Saturday, September 27, 2003

Bucks' second season begins

Big Ten slate is tougher in 2003

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS - Among the mystic qualities ascribed to Ohio State's 2002 championship season was the way its Big Ten schedule broke. Heavyweights Michigan and Penn State had to visit Ohio Stadium, while Iowa - which went 8-0 in the league - wasn't on the slate.

There are no such favors this fall. Iowa returns to the schedule, and the fourth-ranked Buckeyes must make tough trips to Wisconsin and Penn State. The season ends in Ann Arbor.

Though its winning streak now is at 18 games, OSU (4-0) has won three straight nail-biters and will need markedly better play to repeat as conference champ. That campaign begins today at home against Northwestern (2-2), which hasn't beaten the Buckeyes since 1971.

"Going into the Big Ten ... there's a sense of knowing we're getting down to business," OSU tight end Ben Hartsock said. "Our road schedule is going to be very tough. But we've been in tough games and found ways to win."

Despite some upset losses - Louisiana Tech over Michigan State, Bowling Green over Purdue, UNLV over Wisconsin - the Big Ten still appears strong, with five ranked teams. The league is a collective 14-8 in games against Bowl Championship Series conferences and Notre Dame. No other BCS league is over .500 collectively in such games.

The first four weeks have exposed numerous trouble spots that OSU must address:

• Improving fourth-quarter play. The Buckeyes have lost 24-7 leads in the last quarter the past two games and seem to lack a killer instinct.

"We haven't done a whole bunch of things differently" late in games, coach Jim Tressel said. "We were just missing some tackles."

• Holding onto the ball. OSU has lost 12 turnovers, three more than any other team in the league. Last year, three Maurice Clarett fumbles nearly cost the Buckeyes in their 27-16 victory at Northwestern.

This week, Tressel ordered his scout team to try to strip balls so the Ohio State rushers will focus on keeping a tight grip.

• Establish the run. OSU's average of 127.8 rushing yards is last in the Big Ten. It averaged 191.3 yards last year with same offensive line.

Though Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross looked sharper last week, many of their best runs came on pitchouts.

"I would hope we never stop going through the tackles, because I have never been part of a championship team that couldn't go through the tackles," Tressel said.

• Improve the pass defense. OSU's young linebackers have been susceptible to short passing routes. The team ranks 10th in the league in pass defense, allowing 271 yards a game.

The upside is the run defense. OSU is allowing less than a yard per carry, giving up 96 yards on 103 rushing attempts.

• Craig Krenzel must stay healthy. The quarterback probably will miss his second straight game with an elbow injury.

As for today: The Wildcats' 23-game, 32-year losing streak is the longest ongoing drought in the conference. The 11 meetings in Ohio Stadium since have been decided by an average score of 46-8.

"We're not going to lose (today)," Allen said. "I don't care if that's bulletin-board (material)."

Tressel, in an attempt to motivate his team, listed on a blackboard the three teams that had the most outright or shared Big Ten titles over the past eight years: OSU, Michigan and Northwestern, all with three.

No. 4 Ohio State vs. Northwestern

Kickoff: 12:02 p.m. today, Ohio Stadium (101,568), Columbus.

Records: OSU 4-0 (0-0 Big Ten), NU 2-2 (0-0).

TV: ESPN2, Ch. 7.

Radio: WBOB-AM (1160), WPFB-AM (910).

Series: OSU leads 54-13-1.

Line: OSU by 20 1/2.

What to watch: Northwestern will try to do what other teams couldn't - run on the Buckeyes. Jason Wright ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 118.3 yards a game, but OSU leads the league in rushing defense (24.0 avg.).

OSU Team stats NU
295.2Offense avg.424.0
127.8Avg. by rush198.2
167.5Avg. by pass225.8
295.0Defense avg.394.2
24.0Avg. by rush151.8
271.0Avg. by pass242.5
28.0Avg. points for22.8
19.2Avg. pts. against24.0

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