Are the Buckeyes up for the Fiesta Bowl?
Tight end Ben Hartsock swears they are. But are they? Can they be?
No doubt the Kansas State Wildcats are. It's their first BCS bowl game. They are fresh off the biggest win in school history. They are hoping to put an even bigger stamp on their season by knocking off the defending national champions.
"Some people have come up to me wondering if guys have seemed lackadaisical, or whether people don't seem to be as interested in this game because of what happened last year, but I think we've had a great week of practice," Hartsock said. "I think everybody came out, really came together, we did a lot of hitting and had some long days of practicing. I think everybody's excited."
No one travels better than Buckeye fans. But asking them to go to the same location, same bowl, two years in a row, with the stakes a lot lower, is asking a lot.
Kansas State fans also travel well. If the Wildcats played Ohio State last year in the Fiesta Bowl, they would've had almost as many fans in Tempe as the Buckeyes did. This year, they will have more. Some are guessing 60/40 split, but it could be worse.
"Oh, I'm sure their fans will be there in droves, but you can never underestimate Ohio State fans," Hartsock said. "We'll be well represented as always."
Hartsock isn't worried about fan support and he isn't worried about his team either. He says the overall focus is similar as last year.
"I think everybody on this team is really dialed in," he said. "We've watched a lot of film and Kansas State is a great team and we have to be ready for them. We've come out and have practiced great and we'll be ready to go."
Like Craig Krenzel mentioned last week, the seniors have a lot riding on this game. After all they've accomplished over their careers, they do not want to go out with two consecutive losses.
"Especially as a senior, this is how you write the ending to your book," Hartsock said. "We've had ups and downs as far as this career goes for this group of seniors. We've came from the bargain basement of Ohio State history. Having a 6-6 season and not going to a bowl game, to winning a national championship.
"Things didn't go exactly perfect this year, but as far as this season goes for me, as a senior, I had a blast. I think everybody on this team doesn't have any regrets as far as the effort they gave out. The chemistry that this team had, we all got along and had a great year, but we got beat. We got beat twice. We got beat by good teams and I don't think anybody has any regrets. To finish up with a BCS bowl game, how can you complain about that?"
The Buckeyes were given the royal treatment at the Fiesta Bowl last year and many players figured it was simply because it was the site of the national championship game. But the people at the Fiesta Bowl claimed that they treat their teams the same way every year.
"We'll find out if that's true, but I would venture to say that it is," Hartsock said. "They pride themselves on having the best bowl experience."
It's another reason that Hartsock doesn't buy into the theory that "The Buckeyes aren't up for this game." He reiterated that everyone seems excited about it. They were expecting a trip to the Orange Bowl, but not necessarily looking forward to it.
"I think everybody is happy to be going back to the Fiesta Bowl," Hartsock said. "The environment there, the treatment, the welcome that we got in Arizona was unbelievable. From the facilities that we had, to the food they gave us… just the overall experience. I think that everybody out there was excited that Ohio State was there, so why wouldn't we want to go back?"
On a personal level, this was a breakout season for Hartsock. He finished the regular season with 33 receptions, 290 yards (8.8) and two touchdowns.
Known as a great blocker, Hartsock always flashed good hands throughout his career as well. Although he only had 17 receptions for 137 yards in 2002, he made several tough catches, including a couple diving grabs.
This year, he was just happy to get more opportunities. The Bucks looked to the tight ends a lot more than usual.
"I don't know that it was something that was really planned, it just kind of happened and myself and Ryan (Hamby) were just able to capitalize on our opportunities," Hartsock said. "We had a good year in that sense. We went out and tried to help ourselves develop that run game, try to be consistent blockers and just do everything we could to help the team win."
As for Craig Krenzel, Hartsock thinks the quarterback had a better season than most give him credit for.
"I think he had a similar year as he had last year; he just had a lot more pressure on him this year," Hartsock said. "He was much more under the microscope. If things didn't go as well for him last year, they were kind of overlooked. But this year, after the success he had last year, you're a little bit more under a vice grip and that caused a little bit of a controversy, but I think he still made great decisions and was able to lead the offense."
Wide receiver Michael Jenkins, the only player on the team to have more receptions than Hartsock with 50, was recently named the team's MVP. Hartsock was among those who voted for Jenkins.
"For me, the reason I voted for Mike Jenkins as MVP was his career," Hartsock said. "He did it this year, he did it last year and he did it the year before that. He's been a consistent player for us. Ever since he started running routes, he's made plays. He's not the flashiest guy, but he'll return a punt for a score, he makes amazing clutch plays. He also makes those 10-12 yard out cuts that don't look fancy, but he always makes the catch."
Hartsock likely received a few MVP votes himself. He had a great year, a great career, and next up is a shot at the NFL. He is currently ranked, on average, as the third-best tight end in the draft and is projected to be a third, or fourth-round pick.
Not bad for the 'ol farm boy from Chillicothe.
But right now, all he wants to do is beat Kansas State. He wants to prove that OSU is a physical team and even took a little shot at the Big 12.
"Kansas State is known to be one of the most physical teams in the Big 12, but here at Ohio State, we're not going to say that a team in the Big 12 is going to be able to hang as much with a physical-style team from the Big Ten, so we have to be ready to prove that," he said. "They're a little bit different. I would say they're similar in their speed and the fast-type of defense to a Purdue that we saw this year. But they have their weaknesses and we have to be ready to take advantage of that."
Although it will be his last game, Hartsock is not going to be sentimental before hand. There simply won't be time for it.
"The one time that I really got to step back for a second and realize that it was your senior year was that Senior Day against Purdue," he said. "You get to step back for a second and listen to the crowd and sit on the field with your parents, that's a second you get to take. But I anticipate going into this game that you get so ready and get dialed in for that game, that you don't really have the opportunity to think, ‘Wow, this is it. The last time for the Scarlet and Gray.' I've just got to be ready to play the game to win the game."
Hartsock watched K-State whip up on Oklahoma and of course came away impressed.
"I think they came out fired up. I don't think they had anything to lose. They game-planned extremely well. I think they stopped Oklahoma pretty much in their tracks," he said. "Oklahoma got knocked on their heels and wasn't able to recover from that. It was one of those things that Oklahoma got so stunned that they let themselves get out of the game."
After Friday's practice, the Buckeyes will take a one-week break before reconvening in Columbus Dec. 26 to catch a plane for Tempe.
"It's good and bad," Hartsock said of the break. "I think everybody enjoyed getting the week off for Thanksgiving. I know I'm anxious to get this week over with and get home and see everybody for Christmas. But I know that everybody is anxious to get out to Arizona and really start to get prepared for the game."