songwriter and on-and-off Fleetwood Mac member Lindsay Buckingham; MLB Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Dennis Eckersley; U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.); Alabama Gov. Bob Riley; political activist Rev. Al Sharpton; 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples; longtime soap actor Jack Wagner; Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee; film actor Clive Owen; actress Neve Campbell; and pop singers Gwen Stefani and Ashlee Simpson-Wentz.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** After last week’s spate of upsets, the number of undefeated teams at the Division I-A level went from 27 to 18. Those left standing: Alabama, Ball State, Boise State, BYU, Connecticut, Kentucky, LSU, Missouri, Northwestern, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Penn State, South Florida, Texas, Texas Tech, Tulsa, Utah and Vanderbilt.

** Among those 18 undefeated teams, only 14 are ranked. In the latest Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters, Kentucky was 28th, Ball State was 29th, Northwestern was 30th and Tulsa was 31st.

** In their five games this season, Alabama has never trailed this season and been tied only 26½ minutes. So far, the Crimson Tide is outscoring its opposition 74-0 in the first period and 133-20 in the first half.

** Even though it seems as though the 2008 season just got started, both Penn State and Northwestern are only one victory away from becoming bowl-eligible. It would be the Nittany Lions’ fourth straight trip to the postseason and 35th under head coach Joe Paterno. Meanwhile, the Wildcats would qualify for a bowl for only the seventh time in school history and the first time under third-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

** When Penn State was “held” to 38 points last week by Illinois, it marked the lowest offensive output this season for JoePa’s team. The Nits are currently fourth in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 49.8 points per game. If you guessed that the top three are Tulsa (54.8), Missouri (53.8) and Oklahoma State (51.8), consider yourself a true fan of college football.

** Michigan State is 5-1 and senior tailback Javon Ringer has run himself into Heisman Trophy contention. The Dayton (Ohio) Chaminade-Julienne product is the second-leading rusher in the nation with 179.4 yards per game and the leading scorer with 12 touchdowns. But Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio is also taking the risk of overusing his star. Ringer carried 44 times in a 42-29 win over Indiana last Saturday, increasing his total to 187 carries in five games. Over a 13-game season, that computes to more than 485 carries and would blow away the Big Ten record of 419 set by Lorenzo White of Michigan State in 1985. The NCAA Division I-A record is 450 carries, set in 2007 by Kevin Smith of Central Florida.

** In retrospect, we probably should have foreseen Michigan giving new head coach Rick Rodriguez a victory over Wisconsin. No U-M head coach has lost his first Big Ten game since Chalmers “Bump” Elliott in 1959. (Also, Michael Phelps was in attendance wearing a Michigan jersey, and we ought to know by now that everything he touches turns to gold.)

** By the way, the 19-point deficit the Wolverines erased on their way to the 27-25 win over Wisconsin was their largest comeback in the history of Michigan Stadium, now in its 81st season.

** Penn State kicker Kevin Kelly is making a rapid rise on the Big Ten’s all-time scoring list. He enters this week’s game against Purdue with 350 career points, good enough for eighth on the all-time list. Kelly needs only seven more points to leap past Garrett Rivas of Michigan (354, 2003-06), Travis Dorsch of Purdue (355, 1998-2001) and Mike Nugent of Ohio State (356, 2001-04) into fifth place.

** When Mississippi shocked Florida last weekend, it marked the first win for the Rebels over a top-five team since 1977. That year, Ole Miss took a 20-13 win over No. 3 Notre Dame and quarterback Joe Montana. That was the only loss that season for the Fighting Irish who went on to beat fifth-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl and capture the national championship.

** Do you think the Big 12 has become the nation’s premier passing conference? Graham Harrell of Texas Tech ranks 20th nationally in pass efficiency – and only ninth in his own conference.

** Fifteen years ago yesterday, Alabama matched its own school and Southeastern Conference record for consecutive victories. On Oct. 2, 1993, the Crimson Tide scored a 17-6 victory at South Carolina to mark their 28th win in a row. The mark tied the previous school and conference mark set between 1978 and 1980 when the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant was patrolling the Bama sideline.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Sept. 30, 1939, Fordham and Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania played in the first televised college football game, a contest seen by an estimate 500 viewers in the New York City area; on Oct. 4, 1969, Boston University scored a 13-10 upset at Harvard, ending the Crimson’s 10-game win streak and marking BU’s first-ever victory over Harvard since the matchup began in 1921; and on Oct. 5, 1968, Arkansas running back Bill Burnett scored a touchdown to help the Razorbacks to a 17-7 win over TCU. It was the first of 23 consecutive games in which Burnett scored, an NCAA record that stood for 32 years.

** Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the death of John Heisman, the legendary college coach and namesake of the Heisman Trophy. Born Oct. 23, 1869, in Cleveland, John William Heisman is credited with several innovations including invention of the center snap, dividing the game into quarters rather than halves, and leading the movement to legalize the forward pass. Heisman played at Brown (1887-89) and Penn (1890-91), and began his coaching career at Oberlin in 1892. He also coached at Akron, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Penn, Washington & Jefferson and Rice, compiled a career record of 185-70-17. Heisman was prepared to write a history of college football when he died Oct. 3, 1936, in New York City. Three days later he was taken by train to his wife’s hometown of Rhinelander, Wis., where he was buried at the city-owned Forest Home Cemetery. Two months later, the Downtown Athletic Club in New York renamed its college football best player trophy in Heisman’s honor.