COLUMBUS — Ohio State must prove it deserves to be No. 1, and that might be harder than it was to get there.
Some critics contend the Buckeyes were far superior last year — when they were run out of the national championship game. They say Ohio State has beaten a bunch of patsies and ascended in the polls while others have fallen.
“Ohio State has a lot to prove, there’s no question about it,” coach Jim Tressel said, conceding his team has a lot of doubters during preparations for today’s game with Michigan State. “Truth be known, every team that’s entering Game 8 has a lot to prove, whether they’ve got people cheering for them or not, affirming them or not.”
The Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) have waxed everybody they’ve played so far. Now they’re down to the five remaining heavyweights on their schedule — granted, heavyweights who have each lost twice.
The road begins with a Michigan State team
(5-2, 1-2) that opened with four wins, lost to Wisconsin by three points and at home to Northwestern in OT, and then mauled Indiana 52-27 last weekend. The Spartans are led by first-year coach Mark Dantonio, Ohio State’s defensive coordinator when it won the 2002 national championship.
More than most, he knows how intimidating it can be to play at Ohio Stadium, with all that scarlet surrounding you and all those silver helmets swarming over you.
The fact that Ohio State is No. 1 has only a minimal effect.
“I mean, 1 through 10, what’s the difference? You get the opportunity to play a top-10 team, and that’s exciting,” he said. “Because you play the No. 1-ranked team means everybody watches that score throughout America, and I think that’s big.”
One thing that neither side is shying away from is that Michigan State has been in this situation before — and been successful.
Back in 1974, No. 1 Ohio State lost 16-13 at Michigan State in one of the weirdest games in college football. Buckeyes wingback Brian Baschnagel picked up a fumbled snap on the last play from scrimmage and scored for the Buckeyes, with the head linesman signaling touchdown and the field judge indicating that time had expired. Forty-six minutes later, Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke announced that the touchdown didn’t count and that the Spartans had won.
Then in 1998, the top-ranked Buckeyes were rolling through their schedule by wide margins and were favored by 26½ points when they hosted Michigan State. Yet the Spartans pulled off a 28-24 upset, scoring the game’s final 19 points.
“We have to be keenly aware of history,” Tressel said on Thursday.
Buckeyes quarterback Todd Boeckman is aware, all right. He said the coaches have hammered it home about 1974 and ’98.
“Coach Tressel and some of the staff reminded us that the last couple of times we were No. 1 we got beat,” he said. “So you never know what to expect.”
Then again, the unexpected has become almost routine in this season of inexplicable upsets. And that gives the underdog more hope.
“To see all the craziness going around, it gives us a little extra incentive,” said Spartans quarterback Brian Hoyer, a St. Ignatius grad from North Olmsted.
The game is a classic matchup between what Michigan State likes to do (run the ball) and what Ohio State is good at doing (stopping the run).
Michigan State goes with the 1-2 punch of slasher Javon Ringer, averaging a Big Ten-best 178 yards a game in conference play, and 255-pound bruiser Jehuu Caulcrick, who leads the league in scoring at 14 points a game.
With James Laurinaitis roaming sideline to sideline to make tackles, the Buckeyes lead the nation in scoring defense (fewer than seven points a game) and total defense (212 yards a game), and are second against the run (63 yards a game).
To put that into perspective, Ringer and Caulcrick average 204 yards a game by themselves.
One carrot that Ohio State’s coaches can dangle before their players is that if they win out they’re almost assured of a spot in the national championship game. Again.
“Before (all the other upsets around the nation) it was we could keep winning and maybe we could get in and maybe not,” defensive tackle Dexter Larimore said. “Now if we keep winning, we’re going to be in it.
“It kind of helps the team in motivation that, shoot, we have to get after it now.”