Are The Buckeyes Ready For The Big Ten?

Ohio State opens Big Ten play Saturday against Northwestern (noon, ESPN2), beginning quest to repeat as conference champion for first time since 1972-77. Ben Hartsock (among others) questions where injury plagued Buckeyes are at right now.

Ohio State begins a quest this Saturday when it hosts Northwestern (noon, ESPN2).

The Buckeyes (4-0) will begin the chase for their 30th Big Ten championship as they open conference play against the Wildcats (2-2).

Much has been made about Ohio State's effort to repeat as the national championship team. Only Nebraska (1994-95) has turned that trick since Alabama did it in 1978-79.

But Ohio State has found it almost as difficult in recent years to repeat as a Big Ten champion. In fact, it has not happened since the Buckeyes won or shared titles over a six-year period from 1972-77. Since then, the Buckeyes won or shared crowns in 1979, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1993, 1996, 1998 and last season.

Michigan won or shared titles in five straight years from 1988-92. Since then, only Northwestern (1995-96), Michigan (1997-98) and Wisconsin (1998-99) have succeeded in repeating as Big Ten champions.

Parity within the league could have a lot to do with it. Over the last nine years, eight different schools have won or shared a piece of the title. Only Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan State have not brought home the hardware during that stretch.

So it is with all of that in mind that Ohio State -- along with defending co-champion Iowa, which visits Michigan State this weekend -- will begin defense of its latest Big Ten crown against Northwestern.

But the Buckeyes may open that defense, apparently, without at least two of its key players in injured quarterback Craig Krenzel (elbow) and center Alex Stepanovich (ankle). The status of defensive tackle Darrion Scott (ankle) is also uncertain after he left Saturday's game with Bowling Green late in the first quarter.

And, while the Buckeyes are unbeaten, they've endured three straight nail biters after opening the season with an emphatic 28-9 win over Washington. San Diego State and Bowling Green each took the Buckeyes down to the final possession, while OSU needed three overtimes -- and a thrilling goal line stand -- to get past N.C. State.

Following the win over Bowling Green, asked a number of OSU players if they felt like their team is ready for the Big Ten season.

"No, I don't think we're where we need to be going into Big Ten play," said senior tight end Ben Hartsock. "We have not established the running game and the defensive fronts we will see in the Big Ten are bigger than the ones we've seen. But maybe that kind of smashmouth football will work to our advantage. I think we will be ready for that.

"The main thing we need to work on is our mental confidence. No matter what we see, we have to be able to run the ball and move the ball."

But senior offensive guard Adrien Clarke believes enough good things have happened to indicate the Buckeyes have the potential to repeat.

"We have to take a positive from every game," Clarke said. "Today, we had over 200 yards rushing. That's good regardless of who you're going against. Truthfully, I think in each of our games we have displayed a little bit of everything we need to do.

"Now we're coming to the point where we have to put everything together and have one great game. I think the Big Ten is the hardest conference in the country. You have to be ready every week no matter who you're playing. We know we have to put it together the rest of the year and get the job done."

While there have been questions about the OSU offense, the defense has picked up where it left off last season. Through four games, OSU is ranked second nationally in rush defense (24.0 yards per game). OSU is 27th in total defense (295.0 yards per game) and 44th in scoring defense (19.3).

"We're undefeated, so I would say we're where we need to be," senior safety Will Allen said. "But I'd say we're not where we want to be. We know we have to get there this week against a team like Northwestern. They're going to come in fighting and scrapping. They got beat by Miami (Ohio) last week. They do the same thing BG does, so we just have to prepare and dominate for four quarters."

Defensive end Simon Fraser said the win over Bowling Green, no pushover, should help the team's confidence.

"We feel pretty good," Fraser said. "We just contained the number one offense in the country for 3-½ quarters. It was bound to happen that they were going to get something.

"We've been taking the proper steps going forward. We've had a lot of adversity and a lot of difficulty. But we've fought through it and kept improving. We just need to keep taking it week by week and just learn from every game we play."

But junior cornerback Dustin Fox notes that OSU's penchant for keeping games close could come back to bite the Buckeyes.

"You can't be too happy because we didn't put the game away like we should have," Fox said. "We're still waiting to put everything together. We're still waiting for that. I think things will get better when we get our guys back. But we need to fix whatever is wrong. At the end of the games, we must have some kind of virus that lets the other team back into it. We need to fix that."

Below are graphics on Big Ten championships won by each school as well as each school's all-time standings in conference games.

Big Ten Championships (since OSU entered conference in 1913)

Team (Outright titles, shared titles, total)

Michigan (15, 25, 40)

Ohio State (15, 14, 29)

Minnesota (7, 11, 18)

Illinois (8, 7, 15)

Wisconsin (6, 5, 11)

Iowa (4, 6, 10)

Northwestern (2, 6, 8)

Purdue (1, 7, 8)

Michigan State (3, 3, 6)

Chicago (2, 0, 2)

Indiana (1, 1, 2)

Penn State (1, 0, 1)

All-Time Big Ten Standings

(Based On Wins; conference

games only from 1896-2002)

Team, Year Joined Big Ten (W-L-T, Pct.)

Michigan, 1896 (472-166-23, .731)

Ohio State, 1913 (408-155-24, .716)

Illinois, 1896 (314-331-32, .487)

Minnesota, 1896 (301-316-28, .488)

Wisconsin, 1896 (285-336-41, .461)

Purdue, 1896 (284-316-32, .475)

Iowa, 1900 (253-323-25, .442)

Northwestern, 1896 (217-428-21, .342)

Michigan State, 1953 (204-157-9, .564)

Indiana, 1900 (184-398-24, .323)

Chicago, 1896-1939 (130-114-19, .530)

Penn State, 1993 (54-26-0, .675)

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