OSU Notebook: Clear Sailing To Michigan?

Members of the top-ranked Ohio State football team reflect on their 5-0 start in September and discuss how difficult the road might be to the Nov. 18 showdown with Michigan. Plus, we have notes on the defense (led by linebacker James Laurinaitis, who has four interceptions), the play of QB Troy Smith and capsules on OSU's remaining opponents.

In many corners of the Ohio State kingdom, there is a prevailing thought the top-ranked Buckeyes should have smooth sailing all the way until their Nov. 18 home date with Michigan.

After all, the Buckeyes moved to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in Big Ten play with Saturday's 38-17 win over then-No. 13 Iowa in a hostile Kinnick Stadium. That capped a month of September that saw OSU vanquish three ranked teams – also including then-No. 2 Texas and Penn State -- and win its first five games by an average margin of nearly 22 points per game. No team has played within 17 points of the Buckeyes yet.

Ohio State steps out of conference this Saturday to host Bowling Green (3-2). After that, six more Big Ten games await OSU in its quest to end the season No. 1 and qualify for the national championship game set for Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz. Of the five Big Ten teams OSU will play prior to Michigan, only Michigan State (3-2) can boast a winning record. And it could be said that even MSU is in a state of disarray after back-to-back home losses to Notre Dame and Illinois and a date at rival Michigan this weekend.

Accordingly, it might be easy for OSU's collective mind-set to drift toward that season-ending game to Michigan (5-0), which remained sixth nationally following a 28-14 win at Minnesota Saturday.

But the Buckeyes aren't taking anything for granted.

"All this does is make October even harder," said defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock. "There is some accomplishment. We have only played a five-game season. We can't really judge where we are right now. We have a lot of games ahead."

Sophomore wide receiver Brian Robiskie, who has had a touchdown grab in each of OSU's last two games, said the Buckeyes know they are not unbeatable.

"We know we're not invincible," Robiskie said. "We're not thinking like that. Some people may say these next few games, we might be looking past them. But we can't be doing that at all. We're just trying to get better every week. We know every week will get tougher. There are a lot of tough teams in the Big Ten."

Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said the Buckeyes know they will get each team's best shot from here on out.

"Everybody is going to come at us," Ginn said. "We're No. 1, plus we're Ohio State. Everybody is going to play their A game against Ohio State. Everybody wants to upset us. We just have to be ready to play and come out and play hard."

Safety Brandon Mitchell added, "I am glad September is over, but we can't overlook any teams. Bowling Green will come in and play us hard. I remember (in 2003) they came in and almost beat us. If we didn't get that late interception, it would have been a tough game. We came out of September unscathed. We know we have a long way to go."

Still, a win at Iowa was important for this team. The Buckeyes had been throttled there 33-7 two years ago and were going into a tough place to play.

"It's just another step," said wide receiver Roy Hall, who caught a touchdown pass against the Hawkeyes. "This was a huge game coming in here in a hostile environment. Playing in the Big Ten, anybody can win on any given day as we saw with Illinois and Michigan State. We just have to play hard and take it one game at a time like we have been."

Tailback Antonio Pittman, who had 117 yards rushing and a touchdown, added, "This gives us a lot of confidence. To come up here and get a victory, that's great."

Takeaways Galore

Ohio State won the turnover battle against Iowa 4-0 as Mitchell, linebacker James Laurinaitis and linebacker Marcus Freeman all intercepted Iowa quarterback Drew Tate and Mitchell recovered a late fumble by Iowa tight end Scott Chandler.

"It's all the difference in the world," said OSU coach Jim Tressel. "We had a great defense a year ago. We didn't force as many turnovers. This year, we're probably not doing as well in the yardage category, but we're doing better in the takeaway category."

OSU now has 13 takeaways (11 interceptions and two fumble recoveries) for the year – one more than they had all of last season. The Buckeyes are first in the Big Ten and second nationally in turnover margin at plus-1.8 per game.

"If you win the turnover margin, you have a great chance of winning," Laurinaitis said. "We have such a great defensive line, they force the quarterback into making throws he doesn't want to make.

"Drew Tate is the heart and soul of that team. He's a tremendous competitor and a tremendous quarterback. We knew we needed to come in here and contain him, and I think we did a pretty good job of that."

OSU only had two returning starters on defense – Pitcock and fellow tackle David Patterson. But Laurinaitis said the Buckeyes are not letting their youth stand in their way. In fact, OSU is first in the Big Ten and fifth nationally in scoring defense at 9.8 points per game.

"When you look in the huddle and see young faces, they aren't looking nervous," he said. "You say to them, ‘Come on, let's go.' They're just playing football. When you have young guys like that who can play and not worry about making mistakes, that's good for the team."

Defensive end Vernon Gholston got after Tate on the first play, forcing an incompletion. He helped the Buckeyes get constant pressure on Tate.

"We knew he was their play maker," he said. "As a defense, we wanted to affect him. He was able to make some plays, but I thought we did a pretty good job overall. I think we can look at this film and just keep trying to get better."

Slamming the door on the first series, where Iowa went three-and-out and had to punt, was critical, Gholston said.

"You always want to come out and do good," he said. "We have played some of our best defense this year in the second half. That's something we have to work on, coming out strong early."

Mitchell talked about OSU's penchant for getting to the ball and making plays.

"I think our guys have confidence running to the ball," he said. "When we run to the ball, good things happen. When we're able to run and hit and make plays, we do pretty well.

"We have guys pursuing the ball and just doing the best they can. I knew we had players. I knew we had guys who had a nose for the ball and who were capable of making plays. It's all about competition."

Pitcock said creating turnovers was a key goal for the defense this year.

"We put emphasis on that during the spring and all summer," he said. "It really shows our coaches were able to teach us and create situations to get those turnovers. We studied teams that created turnovers. A lot of these younger guys are very mature."

Laurinaitis now has four interceptions in five games this year.

"I'm excited for him," Pitcock said. "He's a tremendous player. He followed some great past players here. He's a hard worker. It's one of those things where greatness follows hard work."

Perhaps the only negative for the defense was the fact it surrendered a rushing touchdown to Iowa's Albert Young. Young's 15-yard scamper was OSU's first rushing touchdown allowed this season.

"We're aware of that," Laurinaitis said. "That's tough. We had a few missed tackles today. We need to straighten that up for next week."

Smith Rebounds Nicely

Quarterback Troy Smith threw a pair of interceptions in OSU's win over Penn State on Sept. 23. But Smith was spot on Saturday at Iowa, completing 16 of 25 passes for 186 yards and a career-high four touchdowns.

Smith is ranked first in the Big Ten and 10th nationally in passing efficiency. He is completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,070 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.

"He's a great leader out there," Hall said. "He's poised and he's patient in everything that's going on. The crowd really wasn't a factor for him. We had a great week of practice and I knew he would come in here and be as efficient as he always is.

"He's the ultimate weapon. This year, people are saying he isn't running as much, and that's good. He doesn't have to. Our offensive line is doing a great job so he can sit back there and pick teams apart. He ran for a big third down in this game and did the same thing last week against Penn State. This whole year, he has two interceptions. He's doing a great job right now."

Smith's four-touchdown game was the ninth in OSU history and first since Craig Krenzel hit for four touchdowns against both N.C. State and Kansas State in the 2003 season.

The four-touchdown performance is one shy of the OSU record of five. John Borton did it originally against Washington State in 1952, while Bobby Hoying did it against Purdue in 1994 and against Pittsburgh in 1995.

The Road Ahead

It is still a long way until Dec. 3, when the nation's top two teams in the BCS standings will be decided for the Jan. 8 national title game in Glendale, Ariz.

Here is a look at OSU's seven remaining games with thoughts on each after five weeks of the season:

* Oct. 7, Bowling Green (3-2), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN-Plus) -- After losing at home to MAC East front runner Kent State 38-3 on Sept. 23, BG got quarterback Anthony Turner back and the Falcons downed Ohio U. 21-9 in Athens. OSU has not lost a game to a current MAC school since the late-1800s.

* Oct. 14, at Michigan State (3-2), 3:30 p.m. (ABC) -- The Spartans head into their annual showdown with Michigan after a pair of tough losses, losing a huge lead and the game to Notre Dame Sept. 23 and allowing Illinois to end its 10-game Big Ten losing streak in East Lansing this past weekend.

* Oct. 21, Indiana (2-3), noon (likely noon on ESPN or ESPN2) -- A lopsided 52-17 loss to Wisconsin did nothing to improve Indiana's spirits. It was the third straight loss for Indiana, which has also lost to Division I-AA Southern Illinois and to Connecticut.

* Oct. 28, Minnesota (2-3), 3:30 p.m. (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2) -- The Gophers are looking for a few breaks after opening Big Ten play with losses at Purdue and at home to Michigan.

* Nov. 4, at Illinois (2-3), time, TV TBA (likely noon on ESPN or ESPN2) --The Illini turned to freshman QB Isiah "Juice" Williams and he came up big in the win over Michigan State. Now the question will be whether Illinois can sustain that success and win some more games. They play Indiana and Ohio U. at home the next two weeks and could be over .500 following that swing.

* Nov. 11, at Northwestern (2-3), time, TV TBA (likely noon on ESPN, with a slight chance of 3:30 p.m. on ABC) -- Pat Fitzgerald got a rough baptism to Big Ten football with a 33-7 loss at Penn State. The road only gets tougher with games at Wisconsin, home with Purdue and Michigan State, at Michigan and Iowa and back home with OSU over the next six weeks.

* Nov. 18, Michigan (5-0), 3:30 p.m. (ABC) -- Michigan is riding high at 5-0, coming off the nice win at Minnesota. The Wolverines enter the meatiest portion of their schedule, though, with games with rival Michigan State, at Penn State and back home with Iowa. If UM comes through the next three weeks unscathed, the potential for just the third-ever match-up of unbeatens in The Game at Ohio State could be a distinct possibility.


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