Ohio State may have lost focus in last Illinois game



By Rusty Miller

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State may not have been concentrating solely on Illinois when it struggled to beat the Illini last season.

The Buckeyes swear it won’t happen again – even as a date with archrival Michigan looms on Nov. 17.

So why did the unbeaten Buckeyes have so much trouble in a 17-10 victory at Champaign, Ill., against a team that finished the season 2-10?

“I think we just got lazy, to be honest,” Ohio State receiver Brian Hartline said Tuesday. “Sometimes the Illinois name can get you. They were never a big powerhouse. We kind of got a little bit too complacent last year and confident at that point in the year. They caught us sleeping, and we couldn’t snap out of it.”

Coach Jim Tressel said he didn’t foresee that being a problem this Saturday, with the Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) again ranked No. 1 hosting an Illinois (7-3, 4-2) team having a turnaround season.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

“This group really understands that we’ve got work to do,” Tressel said.

No one could blame the Buckeyes if they’re peeking ahead. The Big Ten has become a two-horse race, with Michigan and the Buckeyes both unbeaten through six games. The Wolverines play at Wisconsin in another marquee game on Saturday, before next week’s annual rivalry game between Ohio State and Michigan at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Backup linebacker and special-teams standout Austin Spitler said it’s hard to focus on Illinois when “The Game” is just around the corner.

“Michigan’s always in the back of our minds – first day of camp to last game of the year – they’re always there because it’s such a big rivalry and such a big game for us,” he said. “But our team prides itself on going week to week, 1-0 each week, and just concentrating on the team that we have that week.”

That wasn’t always the case.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Michigan and Ohio State dominated what was known as the “Big Two and the Little Eight,” then-Ohio State coach Woody Hayes made no pretense about practicing for Michigan weeks before the game. He didn’t tell his players that, but his assistants were well aware Hayes was thinking ahead to the game which defines each Ohio State season.

“Every Monday we practiced for Michigan,” said Earle Bruce, an assistant to Hayes from 1966 to 1971 who then succeeded Hayes as coach of the Buckeyes in 1979. “The players had to know. All of a sudden we’re running this package every Monday, and it has no relationship with the team we’re playing that week.”

Bruce said that in 1971 Hayes had the Buckeyes spend three days practicing for the Michigan game instead of their next opponent, Colorado. And Colorado was No. 10 in the nation. And it was only September.

Those days are long since over, with parity rocking college football and with the possibility of 10 of the 11 Big Ten schools qualifying for a bowl game.

Ohio State’s game at Illinois last year was two weeks before the showdown with No. 2 Michigan – the first time the two had ever come into the game ranked Nos. 1 and 2. Hartline didn’t blame that game for the Buckeyes’ lack of focus at Illinois so much as a lack of respect for the Illini.

He said that’s changed dramatically.

“The amount of respect we have for that team is just about as high as anybody else,” he said.

“Being able to watch them do what they’ve done this year so far, we have a lot of respect for them. … It’ll be a different game this year,” he added.