OSU improved to 5-3 overall and 2-3 in Big Ten play with a 21-10 win over Penn State Saturday. The win was OSU's second after it had dropped three straight to fall out of contention in the conference.
"I think we've progressed a little, which is all you can do in life -- work hard, see how you do, then evaluate where you are and try to get better," said OSU coach Jim Tressel. "I think our guys have done that. I think they're working hard at becoming a better team and I think we all know that we're nowhere near the kind of team we want to be.
"But the good news is we have some more games, and it starts with Michigan State. We get a chance to go back on the road, where we haven't been as good as we'd like, and that's our next challenge. And there are more possibilities, there's no question."
The biggest possibility that still exists for Ohio State is postseason play. The Buckeyes need one win in their last three games to qualify for a bowl game. The stretch includes a road trip to Michigan State this Saturday (noon, ESPN), followed by a road game at Purdue and the traditional season finale at home with Michigan.
Two wins over these last three games could land Ohio State back in a New Years' Day game (or its equivalent) for the fifth straight year.
OSU had risen as high as seventh in the national polls after opening 3-0. But an overtime loss at Northwestern, a home loss to unbeaten Wisconsin and a 33-7 pounding at Iowa left the Buckeyes questioning themselves.
"We've been talking ever since that Iowa game, that disaster out at Iowa, that we have a five-game season left," said senior cornerback and co-captain Dustin Fox. "We're just trying to take it one game at a time and we've been successful. Now we have to move on to these next three games, particularly these next two on the road. We've got to win a Big Ten game on the road."
The Buckeyes have been solid in November under Tressel. In his three previous seasons, OSU was 10-2 in November games. The losses were to teams that ended up winning the Big Ten title outright – at home to Illinois in 2001 and at Michigan last year.
OSU has actually lost three straight Big Ten road games. That string began with the loss at Michigan at the end of last season and continued with this year's losses at Northwestern and Iowa.
"Being on the road in the Big Ten presents a huge challenge," said center Nick Mangold. "It's going to be exciting to see how we step up to that challenge. We have to be ready for it."
Michigan State fell to 4-4 with its heartbreaking triple overtime loss at Michigan Saturday. The Spartans need three wins in their last four games – MSU has a game at Hawaii after the Big Ten season ends – to qualify for a bowl.
"It's going to be tough on the road up in East Lansing," said OSU linebacker Bobby Carpenter. "Michigan State is doing pretty well this year. We'll have to go up there in a pretty tough environment and win a tough game on the road. If we can get that done, it will prove that we've come along way.
"I think our whole team took a step forward today. On offense, we had some nice drives and some good ball control. On defense, we gave up too many yards rushing, but the pass defense was good. Our special teams scored and that was good."
The big question seems to be Ohio State's offense. Against Penn State, the offense mustered just 202 yards. The silver lining, though, came with 143 yards rushing – marking just the third time in eight games the Buckeyes have gained 100 yards on the ground.
"We're going into hostile environments on the road at Michigan State and Purdue," he said. "Those are great teams. We have to score points to win.
"When I was a kid growing up, watching those games with Eddie George, Terry Glenn, Shawn Springs, Big Daddy (Dan Wilkinson) and those guys, Ohio State was the team. Getting that swagger back is very important. Defensively, those guys are ball hawks. They call themselves the Silver Bullets. They come out every game and try to give 100 percent.
"We had a guy who came back from the war (in Iraq). He told us that if he goes out there on the battlefield and gives 99.9 percent, he can end up dead. So 100 percent is the key, and that's what we try to do."
Smith's two wins came against a pair of winless Big Ten teams (Indiana and Penn State) in the friendly confines of the Horseshoe. The dynamics will change, though, as OSU ventures on the road to Michigan State.
"Knowing it's going to be a hostile environment, that's going to be part of it," Smith said. "I'm going into next week's game hoping to be out there with my teammates and to do the things possible to get a win."
But it isn't all doom and gloom. The OSU defense came up big against Penn State, even scoring a touchdown on Tyler Everett's interception return for a score.
"I think any time you're able to get a win in the Big Ten, it's huge, especially for a team like us this year," said linebacker A.J. Hawk. "We've had a lot of adversity thrown at us this year. We started over with a five-game season. We've taken two steps of that and now we have to go on the road and have a big test at Michigan State next week.
"It's tough going on the road in the Big Ten and, with a team like Michigan State, we know it's going to be a challenge. But it's going to be exciting. We get to go prove ourselves again and play up to our potential."
The loss at Iowa showed the Buckeyes what can happen when they aren't up emotionally, Hawk said.
"Our confidence was never shot," he said. "But we watched the film of the Iowa game and we weren't playing with emotion and having fun like we usually do.
"We have to come out and play with great emotion and play excited. That's even more important when you're on the road if you're able to come out and get a team down. We went to N.C. State and played well there. We need to take some of the emotion we had there with us this week.
"This is a good opportunity for us to come together and stick together as a team. We need to take some of the excitement we had today and carry it over."
Here were some more comments from the OSU locker room after the win over Penn State:
* Smith on former Cleveland Glenville teammate Ted Ginn Jr. -- "He's a great player. Ted is showing when he gets a chance to touch the ball, he can do great things with it, regardless if it's a pass, a punt, a kick return. He's dynamic with the things he can do with the ball."
* Smith on tailback Maurice Hall -- "He's another impressive player. He always said if he gets a chance to touch it, he's going to try to take it to the house. You saw that today."
* Fullback Branden Joe on congratulating Hall on breaking OSU's kick return yardage record -- "I was excited for him. He had a 62-yard return and it just happened to be the one that broke the record. It was against the number one kick return team in the Big Ten. I was happy for him. I just told him, `Good job.' His hard work paid off. Special teams played a big role in this game. We had a punt return for a touchdown, we had a punt down inside the 10 and the big kickoff return. They put us in position the whole game and gave us an opportunity to win the game. That motivated the offense and defense."
* Hall on what Smith brings to the table -- "Troy definitely has the ability to throw the ball. But he can definitely run the ball and make plays with his feet, and that is what he did today."
* Center Nick Mangold on the offense's limited chances in the first half -- "We had, what, six plays in the first quarter. It's weird. But once we had a chance to get in there and move the ball, I thought we did a good job. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times."
* Mangold on going against PSU's stellar defense, which was ranked 17th nationally -- "They had a great defense and a great defensive line. They came off the ball and hit hard. They were able to put us in a bind a couple of times. We have some things to build on."
* Carpenter on the defense's effort -- "We gave up too many yards rushing and that will get us beat sometimes if we keep doing that. But we got some turnovers and we scored. The defense was good and we got off the field on third down when we had to."
* Carpenter on the defense being on the field for more than 12 minutes in the first quarter -- "When we're up, I don't mind. We were up 14-0 and playing pretty well. Our offense did a good job of controlling the ball in the second half."
* Fox on cornerback mate Ashton Youboty, who had an interception and three pass break-ups -- "Ashton made some great plays. They seemed like they wanted to go at him all day. He stepped up every single time and made a play. I was proud of him. He's done a good job week in and week out."
The Road Ahead
Here is a look at OSU's final three games of the regular season:
* Nov. 6, at Michigan State (4-4, 3-2), noon (ESPN) -- The Spartans are licking their wounds after the rough triple overtime loss at Michigan. Even worse, they likely lost starting quarterback Drew Stanton to an injury in that loss. OSU won 33-23 last year and has won three of the last four games in East Lansing.
* Nov. 13, at Purdue (5-3, 2-3), TBA -- Purdue was ranked in the top five three weeks ago. But successive losses to Wisconsin, Michigan and Northwestern have left the Boilers reeling. Now quarterback Kyle Orton is ailing with a hip injury. Purdue could be a desperate team in two weeks, particularly if the Boilers can't pull out a win this week at Iowa. 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 (8-1, 6-0), 1 p.m. (ABC) -- Michigan has rebounded from an early season loss to Notre Dame to become – along with Wisconsin -- the Big Ten front runner. The win over MSU was UM's latest close scrape, following all-too-tight wins over Minnesota and Purdue. UM has an open week this weekend before visiting Northwestern Nov. 13. A win in that game means UM would be playing for an unbeaten conference championship – and either the Rose Bowl or a certain BCS bowl bid – at Ohio State.
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.