Sunday Morning QB: Defense Outdoes Itself

The focus is on the Ohio State defense, which notched its first shutout since 2003 in Saturday's 44-0 win over Minnesota. That is the lead note in this edition of Sunday Morning Quarterback, a look at Ohio State football, the Big Ten and college football at-large.

Welcome to Sunday Morning Quarterback, a column I intend to stand each week as a quick read on the news, notes and opinion on Ohio State's weekly game as well as the Big Ten and the college football nation at large.

We start with a look at OSU's 44-0 win over Minnesota:

* With each passing week, the Ohio State defense just seems to get better and better. The Buckeyes held Michigan State to seven points, then Indiana to three and finally got the shutout – OSU's first in a span of 41 games – against Minnesota.

"I think the guys are excited about it," defensive coordinator Jim Heacock. "They've been talking about a shutout for a while. We were able to get some young players to play as well, so everybody's happy. That's a good combination. The guys played hard and got some turnovers."

The OSU coaching staff reminded the players of the way the Gophers amassed 576 yards total offense in OSU's 45-31 win at the Metrodome this year. The Buckeyes played inspired defense, limiting the Gophers to 182 yards total offense.

"I think everybody has a lot of pride," Heacock said. "This group has a lot they want to prove. Last year's game was a long game. We'd still be out there playing last year at this time. I think it appealed to their pride and they felt they had to do something better than they did last year. The nice thing is how they responded."

Quarterback Troy Smith again lauded his mates on the defensive side for a job well done.

"Defensively, what more can you say?" Smith said. "It was a shutout in the Big Ten against a school like this is very key. It's a testament to the guys that we have as captains and the staff on that side."

OSU coach Jim Tressel added, "I think it starts up front with our veteran guys that do such a great job leading, David Patterson and Quinn (Pitcock) and Joel Penton and Jay Richardson and that bunch. They were the returning guys coming back and everyone was wondering how the rest of the group was going to be and what they've done is they've raised their own performance up and done a great job leading those new guys.

"Our guys aren't brand new. Vernon Gholston has been here three years, James Laurinaitis got to play last year, Marcus Freeman has been here three years. John Kerr has been here for four years. So we've got veteran guys there in the linebacker corps. And Brandon Mitchell from the back end of things and Antonio Smith took the leadership role from that end, so we had leadership going from both ends and a lot of talent in between. And our coaching staff has done an excellent job. We're getting better and we understand we have more tests to go, but you have to feel good about the progress."

Leaders on defense against Minnesota included LB James Laurinaitis (11 tackles, one sack), LB Ross Homan (seven tackles), CB Antonio Smith (six tackles, one interception) and LB Marcus Freeman (six tackles, one TFL).

* One piece of the defensive success story has been linebacker Curtis Terry, who made his first career start at the strongside spot against Minnesota.

"Curtis is a good football player," Heacock said. "He's a student of the game. He was in there watching film this morning when I got there. He's excited. The nice thing is we have a lot of guys contributing. That keeps everybody competing."

Terry had a tackle-for-loss in the win over the Gophers.

"Right now, I am the Sam," Terry said. "James (Laurinaitis) is the Mike and Marcus (Freeman) is the Will. I play a little defensive end, a little Viper, kind of like Bobby (Carpenter) did last year when we go to our dime package.

"When you're playing, you're always excited. The more you're on the field, the more chances you have to help your team."

* The Buckeyes lost a season-high three fumbles on Saturday. For the year, OSU has fumbled 11 times and lost seven of them. Freshman tailback Chris Wells lost his third fumble of the season trying to fight for extra yardage after picking up a first down in the first half.

Wells spent a brief time on the bench, but came back and ended up with a career-high 90 yards on 15 carries with a touchdown. Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said it is hard to teach players a lesson when they languish on the bench.

"There is a fine line," Bollman said. "He's one of those kind of guys. What are you going to do, sit him on the bench the whole time? Troy fumbled the ball, too, you know.

"I don't know that you will always (bench the player). Certainly, there is a point that can be made. We have to improve in that area. We can't put the ball on the ground. We have not had many of those. Chris has had three. Would we help ourselves as a team by keeping him on the bench? Certainly, the answer today was not leaving him on the bench."

Bollman said more is gained by having Chris Wells and Maurice Wells in the game and able to back up starting tailback Antonio Pittman.

"One of the benefits of having those three guys is Pitt doesn't have to play the whole game," Bollman said. "The only way anybody gets better is by getting experience. The more they can play, the better off Chris and Mo will be."

Pittman said ball security will be critical when the Buckeyes host No. 2 Michigan on Nov. 18.

"In the Michigan game, we will need to be able to go out and continue to put points on the board," he said. "But we will also need to protect the ball a lot better."

* Bollman said he was generally pleased with the offensive line play.

"They're doing a good job, but I bet if you asked them – all five of them across the board – they would tell you they need to be better and they look forward to getting better," Bollman said. "I think they are getting better at some things."

* There was a surprise name at the top of OSU's receiving chart on Saturday as redshirt freshman Brian Hartline led the Buckeyes with four catches for 69 yards. Hartline filled in for starter Anthony Gonzalez in the second half after Gonzalez went out with a concussion.

Hartline's biggest play was a nifty 32-yard grab down the seam on a third-and-13 at the Minnesota 45. It helped set up Pittman's 13-yard touchdown run and a 30-0 lead on the next play.

"It always helps your confidence," Hartline said. "I think it's great that Troy has the confidence to throw the ball in to me."

Hartline now has nine catches for 163 yards (18.1 average).

Hartline enjoyed the most playing time he has seen with the Buckeyes. He said he marveled at the way Smith had command of the game.

"I don't think anything ever affects Troy," Hartline said. "If anything ever happens to Troy, it may be because he slips or something. We're down there in the red zone with eight seconds left in the first half and we think we're going to score. Why? Because of Troy. He has an understanding of who is out there and what we can do."

* OSU offensive lineman Steve Rehring had no idea what he did late in the first half to draw a personal foul penalty for putting his hands to the face of a UM defensive lineman.

"They said I got my hand up into his face mask," Rehring said. "I didn't know I did it. They said they called it because the play was gone downfield. I was just trying to sustain my block."

The penalty pushed OSU out of field goal range late in the first half and the Buckeyes missed a golden scoring chance.

* It was a surprise to see Minnesota sophomore Alex Daniels line up on defense. Daniels had spent the first seven games as a backup to Amir Pinnix at tailback.

But the 6-3, 255-pound Daniels, a product of Columbus Brookhaven, tallied five tackles as a reserve on defense against Ohio State. Daniels, the only Minnesota player offered a scholarship by OSU, even caused a stir at one point by jawing with Smith.

"Knowing Alex, I knew when he got in there, he was going to be tough," Smith said. "He was going to give it his all and they did just that over there. He's a big kid and he's going to grow. I know he got stronger. He's going to get bigger, so I guess wherever they wanted to fit him into the scheme, that's what they did."

Smith was also impressed with UM safety Dominic Jones, another Brookhaven grad who had seven tackles with one tackle-for-loss.

"You've got to take your hat off to guys like that," Smith said. "D. J., you know, that's self-explanatory, he's a player. I think the more and more playing time he gets, the better he's going to be. Kind of reminds me of Bob Sanders when he was at Iowa. Those players are going to get good. And it was probably a little chip on their shoulder because they didn't get a chance to come here, but they still showed up and played."

Now for headlines around the Big Ten:

* No. 2 Michigan continued its march toward the Nov. 18 showdown with No. 1 Ohio State with a workmanlike 17-3 win over Northwestern on a rainy day in Ann Arbor.

Once again, it was the Michigan defense on center stage. LaMarr Woodley had two sacks and recovered one of his two forced fumbles for the Wolverines. Northwestern trailed only 10-3 midway through the third quarter against Michigan when Leon Hall, who had a fumble recovery earlier in the game, intercepted a pass from Wildcats quarterback C.J. Bacher to set up the Wolverines at the Northwestern 36.

Michigan, with the nation's top-rated rush defense, held NU to minus-13 yards rushing on 17 attempts.

Mike Hart ran for 95 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Hart's 3-yard scoring run made it 17-3 with 4:05 left in the third quarter. Adrian Arrington, shrugging off a week where he was accused in a domestic dispute, caught a 14-yard scoring pass to put Michigan up 7-0 in the first quarter.

* Indiana is one win away from its first bowl bid since 1993. The Hoosiers blistered Michigan State 46-21 at Bloomington.

QB Kellen Lewis threw five touchdown passes, including a school-record four to James Hardy, and ran for another score in leading the Hoosiers to the win. Lewis was 15 of 25 passing for 263 yards. Marcus Thigpen added 100 yards on 21 carries.

Indiana improved to 5-4. The Hoosiers need one win in their last three games, which include road trips to Minnesota and Purdue and a home game with Michigan.

MSU fell behind 30-7 at halftime and 46-7 after three quarters and never figured in this one. The Spartans, who fell to 4-5, need to win two of their last three to qualify for a postseason bid. They host Purdue and Minnesota before visiting Penn State.

* No. 17 Wisconsin has the makings of a potential 11-1 team. But the Badgers were nearly derailed at home Saturday by Illinois. The Badgers rallied from a 21-3 deficit to defeat the Illini 30-24.

The Badgers did it without star running back P.J. Hill, who sustained a pair of injuries before going to the sidelines in the third quarter. He finished with 50 yards on 12 carries. QB John Stocco threw for 217 yards and two TDs for Wisconsin, which hosts Penn State and visits Iowa before wrapping the season with a nonconference game with Buffalo.

It was another tough loss for Illinois, which fell to 2-7. Juice Williams was 13 of 29 passing for 171 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 53 yards.

Running back Pierre Thomas scored two touchdowns in the first half for the Illini.

It seems a foregone conclusion that the coach whose team wins the OSU-Michigan game will be the Big Ten coach of the year. But it's hard to beat the job Bret Bielema has done in his first season with the Badgers.

* Purdue has not scored in a span of seven quarters with Saturday's 12-0 loss to Penn State leaving the Boilers still one win shy of the six they need for postseason play.

Tony Hunt ran for 142 yards and a touchdown for the Nittany Lions, who held Purdue to 261 yards total offense and registered their first shutout in four years.

* Iowa stepped out of conference and hosted Northern Illinois. The Hawkeyes, playing without QB Drew Tate (thumb surgery), took a 24-14 win over the Huskies.

Freshman Jake Christensen looks like the heir apparent for Iowa. He threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns against one interception. Albert Young chipped in 123 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.

NIU's Garrett Wolfe was held in check with 84 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.

* In terms of bowl bids, it looks like Ohio State and Michigan are each BCS bound, one at 12-0 and the other likely at 11-1. The winner would play in the title game. The loser could easily be selected as a "replacement" at-large team at the Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin, if it can negotiate wins at home over Penn State and at Iowa, could be 11-1 and would still end up in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.

Iowa and Penn State each figure to end up around 8-4. One would be ticketed for the Outback and the other for the Alamo. My guess is Penn State to the Outback and Iowa to the Alamo.

Purdue could actually end up 9-4 as it has an extra game at Hawaii. The Boilers seem like a perfect fit for the new tie-in at the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.

Indiana, after its win over MSU, can reach 6-6 if it can steal a game on the road at Minnesota or Purdue. That would likely put IU in the Insight Bowl in Tempe.

Michigan State's bowl hopes seem to be on life support at this point. Alas, the Big Ten may not have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the tie-in at the Motor City Bowl.

Now for headlines around the country:

* The Game of the Week was at Oregon State, where the Beavers stunned No. 3 USC 33-31 and sent shock waves throughout the BCS. The Trojans had been on shaky ground in recent weeks and many predicted they would falter during a grueling stretch run. But few felt Oregon State would jump up and beat USC for the first time since 2000, snapping the Trojans' 27-game Pac-10 winning streak in the process.

USC had also won 18 straight road games. But the Trojans had shown cracks in their last three games, each a victory by seven points or less. On Saturday, four costly turnovers were the difference. The Beavers led 33-10 in the third quarter before USC scored three straight touchdowns.

John David Booty, who threw for 406 yards and three TDs, found Steve Smith for a 2-yard scoring pass with 7 seconds left to cut the lead to 33-31. But Oregon State's Jeff Van Orsow batted down a pass on the two-point conversion to preserve the lead.

Smith finished the day with 11 catches for 258 yards and two TDs. Fred Davis had a TD grab as well for the Trojans, who are now looking up at Cal in the Pac-10 standings. Those two teams meet Nov. 18 at the Coliseum.

USC's loss leaves just six unbeaten teams in Division I-A – Ohio State, Michigan, West Virginia, Louisville, Rutgers and Boise State.

* No. 5 Texas had to rally from an early 21-0 deficit to take a 35-31 win at Texas Tech in another barnburner. The Longhorns stayed on course to win the Big 12 South and potentially get back into the national title game picture as well.

Colt McCoy threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns and also had a tough run in the game's final minute for a first down that put Tech away. The Longhorns won their 20th straight conference game and 17th consecutive road game.

Tech had chances in the final seven minutes. Twice the Red Raiders failed on fourth downs inside Texas 35. QB Graham Harrell completed 42 of 62 passes for 519 yards and three touchdowns.

* Three top-10 teams from the SEC all won. No. 7 Auburn downed Mississippi 23-17 as Brandon Cox passed for a season-high 253 yards and a touchdown.

No. 8 Tennessee outlasted South Carolina 31-24 in Columbia. The Vols avenged a loss to the Gamecocks from a year ago as Erik Ainge threw two touchdown passes to Bret Smith.

No. 9 Florida downed Georgia 21-14, continuing the Gators' dominance in this rivalry played every year in Jacksonville, Fla. Florida now has won eight of nine and 15 of the last 17 in the series, and with the latest victory, it remained atop the Southeastern Conference East Division and moved a step closer to returning to the conference title game for the first time since 2000.

The Bulldogs lost for the third time in four games and essentially dropped out of the division race.

* No. 11 Notre Dame took its 43rd straight win over Navy, prevailing 38-14 in Baltimore. Brady Quinn threw touchdown passes of 36, 33 and 6 yards, and ran 19 yards for a score. Quinn finished 18-for-25 for 295 yards, Darius Walker ran for 103 yards on 20 carries and Rhema McKnight had two touchdown catches.

* No. 21 Georgia Tech moved a step closer to a berth in the ACC title game with a 30-23 win over Miami (Fla.). Georgia Tech standout Calvin Johnson hauled in a tiebreaking, 1-yard touchdown with 6:18 remaining. Tech needs to win two of its last three conference games to secure the Coastal Division's spot in the Dec. 2 ACC championship at Jacksonsville.

* Temple's 20-game losing streak came to an end with a 28-14 home win over Bowling Green.

* Cincinnati moved to 5-4 and within one win of bowl eligibility with a 17-3 win over Syracuse. The UC defense, fresh off a shutout of South Florida, held Syracuse to 180 yards of total offense in a 17-3 win over the Orange, who only had 79 total yards throughout the first three quarters. The Bearcats have remaining games at No. 4 West Virginia, home with Rutgers and at UConn.

Syracuse has lost four in a row, and is 0-11 in the conference during coach Greg Robinson's two seasons.

* Florida State's downward spiral continued with a 27-24 loss to Maryland. It was FSU's sixth loss in its last eight regular-season ACC games. The Seminoles, winners of 12 ACC titles in the past 14 years, are alone in last place in the league's Atlantic Division.

* Don't look now, but Ohio U. is suddenly the team to beat in the MAC East Division. OU went into Kent and took a 17-7 win Saturday. Kalvin McRae had 103 yards and a TD for the Bobcats, who are tied with Kent for the division lead at 4-1. OU has games remaining at Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio) and a home game with Akron.

* Heisman Watch: OSU's Troy Smith (183 yards, 1 TD passing; 43 yards, 1 TD rushing vs. Minnesota) is still my top pick here. Notre Dame's Brady Quinn is coming up on the outside. He threw for 295 yards and three TDs and also rushed for one against Navy.

West Virginia's Steve Slaton is still firmly in the discussion. He can help his cause with a big game Thursday against Louisville. Rutgers' Ray Rice and Michigan's Mike Hart are also in the discussion.

* My new top 15: The USC loss changes some things up. A hearty welcome to Boise State. Ohio State, Michigan, West Virginia, Louisville, Texas, Notre Dame, Florida, Tennessee, USC, California, Auburn, LSU, Arkansas, Rutgers, Boise State.

* Games To Watch: UConn-Rutgers (tonight), Fresno State-Boise State (Wed.), West Virginia-Louisville (Thursday), Oklahoma State-Texas, LSU-Tennessee, Maryland-Clemson, North Carolina-Notre Dame, UCLA-Cal, Arkansas-South Carolina, Penn State-Wisconsin, Boston College-Wake Forest, Oklahoma-Texas A&M, Missouri-Nebraska.

We will wrap up each week with a look at how OSU's opponents fared and check out who they face next week.

Date (Time, TV), Opponent (Record), This Week's Result, Next Week's Game

Sept. 2, Northern Illinois (5-4), lost to Iowa 24-14, Oct. 28; vs. Toledo, Nov. 7.

Sept. 9, at Texas (8-1), beat Texas Tech 35-31, Oct. 28; vs. Oklahoma State, Nov. 4.

Sept. 16, Cincinnati (5-4), beat Syracuse 17-3, Oct. 28; at West Virginia, Nov. 11.

Sept. 23, Penn State (6-3), beat Purdue 12-0, Oct. 28; at Wisconsin, Nov. 4.

Sept. 30, at Iowa (6-3), beat Northern Illinois 24-14, Oct. 28; vs. Northwestern, Nov. 4.

Oct. 7, Bowling Green (4-5), lost to Temple 28-14, Oct. 28; at Akron, Nov. 4.

Oct. 14, at Michigan State (4-5), lost to Indiana 46-21, Oct. 28; vs. Purdue, Nov. 4.

Oct. 21, Indiana (5-4), beat Michigan State 46-21, Oct. 28; at Minnesota, Nov. 4.

Oct. 28, Minnesota (3-6), lost to Ohio State 44-0, Oct. 28; vs. Indiana, Nov. 4.

Nov. 4, (3:30 p.m., ESPN2) at Illinois (2-7), lost to Wisconsin 30-24, Oct. 28; vs. Ohio State, Nov. 4.

Nov. 11, at Northwestern (2-7), lost to Michigan 17-3, Oct. 28; at Iowa, Nov. 4.

Nov. 18, (3:30 p.m., ABC) Michigan (9-0), beat Northwestern 17-3, Oct. 28; vs. Ball State, Nov. 4.

Big Ten Standings

Team (Overall, Big Ten)

Michigan (9-0, 6-0)

Ohio State (9-0, 5-0)

Wisconsin (8-1, 5-1)

Penn State (6-3, 4-2)

Indiana (5-4, 3-2)

Iowa (6-3, 2-3)

Purdue (5-4, 2-3)

Michigan State (4-5, 1-4)

Illinois (2-7, 1-4)

Minnesota (3-6, 0-5)

Northwestern (2-7, 0-6)

Oct. 28 Results

Penn State 12, Purdue 0

Michigan 17, Northwestern 3

Wisconsin 30, Illinois 24

Indiana 46, Michigan State 21

Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 14

Ohio State 44, Minnesota 0

Nov. 4 Games

Penn State at Wisconsin, noon (ABC)

Northwestern at Iowa, noon (ESPN-Plus Regional)

Ball State at Michigan, noon (ESPNU)

Indiana at Minnesota, noon (ESPN360)

Ohio State at Illinois, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Purdue at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

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