Buckeyes Come Down Stretch In Big Ten

Ohio State's regular season is down to the last three games. The stretch run will begin this Saturday against Illinois (3:30 p.m., ESPN). If OSU can win out, the Buckeyes will be assured of at least a share of their 30th Big Ten championship. We discuss the importance of the win over Minnesota and look ahead to the stretch run.

Three wins stand between Ohio State and at least a share of what would be the 30th Big Ten football championship in school history.

As the calendar turns to November, this is exactly the position the Buckeyes (6-2, 4-1) want to be in. Their destiny – at least in terms of the conference race – is in their own hands.

"We just have to stay focused and keep believing in ourselves, knowing we can get the job done," said wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who hauled in two touchdown passes in Saturday's 45-31 win at Minnesota. "Our main focus now is to win the Big Ten. We're going to keep shooting for it until we win it."

Perhaps the most important part of Saturday's win was the fact it was on the road. Under fifth-year head coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes were just 1-4 in road games against ranked teams. That win was somewhat of a distant memory, coming in the 2001 win at Michigan.

Technically, the Minnesota game will not be considered as a second win against a ranked team because that stat applies to only The Associated Press poll. Minnesota was ranked 22nd in the USA Today coaches poll, though.

And the struggle was certainly worth it on Saturday as the Buckeyes hit the gas pedal after playing the Gophers to a 17-17 halftime tie.

This was the kind of confidence building win that could pay dividends down the stretch. OSU begins its final push this Saturday against Illinois (3:30 p.m., ESPN). The home finale against Northwestern follows on Nov. 12, followed by the Nov. 19 season-ending game at Michigan.

When asked about his team's success in road games, Tressel admitted, "They're hard. It's hard to win on the road, especially against ranked teams. I know this: It's hard to win two at home and we have two of those coming up, beginning with Illinois.

"I think our guys believe they're in the Big Ten race."

OSU is a half-game behind Penn State and Wisconsin, each 8-1 overall and 5-1 in conference play. Those two teams will meet this Saturday at University Park, Pa., meaning that if the Buckeyes can negotiate a win over Illinois (2-6, 0-5) they would be among two Big Ten teams with just one league loss after next weekend.

"The Big Ten is so strong every year," noted receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who also had a touchdown catch in the win. "It seems like everybody is knocking each other off, which is too bad. But we certainly have a chance. We're right there with everybody. That is certainly the goal, to get a ring."

Gonzalez was pleased that the Buckeyes were able to bag a big road win.

"Lately, for whatever reason, we haven't been performing as well on the road," he said. "This was a big step for us. I was really pleased. I have always said I don't care where we play. The field looks the same and it has the same dimensions. Apparently, we played like we play normally at Ohio Stadium.

"It was a little crazy. I'm glad we scored the way we did. The atmosphere was kind of strange out there. I thought it was going to be a full house. There were tons of empty seats. It was kind of weird all the way around."

One of the big contributors on defense with this win was end Mike Kudla, who collared Minnesota standout Laurence Maroney for no gain on a key fourth down in the third quarter.

"It's great to finally get this road trip over and get back home and play in front of our fans," Kudla said, discussing OSU's back-to-back road wins over Indiana and Minnesota. "We'll have our normal routine. To come away 2-0 on this little road trip was great. That's just a great job overall."

Kudla also believes this win will benefit OSU in the future.

"I think that will definitely help," he said. "Coach said we won the turnover margin. If you can go on the road and put up all of those points and win the turnover margin, you set yourself up to be successful. Today, we did that. We buttoned up and did enough to win this game."

About a half hour before the Minnesota game, Kudla gathered all of the linemen – offense and defense – together during pregame warmups. He exhorted the group to get physical and outtough the determined Gophers.

"Each week, that's the thing," Kudla said. "We know we have to win it up front. Defensively, we have to handle their line. Offensively, we have to blow their line off the ball. Today, we took that to heart. We knew what it was going to be from watching the film. We really focused on that. As the game wore on, you could see we were getting better and better."

Linebacker A.J. Hawk also came up big once again with nine tackles in the win at Minnesota. OSU won the game despite surrendering 578 yards total offense – the second most in school history.

"Any time you go on the road and win in the Big Ten, you're saying something," Hawk said. "There were a lot of things we did wrong. But you have to take what we did good. Our offense played great. Our defense played good at times. We'll look forward to Illinois now."

Hawk credited OSU's emerging offense which eclipsed the 40-point mark for the second straight week for picking up some of the slack.

"They played great," Hawk said. We see the talent on our offense. I don't see many teams that can match the speed we have on offense. It's impressive to watch. It's fun. We were excited to get off the field and let them get out there and make some plays."

The win at Minnesota made Ohio State bowl eligible for the sixth straight year. But the Buckeyes want more. They need to win out and get some help – i.e. the Wisconsin-Penn State winner needs to then lose its conference finale – to snag the Big Ten's automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series.

"It's not anything I heard anybody talk about this week, ‘Hey, let's go to Minnesota and win so we can be bowl eligible,' " Tressel said. "They talked about going and playing a great team and how you're not going to contend in the Big Ten if you don't play well on the road. I guess that's a little icing on the cake that we're bowl eligible and now we get to go home."

Going Bowling

The Big Ten's BCS bid will go to either the sole conference champion or the team that prevails in the tiebreaking procedure if more than one team ties for the title.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, both Penn State and Wisconsin hold a tiebreaker edge on the Buckeyes if they tie OSU for the title at 7-1 in conference play. PSU's edge is on the head-to-head win over OSU, while Wisconsin would prevail on better overall record. (The Badgers would be 10-1 to OSU's 9-2.)

After Wisconsin and Penn State meet Saturday, UW wraps up Big Ten play at home against Iowa Nov. 12. The Badgers also have a game Nov. 25 at Hawaii, although that game – beyond the traditional 11-game schedule – will have absolutely no bearing on the decision of which Big Ten team gets the BCS berth.

Penn State will be idle after hosting UW and will then wrap conference play at Michigan State (5-3, 2-3) on Nov. 19.

Of course, the various Big Ten teams with two conference losses – Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan – all have a glimmer of hope of at least tying for the conference crown. If that happens, we will revisit the various tiebreaker scenarios.

The Road Ahead

Here is a look at OSU's last three games:

* Illinois (2-6, 0-5), home, Nov. 5, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN) -- The first year for coach Ron Zook has been a rough one. After a 41-24 home loss to Wisconsin, the Illini have been outscored 236-68 in their five conference defeats. OSU and Illinois have not played since 2002, when OSU won 23-16 in overtime in Champaign. The Illini have won their last two visits to Columbus and are 6-2 in their last eight trips to the Horseshoe.

* Northwestern (5-3, 3-2), home, Nov. 12, time and TV TBA -- NU's three-game winning streak was snapped with Saturday's 33-17 home loss to Michigan. The Wildcats boast a strong offense with quarterback Brett Basanez and freshman running back Tyrell Sutton. A year ago, the Wildcats snapped a 24-game losing streak to Ohio State – a skid that dated to 1971 – with a 33-27 overtime win over the Buckeyes in Evanston.

* Michigan (6-3, 4-2), away, Nov. 19, time and TV TBA -- This will be the 102nd rendition of The Game. The Wolverines are putting their season back on track. The NU win was UM's third straight after a stunning 23-20 home loss to Minnesota on Oct. 8. Tressel is 3-1 against Michigan and the Buckeyes won 37-21 at home a year ago. But OSU is 1-7 in Ann Arbor since 1987.

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