Saturday will mark the final home game for 16 OSU seniors. The group has been a part of a lot of big games at Ohio State and all but linebacker Anthony Schlegel were part of the Buckeyes' 2002 national championship season.
Saturday will be an emotional time and no one knows it better than Tressel.
"It is senior week and it's huge for the 16 guys playing their last game," Tressel said. "There are some guys sitting in this room that have been in that boat and they understand that once you get to the stadium that last time, that's it. And that's something that you never forget."
Tressel is usually focused on the game during warm-ups. But he admits his seniors will be on his mind Saturday morning.
"When you're going through a senior festivity like that and you see a guy, they run like a hundred yards," Tressel said. "When Mo Hall came running out there, you can almost flashback almost to the first time you met him, what he's meant to the program, what he's gone through, and what he's done, and his winning touchdown against Michigan, and the winning touchdown against Illinois, and his kickoff return that broke open the Penn State game a year ago. And that kind of all flows through your mind.
"For a moment you allow yourself not to think about today, because, you know, that's not why we have that ceremony."
Ohio State has won four straight games, the last three with comfortable margins. Expectations were high for the Buckeyes coming into the season and Tressel was asked if the team is now playing up to its capabilities.
"Well, we don't spend much time reflecting on the big picture," he said. "You know, we'll look at this play, and did okay on that play, and didn't do as well on that play. I've enjoyed their worth ethic throughout. You know I said preseason, I'd never seen a group work like that in the summer. During the preseason camp, excellent, handled some adversity, we didn't do some things we thought we were capable of and came up short. No one batted an eye, just went back to work."
Tressel was asked if it's good for the Buckeyes to play a quality opponent like Northwestern this week to keep them from looking ahead to the big game against Michigan next week.
"I think that's a good thing, and it's usually that way, because we're playing in the Big Ten," he said. "Usually when you're in week 10, it doesn't matter who it is. Last year it was Purdue. That's a pretty good team. The year before it was Purdue and we won that in overtime or something. And the year before that, it was Illinois and that was an overtime game. So, in the Big Ten, you're going to have to stay focused. And if anyone is looking out beyond Northwestern, we've got a problem."
When Mark Dantonio was OSU's defensive coordinator from 2001-03, one of the staples of the defense was that it made good halftime adjustments and always played better in the second half.
First-year defensive coordinator Jim Heacock also has a knack for the halftime adjustments. It's been hard to move the ball in the second half against the Buckeyes this season.
"I know this: a good defense gets better as the game goes," Tressel said. "A good defense gets better the closer you get to their goal line, that's one thing. I don't know much about defense, but that's one thing I really believe. As you get a handle, ‘OK, I've seen that play, they got seven yards. The next time I see it, they're only going to get four. The next time I see it, they're only going to get two.' That's what a good defense does. The older you get, the more you can do that. I would like to think we've had better second halves, I can't swear to it, but I would like to think we have."
If the Buckeyes want to have a good defensive performance this week, they will need to contain Northwestern senior quarterback Brett Basenez and true freshman tailback Tyrell Sutton.
Sutton is from Akron and Tressel was asked if he's a good fit in Northwestern's offensive system.
"Oh, Tyrell Sutton would be a good fit in anyone's system," Tressel said. "He's tough, competitive, and everyone has seen what he's done. Every team would love to have a guy like him."
Well, maybe in retrospect, but Northwestern is the only Big Ten team that loved him enough to offer him a scholarship. In other words, OSU, Michigan, Penn State, Minnesota and other schools that like to recruit this region, all swung and missed.
"I think if I had to look back, I would say his was more of a timing issue than anything," Tressel said. "And that's, you know, you have to tip your cap to Northwestern. That's one of the difficult things in recruiting in this day and age, is the accelerated pace that recruiting has. And one of the most difficult things we have in Ohio is that we have so many people come in here so early and talk to our sophomores and juniors, not illegally, you know, but legally, and have them at camp and have them at their schools and so forth. And the accelerated pace of people getting offered scholarships and so forth, that's one of the battles in recruiting right now."
Tressel was pressed as to what exactly he meant by a "timing issue." Does he mean Northwestern was the first to offer Sutton a scholarship?
"They were early, yeah, they did a good job," he said.
There must be something in the water in Akron these days. Ohio State sophomore tailback Antonio Pittman – who is sitting on 978 rushing yards right now – hails from Akron Buchtel. Chris Wells – an OSU verbal ranked as the top running back in the country – is from Akron Garfield. Sutton prepped at Akron Hoban.
Tressel could not comment on Wells directly, but he did have a few things to say about the community of Akron and the running back talent coming out of that area.
"In our history, we've had guys from Akron, and they've been all over the country," he said. "I think it goes back to that same question, when people ask about the number of kids from Ohio that play all over the country, you know, Akron is right in the heart of it, from the standpoint it's culturally important. You know, that's something that those kids grew up 15 miles from the NFL Hall of Fame, they grew up an hour and a half, hour and 45 from Three Rivers (in Pittsburgh) and 45 minutes from Browns Stadium. And they hear about it every day, read about it every day, they have great high school coaching. That's why we're fortunate. Every day we should give thanks that we're located in Ohio."
Ohio State junior quarterback Troy Smith is currently fourth in the country in passing efficiency with a rating of 165.1. Tressel was asked what Smith is doing well, and what he still needs to work on.
"Probably the biggest area that I've seen him grow in is his comfort and command of playing that position," Tressel said. "You have to work at it so hard, and you have to understand that people are going to do different things each week. And you have to try to learn the evolution of someone's defense, it's not simply they're going to line up this way against this formation. And why have they -- where is Santonio (Holmes), you know, maybe that's why, or what personnel group do we have on the field. I've been really pleased with his work ethic to gain that command.
"He's always been highly competitive. And he continues to be so. An excellent leader just by the nature of how much it means to him."
Another player having an excellent season is senior defensive end Mike Kudla. He is second on the team with 6.5 sacks and seems to play better each week. Kudla did not play much his first two seasons in the program and Tressel was asked if he would have liked to redshirt Kudla one of those years if he could do it all over again.
"Next year, I would say yes," Tressel said. "He can -- he contributed on our team his true freshman year. And I'd love to have everyone red-shirted. I've been voting for the five-year eligibility, because I'd love to have guys here for five years, get their master's degree and then go to the NFL. We're just thankful for every moment."
The Players' View
Last year's 33-27 loss to Northwestern in overtime is still fresh in Kudla's mind. Ohio State had not lost to the Wildcats since 1971 and the Buckeyes are hoping to begin a new streak this year.
"You think of last year's game and how poorly we played and I think that just sits in your mind," Kudla said. "That's one of the games that we kind of thought about all summer working out."
One might think it must be difficult for OSU's players to not look ahead to next week's match-up against Michigan, but Kudla says that is not the case.
"Oh no," he said. "All focus is on Northwestern, especially after what happened last year. There's no way you can bypass them and start thinking about next week. That's one of the biggest thing about this team is the focus. Each week, we're able to lock in on one team. Even the first week, we had Miami and of course we had Texas the next week, but all of our focus went to Miami. That's just one of the great things is that we can focus and lock in."
Northwestern has one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten in senior Brett Basenez.
"He's a great quarterback," Kudla said. "We've played against him the past couple of years and he's got the experience. He's been in big games. And his ability to be elusive and be smart… he's a smart guy. He won't take the sack and he'll throw it away and he knows where his receivers are and he knows that offense. He's a great athlete."
The Wildcats' have only given up five sacks in Big Ten games – a credit to their offensive line and Basenez.
"That's a huge challenge," Kudla said of pressuring the quarterback. "It's just another week and we have another big challenge ahead of us and you've got to take that as an opportunity. We know up front we have to get pressure on the guy and kind of take him out of his comfort zone."
Kudla was asked just how good Ohio State's defense is playing at this point of the season.
"I think we're improving," he said. "Something different each week happens and we take that challenge and we respond to it. We always say we just need to keep getting better every week and every day at practice."
But after three straight blowout wins, are the Buckeyes satisfied with the way they are playing?
"I don't think we're satisfied," Kudla said. "If we were undefeated right now, I think we'd feel better about it. Yeah, we had two losses, but from there you couldn't be happier with the way we responded. We've took some big challenges and we've come out with some big victories. So, with that, we're happy with everything that has happened."
For Kudla and the other 15 seniors, Saturday will mark their final game at Ohio Stadium. It will be an emotional pregame.
"It's been neat to be a part of that and see some of the things from the past couple years when guys played their last game here," Kudla said. "You see how much it means to them and now you're in this point and you see how much it means to us. Coming in here and playing with all these guys and the relationships that we've built over the past couple years, it's just a special thing. And to play in the ‘Shoe every week like that, it's a tremendous honor and it's so special and you don't understand until you're there and you get to be a part of it. It's been a great couple of years here. So, you can't regret anything. It's an honor to be here."
* Senior kicker Josh Huston is enjoying a good season and has been named a semifinalist for the Groza Award, given annually to college football's top kicker. (OSU's Mike Nugent won the award last year.)
"It's a great honor just to make that list," Huston said. "I'm excited and hopefully I can make the rest of my kicks and make it to the top three. That was the goal I set at the beginning of the year. I wanted to be in Orlando and hopefully win it. So, I'm in a good position, I just have to put the rest of them through."
In last week's 40-2 win over Illinois, the Fighting Illini scored their lone points on a botched extra point attempt from OSU. A.J. Trapasso had trouble handling the snap, an Illinois player scooped up the ball and Huston tried to run him down. It looked like Huston was going to make the tackle, but he was pushed from behind by another Illinois player. However, no clipping penalty was called and Illinois was awarded the two points.
"I don't play enough to really realize that I got clipped," Huston said. "I was running and stuff happens so fast out there. I was running as hard as I could and all of a sudden I was on the ground and I was bent over and my hands were on my knees. I was like, ‘Man, I'm tired.' And someone came up to me and said, ‘You got clipped on that.' And I was like, ‘Yeah, I got clipped.'
"I'm catching flack from you guys and I already got it from the defense for ruining the shutout."
Nugent was a former quarterback in high school and actually enjoyed mixing it up at times. The same could be said about former OSU punter Andy Groom. But Huston is not in that camp.
"I'm an athlete, but I'm not a football player," he said with a laugh. "I played soccer in high school and I think scored the most goals in the state my senior year. But, I was never a football player. Tackling guys is not my forte, but I ran him down."
Players of the Week
Tressel also named the Buckeyes' players of the week at the luncheon.