COLUMBUS — The Big Ten race is just starting to get interesting — and now No. 3 Ohio State has to take a break.
Kent State, fifth in its division of the Mid-American Conference, gets $650,000 to travel the 2 hours down I-71 to come to Ohio Stadium this Saturday while the Buckeyes pass the time until a difficult stretch run in the Big Ten.
Meeting the Golden Flashes (3-3) might not have all the allure of playing Penn State or Michigan State, but coach Jim Tressel believes there are advantages to playing the game.
“What do they say, when you rest you rust?” coach Jim Tressel said Tuesday.
The Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0) are unbeaten in the Big Ten, just like Illinois and Michigan. Indiana, Wisconsin and Purdue each have one loss. After the Kent State game, the Buckeyes have games against Michigan State, at Penn State, home with Wisconsin and Illinois and then close out the regular season at Michigan.
The winning percentage of Ohio State’s first seven opponents is just over .500. For those last five, it’s .733.
On a roll and itching to stay there, the Buckeyes must downshift for a game that adds to the athletic department’s bank account but doesn’t do much for the team’s momentum.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Tressel said. “We have 11 teams in our league, so someone’s always going to have either a bye or (playing) someone other than a Big Ten team. That’s just the way it is. And we can’t spend any time worrying about we’d rather have it the other way.”
Wide receiver Brian Hartline acknowledged that it’s difficult to play a game that’s meaningless in the conference standings. At the same time, he sees it can be a trap game.
“It’s different, obviously. Non-conference games, they’re supposed to be weaker than us or whatever they say, but if you start thinking like that that’s when you trip up,” he said. “That’s exactly one reason why Stanford might have beaten USC, or Illinois beat Wisconsin. You can’t look at teams as second-tier teams anymore because everyone still has talent and if you downgrade them, it’s on the bulletin board or you hurt yourself.”
Despite the weird happenings in college football this season — also see Appalachian State-Michigan, Syracuse-Louisville, etc. — no one is making the case that the Buckeyes’ string of 24 consecutive regular-season wins is in jeopardy.
Warren G. Harding, a favorite-son newspaper publisher from Marion, was in the White House the last time Ohio State lost to an in-state school — Oberlin, by a 7-6 count in 1921.
This is the third Ohio college that the Buckeyes have played this season, the first time that’s happened since they tangled with Wittenberg, Ohio Wesleyan and Wilmington in 1926. Ohio State earlier beat Youngstown State 38-6 and Akron 20-2.
The game is still a big deal for the Golden Flashes, in particular.
“I’m sure all of our in-state players — every kid probably in Ohio — dreams of playing in the Horseshoe at one time or another,” Kent State coach Doug Martin said. “This is their opportunity to go there and line up against Ohio State and prove that they can play.”
It is not as if Kent State has never played a big game against a big-name team before. They went to Virginia Tech last year, Iowa State and Kentucky this year.
“We’ve done this a couple of times,” Martin said of going before more than 100,000 hostile fans. “I’m not sure that’s going to be as much of a problem as it is the talent level that we’re facing on the other side. The game can get away from you in a hurry, particularly if you give up something in the kicking game or if your players go out and try to do something they’re not quite capable of doing. We just have to keep our heads and execute as best we can and hope to keep the game close in the fourth quarter.”
Tressel says he doesn’t think his players will be looking beyond this week’s opponent to the big games that lie ahead.
Then again, that’s probably what the coaches at USC, Michigan and Louisville thought, too.
“Our guys are interested in getting better, so I’d like to think they’ll keep rolling their sleeves up,” Tressel said.