"Well, as always, a tremendously exciting week," Tressel said. "Whenever Ohio State (8-2, 6-1 Big Ten) and Michigan (7-3, 5-2) get together, as (former OSU coach Earle) Bruce always reminds us, it's kind of a season unto itself and tremendous privilege to play in this ball game.
"I think both teams are playing the best they've been playing all season. People often ask why is this such a special ball game and often what we've said is the fact that, number one, it's Ohio State and Michigan. Number two, it's your last regular season game and you'd like to think that you've improved and you've gotten as good as you can possibly get each day and you head into this ballgame excited that you'll play as well as you're capable of playing in an atmosphere that's extraordinary. Playing at our stadium or playing at the Big House, it's a tremendous thrill and an honor and we're excited to make sure we have a great week of preparation.
"One of the things that I think you have to do in the course of this week is make sure that you understand why you're so excited and it's probably the reason that most of our guys came to Ohio State was in large part to be a part of this game. And in large part, I'm sure many of the folks at Michigan went there to be a part of this game as well, but you've got to make sure that you prepare and make sure that you do play your finest game of the season in a regular season finale."
Tressel owns a 3-1 record over Michigan and coach Lloyd Carr. It's been refreshing for OSU fans who endured former coach John Cooper's 2-10-1 run against the Wolverines.
Tressel was asked to identify the personality of a Carr team.
"Personality of a Lloyd Carr team? Well, the one I'm focused on right now is this one, and the thing that I've been impressed with is, you know, it's a group that has a lot of pride and where they are and who they are and in each other and they've battled through some tough breaks and some close losses early in the season and they've just banded together and they're tough. They never stop playing and I guess that's one of the other reasons that it's so much fun to be a part of this is that's the personality of Michigan teams. Lloyd Carr teams, Bo Schembechler teams, and all the rest and this one's just like it."
Michigan's defense struggled quite a bit last season. But this year, the Wolverines' defense is a much improved unit.
"Well, they've got great size and speed along with it, and they've now had a chance to play a lot of games together and they fly around," Tressel said. "I think your defense starts on the line of scrimmage and when you have the power they have on the line of scrimmage and their back end people are smart, I think they do a great job of applying pressure. We talk often the game of football is about applying pressure and I think they do a good job applying pressure strategically you know, as well as with their size and speed and as you look at their numbers along the course of the year, you know, they're an excellent defensive football team."
Tressel was asked if there seems to be more pressure on UM this season since Carr is just 1-3 against Tressel.
"Pressure is applied because it's the Ohio State-Michigan game," he said. "You know, I don't know that it's any different, according to what happened last year or the last time you played there or any of that type of thing. You know as you look at the Ohio State-Michigan games, the team that plays and doesn't make mistakes and comes up with the big plays -- you know, when guys come back at reunions, they talk about the guy that made the big play in the Ohio State-Michigan game. That's just the legacy that's left and I'm sure the same thing goes up there when people come back and talk about the great pride they have in their program. It's who made the plays in the Ohio State-Michigan game."
Tressel was asked how conscious he was of the fact, when he took the OSU job, that win-loss record against Michigan would define his career.
"Well, I had been here for three years with Coach Bruce and he was an Ohio State graduate and a proud Ohio State coach, and working for him here, there was no question that, you know, the 11th game was a season unto itself," Tressel said. "But I don't know that I ever thought about the record, you just thought about the importance of representing Ohio State in this game. And Coach Bruce reminds us often, because we have good fortune that he's here a lot and he reminds us often, reminds our players often, that your legacy is the Ohio State-Michigan game and that's our culture, but that's why it's exciting to play in it, because it's important."
Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith had his personal coming out party in last year's game – a 37-21 OSU win – with nearly 400 yards of total offense. It was the best statistical performance by an OSU quarterback in the history of the rivalry.
"Troy made a lot of good decisions and we always say that if you start with making good decisions, then usually those other things that we really need to happen have a good chance of coming true," Tressel said. "Like eliminating turnovers and like coming up with some big plays and I thought Troy did an excellent job. As you study that film, there were some times where, you know, the route we had called or whatever wasn't there and he made the good decision of not to throw it, not to force it, you know, not to have his mind made up in the huddle that it was going to be there and only take what was there and if it wasn't, throw it away. He had a couple great throwaways in that game that -- you know, there was nothing there and we could have lost some yards and so forth and those are good decisions. So, I would say that any excellent quarterback play begins with a guy making good decisions."
Smith's play has improved nearly every week this season. Tressel was asked why Smith has been able to progress so well.
"You know, I would like to think that every day he gains just a little bit more knowledge," he said. "We always talk about the fact that the good player slows the game down so they can make good decisions. And the more you're around something, the more you can slow it down. And you're a little bit more aware of, hey, this is what happens and you slow down and make good decisions and I think he's progressed there."
Tressel was asked if the fans' expectations of Smith were too high at the beginning of this season with everyone thinking he could duplicate his performance against Michigan.
"Yeah, I think (they were)," he said. "It wouldn't be unfair to say that the general population is a highlight population. They don't sit and watch the film and they don't sit and watch practice and see the things that we don't do well. What they watch is they see the same play time after time after time and, you know, that becomes, ‘Oh, that's what they do.' It was a little bit like what Teddy (Ginn) went through, you know, at the beginning of the season and so forth, everyone had watched his highlights all winter long and all spring long and preseason so every play was going to be a 60-yard punt return whether they had good coverage or not, but that's okay. We're glad they watch our highlights."
The Buckeyes have scored 40 or more points in four consecutive games, marking the first time since 1995 they have accomplished that feat. Tressel was asked why his offense has been more explosive lately.
"Well, we've made a lot of big plays, but I don't think you can discount where we've had a chance to start drives," he said. "Our defense has been very good, our special teams has had some returns and the punt block last week was a great. Great thing for us to all of a sudden we have a two touchdown lead after we were down by a touchdown. So, I think if you add all those things together… but we've had some guys come up and make some plays."
Tressel was asked to reveal his favorite part of Michigan week.
"The game," he said without hesitation. "There's no question it's -- you know, the preparation's fun and the process and watching the film and sitting there guessing and, you know, ‘I wonder if they'll do this. I wonder if they'll play us like they played them.'"
"What's hard about this week, I've found, is you have so many films. In the Big Ten we exchange 11 games or 10 games, then you have last year's game so you have so many films you're trying to study. Whereas in the middle of the year you might have three or four films. But it is fun watching all that and you think you have a little handle on it and you go back and look at this team and say, ‘Oh, boy they played this team a little bit differently.' That's fun, but nothing like the game."
Ohio State went two straight seasons without a 1,000-yard rusher. But sophomore Antonio Pittman has stepped up this year with a tremendous season and is one of the top backs in the Big Ten with 1,110 rushing yards.
"Well, our goal as we went into the year was to move toward being able to be a balanced football team," Tressel said. "We've talked about that often here. In fact, I said to Pitt before the season that, you know, ‘If we want to reach a lot of the goals that we say we would like to do, we need a guy that can rush for 1500 yards.' Because then you know if we've got a 1500-yard rusher, we probably are going to be able to throw it a little bit too. And we're not there, and it might be hard to get there, but, you know, I feel good about our progress and I think it helps us."
Michigan has a fine back in its own right in sophomore Mike Hart. He's battled injuries throughout the season, but he is expected to be healthy for the OSU game. He could have played last week against Indiana, but the Wolverines wanted to save him for the Buckeyes.
"I think that Hart is one of those electric guys that, you know, he has a chance to bring along the people that are around him," Tressel said. "But that's not to say anything less about the guys they've got carrying it now. Shoot, those guys, they run the football well and I would imagine that we'll see a number of backs on Saturday and I would expect Hart to be one of them."
Michigan sophomore quarterback Chad Henne has struggled at times this season, but he's still one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and has an extremely strong arm. Tressel was asked to compare Henne to some of the quarterbacks the Buckeyes have faced this year.
"Well, Henne's different than, for instance, (Texas' Vince) Young, or (Penn State's Michael) Robinson," Tressel said. "He's going to throw it a little bit more and he's got the -- you know, he can throw that field out on a rope and so forth. And he's now got, what, 20-some games of experience. And what I admire about him is it's hard to be the quarterback at Michigan, just like it's hard to be the quarterback at Ohio State. When things go OK, it's wonderful. If it doesn't, all of a sudden, people wonder about you and I think he's handled it well and he's stood in there and playing great football right now. I think they had 41 points at half time last week and, you know, so he's a little bit different, though, than some of the guys we've faced."
Tressel was asked if there might be too much importance placed on the OSU-UM game.
"Well, you don't have that decision," Tressel said. "Everyone decides on what importance they assign to something and, you know, the Ohio State-Michigan game, I think the decision was made long before we were ever here that that's a big game. Voted as the greatest rivalry in college football, and there's some great rivalries. So, you know, if you're not interested in being a part of that pressure, you'd better not play in this game."
Tressel also spoke about the tradition of OSU's players and coaches receiving gold pants for each win over Michigan.
"Well, it's a great tradition," he said. "Started back in the 30s and we've kept them in the family and they're a prized possessions and it's something that you're very proud of. I don't wear them around or anything like that, it's just something that any one of those you get is very precious. Just like if you're at Michigan, any time you beat Ohio State it's precious because it's a big game."
For the players, it's almost a relief they can finally talk about Michigan. All year, they claim they never look ahead and think about "The Game." But now that the week is here, players like linebacker A.J. Hawk can let their hair down (literally) and talk about the matchup.
"Yeah, that's true, it is nice," Hawk said. "This is one of the biggest weeks in college football and it's great to be a part of it. I think the whole season it's in the back of your mind, this game. And now that the week is here I think we're all going to soak it up and make sure we're working hard and make sure we're at our best Saturday."
Hawk was asked what advice he might give OSU's young players about going up to Michigan Stadium.
"I just think people need to realize on this team how tough it is to go into a place like Michigan and win," he said. "If you let them get on you early, it's tough to come back once they get momentum going. They have a great stadium, great fans and it's tough to play on the road because all you have is the 70 guys with you. We know that's tough and you have to be there to realize it. I think that's the good thing about this team is a lot of guys did experience that. (The 2003) game didn't turn out the way we would have liked. It was a tough loss, but it was a learning experience as well."
Hawk was asked if the OSU-UM game is a "one game season."
"I don't think you can call it a one game season, but it is the game that people talk about and the game that people in Ohio really stress about and talk about all year that this is kind of what it all leads up to," he said. "And every year I think it is a special rivalry because every year we know we're going to be playing Michigan the last game of the season and everyone is going to be looking at this game. Regardless of what teams records are, it's going to be a huge game and it's just going to be whoever comes out and plays the best."