The Buckeyes fell to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1992 with a 24-13 loss at home to Wisconsin Saturday. That defeat came on the heels of a 33-27 overtime loss at Northwestern, where the Buckeyes took the field ranked as high as seventh nationally.
Now, after a pair of stunning losses – Northwestern because of the nature of the upset, Wisconsin because of the nature of the Badgers' domination – the Buckeyes were left to cling to the hope that they still have six games left to try and turn it around. Poll voters see some glimmer of hope – the coaches still have Ohio State ranked 22nd, while Associated Press poll voters have the Buckeyes ranked 25th.
After the dust was settled and OSU's 18-game home winning streak had been snapped, coach Jim Tressel was left to assess the damage and what needs work the most.
"Well, you know, we've been together a long time," Tressel said. "You know everything concerns us. We work on everything and we don't work on any one thing less than the others, and our offensive people work 18 hours a day and so do our defensive people. So we're trying to get better at everything we do.
"I guess the biggest disappointment at this point is losing to Wisconsin. Our kids played hard. We're coming off a tough loss from a week ago where none of us did as good as we were sure we're capable. And we wanted to make sure that we at least gave every ounce that we had to do so this weekend. So what I'm most disappointed about is we gave it excellent effort, but then didn't do some of the things you need to do to be a good team.
"I don't sit around and think about 0-2 and winning streak, you know. I hope I have to worry about winning streaks in the future, but I want to start with one."
Tressel was asked if there were any positives coming out of such a decisive loss.
"I guess there's two things that I would hang my hat on," Tressel said. "Number one, I think our kids played hard and our coaches coached hard and our fans yelled hard and the whole deal. Number two, I know the people that are in our room, in our meeting rooms, and they're going to watch the film and get better. We'll be ready to go for the next challenge and that's why I like these guys."
The road gets no easier for the Buckeyes, who visit Iowa (3-2, 1-1) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern (ABC regional broadcast).
"Well, 0-2 in the Big Ten is not the way we wanted to start," said sophomore quarterback Justin Zwick. "That's where we stand right now. We've got to get ready to go on the road and play a good team in Iowa. We just have to put a game together."
For the seniors, the chances of making a third straight Bowl Championship Series bowl or winning a second Big Ten championship seem to be nil. But they are not throwing in the towel.
"This season is not over," said senior defensive end and co-captain Simon Fraser. "None of us are counting this season out. We lost to a great team today. They're at the top of the league. We competed and gave it our all. We made too many mistakes and did not get the things done we needed to do to win the game.
"But with that said this season is not over. I don't want anybody out there thinking this season is over because none of us believe that in here."
One lightning rod for criticism after the game against Wisconsin was the play of Zwick. He ended up 15 of 31 passing for 125 yards. He was also sacked five times. Upon review, Zwick appeared to misfire on four of his incomplete passes. Six more of those incompletions were on deep balls, typically low percentage passes in any game.
Afterwards, Zwick discussed being on the losing end in his first two starts in Big Ten games.
"It's been a long time since I, myself, have lost two games in a row," he said. "But it's something you go through. You have to look at it and go on. You can't dwell on it. Hopefully, we can put something together here and get some wins down the road.
"We are all disappointed. It's been a while since we've taken a loss in the ‘Shoe. Everybody was just thinking about what they could have done. We need to learn from it and get better."
The latest showing with just 224 yards total offense has left the Buckeyes 97th nationally in total offense at 306.8 yards per game. Just as bad is the rushing offense, which ranks 92nd at 111.8 yards per game.
Meanwhile, Tressel said he never considered putting backup Troy Smith in the game. Zwick said he appreciated the chance to finish the game.
"Any time you have some adversity and they stick with you … I feel like I'm a leader of this team on the offensive side," he said. "You have to as a quarterback. We need to make some more plays and get the job done."
Zwick said he understands how fans feel when they suggest there should be a change, even if only for the sake of change.
"That's how it's going to be when you sign up to play quarterback," he said. "The fans want to watch us win the game just as bad as we want to. When we don't, they're unhappy and I can tell you we're not happy, either.
"You can't listen to the talk. You can't pay attention. You don't read the papers and you don't listen to the radio. You have to listen to the coaches and what they have to say. I just try to go out, work hard and get better."
Senior flanker Bam Childress said the Buckeyes must approach the rest of their schedule, beginning with the game at Iowa, with urgency.
"I know coming into next week, we are all going to take it upon ourselves that we have to make something happen," Childress said. "Three-and-outs or you get one first down, that's not good for the defense. We want to keep the defense fresh and let them do what they do.
"Right now, it's do or die for us coming off two losses. Whenever you have two losses in the Big Ten, we've got to do what we've got to do to score points and win ballgames."
And Childress noted that going on the road makes it no easier.
"We learned from Northwestern, when you go away you've got to bring your `A' game," he said. "There's no `We Ohio State' or `We better than you.' We have to go out there and prove it."
Ohio State's defense has been stingy the last two years, particularly against the run. But the Buckeyes have dropped to 67th nationally against the run at 146.6 yards per game.
Linebacker A.J. Hawk, who tallied a career-high 20 tackles in the loss, said the Buckeyes just need to work harder every day to turn the season back around.
"You come to practice ready to play," he said. "You've got to buckle it down and really look at yourself in the mirror to see what we're doing wrong. We need to come together and play well. This simply can't keep happening, especially at Ohio State. This just gives us more incentive to come back this week and work hard and go play a great Iowa team.
"We have to come out next week and make sure we play with the same kind of intensity and toughness that we did this week. There were certain times we needed a stop and didn't get it."
Hawk, a junior, was asked what he would say to OSU's young players, who have never experienced a losing streak.
"I think you've just got to let them know this isn't normal for us," he said. "You have to show them in practice how you practice and how you come out and play in games. But I'm not worried about that. We have a great coaching staff and a lot of good leaders on this football team that won't let this happen for much longer.
"No one here is used to losing. It's not a good feeling."
Now, of course, is no time for the Buckeyes to feel sorry for themselves. They know they have to go the extra mile – literally and figuratively this week – to avoid another painful defeat.
"That's what's great about the Big Ten," he said. "There are a lot of great teams here and it's fun to go and challenge yourself against some of the best teams in the country.
"You just have to not worry about what's going to happen at the end of the season. We take every game one game at a time. We don't look forward to see what's going to happen in December or on what bowl we'll be playing in. We have to focus on the team we're playing."
Hawk said the Buckeyes must be able to play through controversy. An official's call went against them Saturday on a fumble he appeared to recover, leading to a key Wisconsin field goal.
"We have to handle adversity a little better when things happen, like the one fumble we didn't get," he said. "We have to come back and make sure we stop them. We can't pout that we didn't get it. We have to buckle down and get the stop when we need it."
Fraser agreed that this is no time to give up.
"We have to keep our heads up," he said. "All of us fought hard today. We played with our hearts on the table. It's tough. We made too many mistakes. But we've got to come back and work hard. It's still a long season to go. We have to keep working hard and get on the right side of the column.
"This is where our character comes out. This is where we have to come out and work hard. Look at last year. We lost two games in the Big Ten. But we still ended up having a pretty successful season. If we come out and work hard every week, keep our heads up, keep motivated and have the confidence, as long as we do that and keep maturing each week, we'll be fine."
Fraser believes the defense can be strong. Wisconsin held the ball for 21-plus minutes in the second half and rolled up 193 of its 344 yards in the second half.
"Look at what we did in the first half," Fraser maintained. "We had a lot of enthusiasm and intensity. Everyone was flying around the ball. If we can keep that going for all four quarters, we'll be back where we want to be."
The Buckeyes know they are in for a battle Saturday. Neither team wants to fall to 3-3 and have its bowl chances and/or opportunities severely curtailed with another loss.
"This is a huge challenge for us," Fraser said. "Iowa and us are in a similar situation with two losses. They're a great team, a competitive team that is well coached. We're going to have to go in there with a great attitude."
Hawk added, "We feel we can turn this around. We have to come back and play well next week against Iowa."
The Road Ahead
Here is a look at OSU's final six games of the regular season:
* Oct. 16, at Iowa (3-2, 1-1), 3:30 p.m. (ABC) – The Buckeyes have won eight straight from Iowa, dating to a 1991 win by the Hawkeyes in Ohio Stadium. QB Drew Tate is coming on. Is this the year the Hawkeyes finally beat OSU?
* Oct. 23, Indiana (2-4, 0-3), TBA – This will almost certainly be a noon game (ABC will almost assuredly pick up Michigan-Purdue for its 3:30 p.m. slot). The Hoosiers stole a win at Oregon, but have Big Ten losses to Michigan State, Michigan and a double overtime loss at Northwesten. OSU is 12-0-1 against the Hoosiers since suffering back-to-back losses to IU in 1987-88.
* Oct. 30, Penn State (2-4, 0-3), TBA -- The Nittany Lions just gave Purdue a challenge at home this past weekend. But the Nits' offense rivals OSU's for its futility (PSU ranks 97th in scoring offense at 19.2 points per game). OSU has won all five of the Big Ten games between the schools in Columbus.
* Nov. 6, at Michigan State (3-3, 2-1), TBA -- The Spartans are on the verge of respectability with wins over Indiana and Illinois in Big Ten play. OSU won 33-23 last year and has won three of the last four games in East Lansing.
* Nov. 13, at Purdue (5-0, 2-0), TBA -- The Boilers and Heisman front runner Kyle Orton have moved into the national top five after back-to-back wins over Notre Dame and Penn State. OSU has won three straight from Purdue and six of the last seven at West Lafayette in a series known for classic games in recent years.
* Nov. 20, Michigan (5-1, 3-0), 1 p.m. (ABC) -- Michigan has rebounded from an early season loss to Notre Dame to become a Big Ten front runner. The Wolverines are doing it with an adequate defense and a freshman, Chad Henne, at quarterback. Tressel is 2-1 against Michigan, although the Wolverines won the Big Ten outright with a 35-21 win last year. The Game has decided a Big Ten championship for one or both teams every year since 1994, except for 1999.