Buckeyes looking for a Big Ten title

By Derek Barichello

November is for contenders. And No. 12 Ohio State is a contender.

The Buckeyes are rated No. 10 in the BCS poll and sit a half a game behind No. 10 Penn State and No. 14 Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings with a 4-1 record. The Buckeyes only loss came at the hands of Penn State, 17-10. Both Penn State and Wisconsin will go head-to-head on Saturday in Happy Valley.

With only a month left in the season, Ohio State is very much alive to clinch a berth in a BCS bowl. Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said he wants his team to start raising its intensity to championship level starting with Illinois on Saturday.

“We’ve really got to focus on Ohio State being the best team we can be in November,” Tressel said. “Because that’s where you win championships, and we happen to be playing Illinois, and they happen to be a hungry team.”

The Buckeyes have had a great deal of success in November. They are 11-3 dating back to the 2001 season.

And as no surprise, the Buckeyes are heavy favorites going into Saturday. The odds makers are giving them 35 points against Illinois, who has yet to win a Big Ten game.

“It makes you uncomfortable because we are not 35 points better,” Tressel said.

If anyone feels uncomfortable, it is Ron Zook about the many weapons Ohio State presents.

As he said in Tuesday’s press conference, regardless of what the first play is, he will be holding his breath.

If it is a kick off, the Illini have to kick off to Ted Ginn, Jr., who returned one 97 yards for a touchdown last week against Minnesota, something that has been a strong suit for the Buckeyes all season.

“We’ve been fortunate with our return game,” Tressel said. “When we get hot on our returns, you know, we can be even more explosive. Those are great emotional lifts for us when we hit home runs or get the ball out to the 50.”

Punter Steve Weatherford will be asked to keep the Buckeyes’ return game down by booting the ball out of the end zone. Weatherford has kicked 18 of 27 kickoffs out of the end zone for a touchback.

“I think that really goes unnoticed about Illinois,” Tressel said. “I think their punter’s perhaps one of the best in the league. We like getting those kickoff returns, because we’ve got a chance to score or start on the 40.”

The explosiveness does not end there for the Buckeyes. Ohio State has other weapons on offense as well.

Once again, the Illini will be going up against one of the premiere running backs in the nation in Antonio Pittman.

Pittman was named Big Ten co-offensive player of the week last week against Minnesota with 186 yards and two touchdowns. He averages 110.2 rushing yards per game.

After getting scorched for nearly 200 yards and five touchdowns by Heisman trophy candidate Brian Calhoun last Saturday, Illinois feels they have learned its lesson.

“We need to, when we have him, to just stop him,” said sophomore defensive lineman Chris Norwell. “That’s what the big thing is, getting him on the ground.”

In the passing game, Ohio State is led by junior quarterback Troy Smith, who can beat the Illini with both his arm and his feet. He has passed for over 200 yards in his last three games and has scored eight rushing touchdowns this season.

If the Illini win the coin toss and choose to get the ball, the other weapon Ohio State possesses is its defense. Powered by outside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter and middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel, the Buckeyes play an aggressive style with lots of blitzing to create turnovers.

“They are fast and athletic and are always running,” offensive lineman Ryan McDonald said.

If Illinois has any hope, it is that history has been on its side lately. The Illini have won four of the last six in Columbus.

In the teams’ last meeting in 2001, Illinois lost in overtime to the eventual national champion, 23-16. Two controversial end zone receptions were ruled out of bounds in the overtime period.

“When I was at Ohio State, Illinois won five straight years,” Zook said. “If you go back and look at our program, we have done quite well against Ohio State.”