COLUMBUS - Things were right on target for another great Ohio State-Michigan showdown that would send the Buckeyes back to the BCS national championship game.
Then along came Illinois.
The Illini`s 28-21 upset of
No. 1-ranked Ohio State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) has taken a lot of the steam out of this week`s annual regular season-ending grudge match with Michigan (8-3, 6-1). For their part, the Wolverines also tuned up for the showdown with a loss, at Wisconsin.
Sure, an outright Big Ten title`s still on the line. And the Rose Bowl is still a nice consolation prize. But the Buckeyes` first defeat in 21 conference games and first setback in 29 regular-season games sure has draped a wet blanket over all the excitement.
"Definitely we know the national championship is out of the picture," starting quarterback Todd Boeckman said glumly.
Now the Buckeyes have to lower their sights somewhat, from playing for No. 1 in the nation to playing for No. 1 in the conference.
Coach Jim Tressel said he wouldn`t try to prevent his players from looking back at the Illinois game.
"We do need to look back and improve upon what we didn`t do," he said. "So I would hope we don`t forget where we need to do better and what the lessons learned from that game are. Now, if we sit there and that`s all we`re thinking about is that, then we`re not going to be ready to go and obviously that will hurt us. But I think our guys will be able to focus on the task at hand because this is Ohio State-Michigan."
The Buckeyes have dominated the 104-game series with Michigan recently, with Tressel going 5-1 against the Wolverines and his coaching counterpart, Lloyd Carr, since taking over in Columbus. Ohio State has also won the last three matchups.
A win Saturday would give Ohio State only its third four-game winning streak in the series, the others coming in 1934-37 and 1960-63.
The toughest selling job for the seniors and the coaching staff is convincing the Buckeyes that they still have a lot to play for.
"I think (offensive tackle) Kirk Barton wrote it on the white board yesterday," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "He said, â€˜It doesn`t matter what our record is, don`t think about what bowl game you have a possibility of going to, don`t think about anything like that, the only thing that matters is this Saturday.` And we`ve heard that stressed over and over and over until you really do buy into it and you have to, because if you don`t, you know that team up north is."
In fact, Carr was asked what he would be telling his team this week.
"I`ll save that for my team," he said with a laugh. "I mean I think it`s about opportunity. I think it`s about appreciating the opportunity to represent Michigan. For many of them to play in their last game in this stadium against our great rivals. What we`re trying to focus on are the things we need to do to improve to play better than we have, to play our best game. And the things that we need to do to be able to execute on Saturday afternoon when that ball is teed up."
Barton said Monday that there would always be some heat between the two teams.
"At Michigan, you sense the hate, which is kind of a good thing," he said.
He added: "It`s kind of exciting because you want to see how guys react when they`ve been punched. That`s kind of where we`re at right now. I think we`re ready to go because we realize what`s at stake. For our season to be worthwhile we have to get this one, and that`s basically all there is to it."
Boeckman is in his first year as Ohio State`s starting quarterback. He said he was at a loss as to how to handle what happened against Illinois.
"This is the first game I`ve lost, so I don`t know," he said. "You really can`t dwell on the past. I`m the leader of this football team and I can`t be looking down if something goes wrong. I`ve got to stay positive."
And that goes for both teams, clawing back from losses heading into their biggest game of the season.