Buckeyes Aware Of What's At Stake Vs. Irish

OSU coach Jim Tressel and several of his players discuss the rare opportunity they have against Notre Dame in Monday's Fiesta Bowl (5 p.m., ABC). Plus, A.J. Hawk discusses the circumstances surrounding his relationship with Laura Quinn, the sister of ND quarterback Brady Quinn. Click this free link for more.

There is a lot of pomp and circumstance when two college football powerhouses like Ohio State and Notre Dame line up against one another.

After all, this will be just the fifth meeting ever between these two storied Midwest schools just 280 miles apart.

But adding to all of the hype for Monday's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (5 p.m., ABC) in Tempe, Ariz., is the fact these two teams will collide as top-five opponents. In fact, the rankings are the same for each team as the last time they played in 1996, when the fourth-ranked Buckeyes went into South Bend and derailed the fifth-rated Fighting Irish 29-16.

That OSU win evened the all-time series between the schools at 2-2 – one more reason to be excited for Monday's game, which, at least for the foreseeable future, will give one of these schools some serious bragging rights as the series leader.

Of course, there isn't much of this extraneous hype that gets to Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose no frills coaching style lends itself well to a college football crazed community where even a nonconference laugher against San Diego State is a cause celebre (or, even more often, concern).

"It's a privilege to coach and to play at Ohio State," Tressel said. "It's a privilege to compete against Notre Dame. Their personnel is very good. We know their personnel. We tried to recruit a lot of those guys. They have really developed. A lot of them have a lot of experience. Even though they may be juniors, they have played quite a bit."

Tressel joked that he went to former OSU coach John Cooper for advice on how to beat the Irish. (It was Cooper's 1995-96 OSU teams who evened the score with Notre Dame, which was coached at that point by Lou Holtz.)

"Coach Cooper was at practice and I went and rubbed up against him and asked him, ‘How do you go up against these guys?' " said Tressel, who will wrap up his fifth year on the job at OSU by searching for his 50th win. "It makes it special sometimes when it happens seldom. But if it happened often, Ohio State and Notre Dame getting together would be special."

Tressel spent his formative years in Berea, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. That city, with great Catholic school football tradition, has always had a soft spot for Notre Dame. But Tressel said he never questioned why Ohio State and Notre Dame had avoided one another.

"I never really wondered about that," he said. "I'm not exactly sure about that. I have always been a Notre Dame fan and an Ohio State fan. You think about their great legacy of players and coaches and their tradition. When you grow up in the Midwest, that's just one of the schools that you like."

And Tressel now knows what it will be like to go up against Notre Dame and its new head coach, Charlie Weis, in recruiting. The Buckeyes outpointed ND and Weis for Akron-area defensive end Lawrence Wilson last February. But a battle is already brewing for Cincinnati LaSalle junior defensive end Ben Martin, the state's top junior according to Ohio High magazine.

A win on the field over Notre Dame on Monday would certainly help Ohio State in its bid to claim Midwestern superiority with potential recruits. But Tressel knows ND's tradition and national cache – not to mention Weis' presence – will be hard to beat.

"I think Notre Dame is always an attractive place for young people," Tressel said. "I don't look at them as having been down. We recruit against them. They are still the same fine academic institution they've been. They're always very formidable in the recruiting arena and now, as you can tell, on the field."

For their part, the players aren't getting too caught up in the OSU-Notre Dame hype.

"In general, it's a big game because it's a top bowl game," said OSU junior defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock. "I know people have talked that we haven't played them since 1995-96. They say it's a big game. Hopefully, we're ready for it.

"For me, it's another big game. It's a bowl game. There are four other times we've played them and this is the rubber game. Of course, it's a rivalry game. We have a great history within the two schools and it's a great opportunity to play each other."

Quarterback Troy Smith, hero of another OSU win over Michigan in November, is anxious to make his first start in a bowl game a winning one.

"I'm pretty excited," Smith said. "I'm not trying to make it a rivalry between the teams. But it would just be an honor playing Notre Dame, just with their tradition and everything.

"I'm pretty happy just to be bowl-eligible. Not everybody in the country gets to go to a bowl game, let alone a BCS game."

The Hawk-Quinn Story

We mentioned above that Tressel is a no frills coach.

His star player, All-American and Lombardi Award-winning linebacker A.J. Hawk, would fall under that category as well as a no frills player.

For many, he is a throwback to the mid-1980s and the unwavering crash-‘em-up style of Chris Spielman. It is hard to believe that two decades later Spielman has developed into a star as an ESPN color commentator, especially given his almost shy nature as an OSU player.

Hawk shares that same outlook on life, dutifully granting interview requests because it is expected of him and not because it's what he'd like to be doing.

On senior day against Northwestern, when OSU's other seniors pranced out with their helmets off and long hair flapping in the breeze, there was Hawk with his helmet on and ready for action.

So, given what we know about his nature, the month of December has probably been a trying time for Hawk.

First, there was news that someone had broken into the campus area residence he shares with fellow captain Nick Mangold. Then, he spent a week on the college football awards banquet trail, going from Orlando to Houston and on to California. The chase netted Hawk the Lombardi.

Then, word came out that Hawk has been seeing a Dublin Coffman graduate by the name of Laura Quinn. It just so happens this is the same Laura Quinn whose brother, Brady, is the quarterback at Notre Dame. For a guy who eschews the spotlight, you can now see what Hawk was going through this past month.

According to reports, Hawk and Laura Quinn were introduced through a mutual friend, former OSU player and Coffman grad Fred Pagac Jr. Apparently, the relationship has also been a long distance one with Laura Quinn now pursuing a television career as a reporter in California.

As always, Hawk dutifully answered questions about the relationship. He admitted that they wanted to try and get through the bowl game without it becoming a major issue.

"We were trying for a little bit, but we kind of realized once it got out that it might be big," Hawk said.

After OSU's season-ending win against Michigan, all signs pointed toward the Buckeyes playing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. It would be two more weeks, though, before that match-up was made official. Hawk was asked if he would have preferred to play another opponent.

"No, I definitely wanted to play Notre Dame just because I wanted to be a part of a game that big," he admitted. "I'm not worried about all that. It's not going to change my play at all. He's not going to change his play. It's not a big deal for us.

"It was kind of like weeks in the making. Toward the end of the season, people were saying if we both win out, it could happen. We definitely wanted it. We want to play in a national championship game and if not, in a BCS game against Notre Dame. Who better to play against than that?"

Now what happens if Hawk gets a clean shot at Brady Quinn during the course of the game? Hawk's simple reply: "Hopefully, I don't miss the tackle."

Would he try and take Brady Quinn's head off with a big hit? Again, a simple reply: Put blinders on or take head off?: "I try to take everyone's head off, to tell you the truth. So I'm not going to play any differently. If it was my own brother, I wouldn't change my play."

Hawk said Laura Quinn was going to try and hit both his game and her brother's, but this worked out well.

"I tell her she better be rooting for him," Hawk said. "She's known him a lot longer than she's known me."

Safety Nate Salley, another OSU captain, said the Hawk-Laura Quinn romance has not been a big topic among the team.

"I didn't know about it," Salley said. "It's not a big deal. Nobody really knows anybody's girlfriends. If you see somebody out, maybe you notice a girlfriend. The only ones you know are the ones who are married. We know they're wives because they've been around a little more. But guys with girlfriends don't bring them around the team too much."

Hawk was asked what makes Quinn – Brady, that is – so special. (Hawk and Brady Quinn were each among the top six vote getters for the Heisman Trophy this year.)

"He obviously has all the physical tools," Hawk said. "He is a big, tall strong kid with a huge arm. He's obviously very smart, and I think that's a huge thing for quarterbacks these days with how complex offenses are getting. He's done a great job this whole year playing in that system, knowing who to get the ball to."

Hawk believes it will help the Buckeyes that they have had the experience this year of playing such teams as Texas, Penn State and Michigan.

"We've been a part of big games around here," Hawk said. "Obviously, the Texas game, the hype leading up to that game was bigger than anything else all year."

Does he have any regrets about the way his senior year has played out?

"People ask me that a lot, especially about Texas and Penn State, the two losses we have," he said. "You can say what if about a lot of things. If you sit around and ask yourself what if, you're going to agonize over things all day every day. You need to have a short memory about all this and we do. We've won six straight and we're going to a BCS game."

Another Strong Bond

OSU senior linebacker Anthony Schlegel will end his career going against the assistant coach who recruited him to Air Force. Schlegel said he has remained in contact with ND defensive line coach Jappy Oliver, who recruited him to the academy five years ago.

"He's a great guy," Schlegel said. "He recruited me to Air Force. When he got the job at Notre Dame, he called me up and I was so happy for him. As soon as we found out about this game, I told him it's going to be crazy. It was simultaneous. We left each other messages. He's a great guy."

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