What a difference a year makes. Right around this time a year ago, Mike Kudla was still fighting the lingering effects of a nagging injury and Ohio State had yet to suffer their worse loss of the season to Iowa, 33-7 on Oct. 16, 2004. It was the Buckeyes third consecutive Big Ten loss of the season.
Fast forward to Sept. 24, 2005 when Kudla may have played the best game of his career as a Buckeye when Ohio State was able to avenge that ugly loss to the Hawkeyes a season ago with a similar 31-6 victory in Ohio Stadium.
Kudla regained his health and has been a starter ever since that Iowa game last year and he and the entire defensive front have seemingly gotten better with each passing week.
"Last year we were trying to find our own identity," said Kudla who was one of the guys on the defensive line trying to replace three-fourths of the very formidable unit that graduated after the 2003 season. "And this year, we've all played together in so many games now and it's just so nice to be out there. Like today (against Iowa), toward the end we were having so much fun. We spend so much time with each other and we're just a bunch of guys having fun now."
Against Iowa, Kudla was credited with three tackles which included one and a half quarterback sacks. For the season now, the one-time high school linebacker has 13 total tackles and three and a half sacks.
"I've had a decent start here and the coaches are doing some good stuff with rolling us and moving us around and getting us in open spaces, and I think that plays to our strength," Kudla said. "When you put Bobby (Carpenter) and I down on either side, it really makes it hard for an offense to say which way they're going to go. And our secondary has done a great job. You can't say enough about them, they've locked down pretty much everyone we've played so far and that gives us that one extra second to really get up the field and get after them and really focus on beating your guy and making a play. So I think overall it's been a combination of stuff but it's been working out really well so far."
With the Iowa victory behind them now, Kudla hopes that a long winning streak to close out the regular season still might possibly result in the team achieving the original goal that they were aiming for at the very start of the season. Kudla came to Ohio State as a member of a national championship team and he would still like to leave as a member of one as well.
"Our focus right now is taking each game at a time and really go after a Big Ten title and our hopes aren't lost on a national title either," Kudla said. "Over the years there's been some ups and downs here but it's been a great ride. I've been with these guys for four years and it's just so nice to sit there at the end of a game and know we all played well and did a good job. That's really what it's all about."
Kudla himself has had a few ups and down during his career at Ohio State. He's been hampered some with injuries which included a nasty viral infection at the end of freshman year, but he has still managed to have had an impact of some sort in each season that he's been a Buckeye. One of his biggest moments to date had to have been the fumble recovery for a touchdown that contributed in a big way to the 15-13 victory against Purdue in his sophomore season.
But as the heir to Will Smith's throne, Kudla really seems to be coming into his own as a destructive force on the defensive line.
"I learned a lot from Will and Darrion (Scott)," he said. "When I was young I really didn't know much, I was a linebacker converted, and they pretty much taught me everything. And from there you just take it and run. That's something that's so nice about being here, everyone helps each other out. And now I feel like I'm that elder statesman and I'm teaching all of these young guys about certain things and how to watch film and what to do.
"But I think there just comes a time when you get to a certain point in your football experience where you kind of take things upon yourself and you just go with it. It's all pretty much about self-confidence and really just having a belief in what you can do and what your abilities are and how to do them."
With all of the preseason attention focused on the highly-touted linebacker corps, and deservedly so, and with a veteran and talented secondary behind them, the performance of the defensive line was really the only minor concern of the unit. But collectively they've seemed to have risen to the challenge through the first part of the season and haven't performed like a weak link in any way. In fact the front line played a big role in holding Iowa's offense to negative-9 yards rushing in the game.
Kudla has become a major force on the defensive line.
"I think we've done a great job and we go out each week and execute and really make things happen," Kudla said. "Our guys in the middle, Quinn (Pitcock) and Marcus (Green) and Joel (Penton) and Dave (Patterson) rotate in there and they do a fabulous job at containing that inside run. We've done a great job in getting pressure and pretty much dominating every offensive line that we've faced. Coach (Jim) Heacock and all the guys up front have really kind of pushed ourselves and put it upon ourselves to get three-man pressure and four-man pressure to give our secondary kind of a relief so they can stay in coverage and not have to worry so much."
And in his first injury-free campaign, Kudla is having a career year. And that's what Jim Tressel expects from members of the senior class.
"For me it's all about self-confidence now," Kudla said. "I believe that I can go out each week and go against a tackle and know that he's not going to block me. I'm faster than him and I'm stronger than him. That's just my mental state. And each week I go out and improve and watch more film and get better. That's my thing, to come in each week and get better and see what happens. But I'm just kind of blessed to be here and do the things that I'm able to do."
He sort of imagined it being this way back at Highland High School when he signed his official letter of intent of to play at Ohio State but he really had no idea that the whole experience would actually be so great.
"You really go through such a roller coaster ride over your career and you're so young that you're naive to what really happens," Kudla said. "When you come here, you open your eyes to a whole new experience and it's a whole new level and you never know what's going to happen. But it's such a great experience and so many neat things have happened since I've been here and it's just been wonderful."
Their destiny, at least for a Big Ten championship, is in their own hands and Kudla is ready to seize the moment starting with a road game at Penn State.
"It's going to be a rough year in the Big Ten because everyone is good," he said. "Penn State, year-in and year-out, is always tough, especially at their place, and it's going to be a big challenge. So we just need to take it one game at a time and really make this a special season."