Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Buckeyes hit the road again



By JON SPENCER
Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal

COLUMBUS - Regardless of what fans might think of his playbook, Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is no dummy.

Even though the Buckeyes are one of six Big Ten teams without a league road win, he downplayed the significance of homefield advantage at his weekly media luncheon Tuesday.

What else would you expect him to say?

With memories of the disasterous outcomes at Northwestern and Iowa still fresh, and quarterback Troy Smith making his first road start Saturday at Michigan State, the last thing Tressel wants is his team doubting itself.

"It's been a long, long time since I played, but I think these guys will echo the fact that as soon as you get hit in the mouth you don't know if you're home or away," Tressel said. "You're battling.

"Will there be a noise factor and all those things (Smith) hasn't had to deal with? Perhaps, but he has to handle it."

Another boost from OSU's renewed running attack could help ease Smith's burden. The Buckeyes (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten) rushed for 425 yards the last two weeks in home victories over Indiana and Penn State, snapping a three-game losing skid and exceeding their collective output on the ground from the previous five games.

Senior taiback Maurice Hall, an afterthought when this season began, has rushed for 108 yards on 21 carries during the modest winning streak. He has helped pick up the slack for suspended captain Lydell Ross.

While Ross is available for duty against the Spartans (4-4, 3-2), quarterback Justin Zwick will remain sidelined with a sprained right (throwing) shoulder.

"Our running game has been OK the last two weeks," Hall said, "and we have to get better since we're going on the road with a young quarterback - even though I think Troy will step up and do what he has to do to help us win the game."

Unlike his coach, Hall didn't downplay the perils of playing on the road, especially since none of the Buckeyes were on the roster when OSU last visited East Lansing in 1999.

"I definitely feel there's an increased difficulty," Hall said. "At home, you feel a lot more comfortable. On the road, before the game, is when it gets you, because it's not your fans and you have to cope with that. At the same time, if you're focused, you should be OK."

The Buckeyes looked ready to be toe-tagged after their last two road games. Sandwiched around a 24-13 loss at home to Wisconsin were a 33-27 triple overtime defeat at Northwestern and a 33-7 meltdown at Iowa.

It was Ohio State's first loss in Evanston since 1958 and its first in Iowa since 1983. The blowout in Iowa was also OSU's most lopsided loss in their 59 meetings.

"That was definitely the low point," defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock said. "We needed to learn from that, and I think we have."

Tressel said OSU's lone road win - a 22-14 decision at North Carolina State on Sept. 18 - could be just as instructive.

"You have to look at two things: What have we done better since those two road games, and what did we do differently in those two road games than the road game we won?" Tressel said.

"Obviously, the difference in the road game we won was turnovers. (OSU had five takeaways). We forced North Carolina State to make mistakes and we didn't make mistakes. If you look at the two road games we lost, that wasn't the situation.

"We have to study both things. What are we doing better the last two weeks and what do we have to do even better, because Michigan State is better than the last two teams we've played, and we're playing them in their house.

"We've got to relate back to what you do to be successful on the road and tie all of that together and play the best game we've played all season."




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