One Goal, One Objective For 2006 Buckeyes

The college football season is now two-thirds of the way over for the nation's top two teams, Ohio State and Michigan. They are on a collision course for a match-up Nov. 18 in Columbus. We discuss the road ahead for each of these unbeatens, OSU's homecoming match-up Saturday with Minnesota (3:30 p.m., ABC) and more.

The stage is now set for what could be one of the biggest showdowns in the history of Big Ten football – let alone in the history of The Game, the annual rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan.

The top-ranked Buckeyes improved to 8-0 overall and 4-0 in Big Ten play with Saturday's 44-3 pounding of Indiana. Meanwhile, No. 2 Michigan got past Iowa 20-6 in Ann Arbor to improve to 8-0 overall and 5-0 in conference action. OSU and Michigan seem to be on a collision course for a game Nov. 18 in Columbus that figures to decide the outright Big Ten championship and one of the participants in the Bowl Championship Series national title game.

On Sunday, Michigan moved past USC, ranked third in the AP poll, and into second place in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. The top two teams in the BCS rankings at the end of the year will play for the title on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.

Most college football observers are counting the days until Ohio State and Michigan meet in what could be a showdown for the ages. The two schools have met 102 times previously, but only twice as unbeatens (1970 and 1973) and never as the nation's top two ranked teams.

Why is everybody chalking up three more wins for each side leading into that game?

Well, OSU's three remaining opponents – Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern – have a combined record of 7-17. Michigan's three remaining opponents – Northwestern, Ball State and Indiana – have a combined mark of 8-16.

The Buckeyes have won their first eight games by an average of 26.6 points per game. Michigan has won its first eight games by an average of 17.2 points per game.

Stranger things have certainly happened, so we will not assume that either team will simply show up and win their remaining games. However, with two-thirds of the season in the books, the Buckeyes – who have not been challenged within 17 points all season – seem to be in a real rhythm.

This run is reminiscent of the dominant seven-game run Ohio State used to finish the 2005 season.

"We want to finish out better than we did last year," said offensive tackle Kirk Barton. "We want to end up in Glendale, on the podium with those T-shirts on. We've got to be better than we were last year if we want to be out there doing that."

Defensive end Jay Richardson, who had a pair of sacks in Saturday's win against Indiana, can see how the Buckeyes are finding their stride.

"We're heading in that direction," Richardson said. "I think we're trying to get back into that groove. And once everything starts clicking, especially offensively and they get rolling … Troy Smith is hitting his stride right now. Our defense has come together and learned how to play execution football and be unselfish.

"You have to keep your eyes on the prize. We can see where we want to be. I think we're getting there because of how hard we're working."

Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. likes OSU's diverse offense, which produced exactly 270 yards rushing and 270 yards passing in Saturday's win over IU.

"It's not one-sided," Ginn said. "It's not just running the ball or throwing it. I have fun catching the ball and I have fun blocking. That's what the game is about. Everybody's happy. That's what you want with your team. Troy is a complete quarterback and he does a great job getting everybody the ball."

Ginn has also marveled at the play of OSU's defense. Although just two starters returned, the Buckeyes are allowing a nation's best 8.3 points per game.

"Our defense is playing tremendously well every time we step on the field," Ginn said. "I know we are probably leading the nation in turnover margin right now. We just hope our D can keep doing that and give us the ball in good field position."

Wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez said the Buckeyes have a camaraderie that can not be denied.

"I think the main thing is everyone is celebrating together," Gonzalez said. "It's more fun when you're undefeated because you don't have any regrets to think about. The main thing we have is experience on offense. We have been in similar and sticky situations before, so everyone is playing more relaxed and making good plays."

Barton said that closeness will serve this team well as it faces the ultimate challenge, perhaps, with Michigan in just a few weeks.

"We're all close," Barton said. "Me and Gonzo and Troy and T.J. (Downing), we're all great friends. It's fun watching each other produce. It's a fun team to be a part of. We all have the same goals. We all want to win the title. We want to win the big ring. And until we get it, we're not going to be happy."

Bring On Minnesota

Minnesota, led by former OSU player and assistant Glen Mason, has endured a rough 3-5 season. The Gophers were spared the indignity of a loss to Division I-AA North Dakota State on Saturday when they blocked a late Bison field goal to preserve a 10-9 win.

Minnesota's other wins have been over Kent State (44-0) and winless Temple (62-0). The Gophers lost tailback Laurence Maroney early to the NFL and have not been as strong running the ball this season, falling to seventh in the Big Ten in rushing offense (161.0 yards per game). Even worse, Minnesota is ninth in the conference in total defense (390.1 ypg). That's not a good sign with Ohio State boasting the league's top scoring offense (34.9 points per game) and No. 2 total offense (410.1 ypg).

But the Buckeyes struggled in last year's 45-31 win at the Metrodome, allowing 578 yards to Minnesota – the second largest yardage total allowed in OSU history. OSU coach Jim Tressel said he expects a struggle when the Gophers visit OSU for homecoming on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC).

"We know historically they've been a great run football team," Tressel said. "We also know that they threw the ball effectively against us a year ago. We know every time we've played them it's been a battle. They've been a bowl team for I don't know, five or six straight years. It's a Big Ten game against physical folks. They have a lot of guys on their team from Ohio, and so it's special anytime kids get to go back home and play in a place like this, so it's going to be all we can stand."

In 2000, Ohio State opened 5-0 and had risen to No. 5 in the national rankings before Minnesota came into Columbus and spoiled OSU's homecoming with a 29-17 win. That loss started the Buckeyes on a downward spiral that led to an 8-4 finish and the end of coach John Cooper's 13-year tenure with the Buckeyes.

Mason, passed over in the January 2001 coaching search that brought Tressel to Columbus, would love nothing more than to double his career win total over his alma mater.

"We know they are going to come in and play hard," Ginn said. "They have a lot of guys from Columbus. They're going to come in and try and take something from us. We just have to go out and play hard and play smart for four quarters."

Richardson added, "They have always been a good run team. I know with Laurence Maroney last year they were strong running the ball. I know they probably got too many yards. I'm sure they will come in here with the same philosophy."

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.

After Minnesota, here is a look at OSU's three final games with thoughts on each of these opponents:

* Nov. 4, at Illinois (2-6), time, TV TBA (likely noon on ESPN or ESPN2; should be announced Monday morning) --The Illini turned to freshman QB Isiah "Juice" Williams and he came up big in the win over Michigan State. But losses to Indiana, Ohio U. and Penn State have snuffed any hopes the Illini had of a postseason bid.

* Nov. 11, at Northwestern (2-6), time, TV TBA (likely noon on ESPN, with a slight chance of 3:30 p.m. on ABC) -- Following the tragedy of Randy Walker's death over the summer, it has been an agonizing first year for new coach (and former NU star) Pat Fitzgerald. The latest blow was a come-from-ahead 41-38 loss to Michigan State. MSU set a new Division I-A record for the largest comeback after rallying from a 38-3 third-quarter deficit.

* Nov. 18, Michigan (8-0), 3:30 p.m. (ABC) -- The last three games were going to decide if Michigan was a pretender or a contender. But after impressive wins over Michigan State (31-13), Penn State (17-10) and Iowa (20-6), the Wolverines have risen to the No. 2 spot in the AP and BCS rankings.

Michigan has offensive firepower with QB Chad Henne, TB Mike Hart and WRs A.J. Arrington, Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham, though Manningham has missed two straight games due to a knee injury. UM also boasts the Big Ten's top-rated defense (240.9 ypg). Michigan has allowed its first eight foes a paltry average of 33.6 yards per game on the ground. That average leads the nation.

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