Top-ranked Ohio State defeated host Northwestern 54-10 on Saturday in Evanston, Ill. The victory sets the stage for next Saturday's long-anticipated showdown in Columbus between OSU and No. 2 Michigan with each team entering with records of 11-0 overall and 7-0 in Big Ten play.
The winner of The Game – set for a 3:30 p.m. and a national telecast on ABC – will claim the outright Big Ten championship and a spot in the BCS national championship game set for Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz. Michigan upended Indiana 34-3 Saturday to hold up its end of the bargain.
Against Northwestern (3-8, 1-6), the Buckeyes built a 33-10 halftime lead after cashing in on four first-half turnovers and blocking an NU punt. Another NU turnover in the third quarter set the stage for one more OSU touchdown.
The easy win belied the struggle Ohio State had in just getting to Chicago for the game. Poor weather forced the team's plane to be diverted to Milwaukee. The Buckeyes then bused to Illinois and arrived at 11 p.m., about five hours later than originally planned.
"It was good to get a road victory," said OSU coach Jim Tressel. "Anytime you head out and it takes you half of a day to get here, it concerns you. But our guys kept their focus on what needed to be done.
"When you're defense creates turnovers like that and you put pressure on like they did, our offense got a short field often and they capitalized a few times."
Tressel praised his team on staying focused on the task at hand each week. They won their first 11 games by an average of 28 points.
"I am proud of the way our kids kept their minds on playing every game," Tressel said. "I know they are now excited about playing in the Ohio State-Michigan game."
Quarterback Troy Smith completed 12 of 19 passes for 185 yards and four touchdowns with an interception for the Buckeyes.
"Our offense did some positive things," said Smith, who improved to 24-2 as OSU's starting quarterback. "We still have some room to grow as a team. I can't say it was smooth. There are a lot of things we can still do better. But it does feel good putting points on the board.
"Our defense, what more could you ask for? They have shown up day in and day out."
Two of Smith's touchdown passes went to redshirt freshman wide receiver Brian Hartline, who ended up with three catches for 47 yards. Ted Ginn Jr. (two catches, 40 yards) and Anthony Gonzalez (two catches, 34 yards) also caught touchdown passes for the Buckeyes.
Tailback Antonio Pittman went over the 1,000-yard mark for the year, carrying the ball 19 times for 80 yards and one touchdown. Freshman backup Chris Wells, coming off a fumble at Illinois last week, had his best day yet. He had 11 carries for a season-high 99 yards and a touchdown.
"I thought Antonio ran hard today," Tressel said. "He got some help up front. Antonio Pittman is a good back. It helps to have multiple good backs."
It was a rough day for Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher. He ended up 17 of 28 passing for 212 yards with a touchdown. But he lost a fumble and threw two interceptions before he was relieved by Mike Kafka in the second half. OSU safety Brandon Mitchell returned one of those picks 46 yards for a first-quarter touchdown.
"I give credit to Ohio State, but to go out and beat yourself, you really didn't give yourself a chance against a very good football team," said NU coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We did that in all aspects of our game today. Turnovers just killed us. We moved the ball well in the first half, but you have to respect the ball."
The Buckeyes held NU to 297 yards total offense. Aside from his interception, Mitchell also recovered a fumble. Freshman linebacker Ross Homan had an interception, while defensive end Vernon Gholston notched two sacks, linebacker James Laurinaitis forced a fumble and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins had a team-high eight tackles and a fumble forced.
"For the defense to have five turnovers, that's something we strive for every week," said defensive tackle David Patterson.
As It Happened
Northwestern had the ball to open the game. On third-and-8 from the NU 33, Bacher threw down the middle to Shaun Herbert for an apparent first down. But Laurinaitis hit Herbert and caused a fumble, which Mitchell recovered at the OSU 45 with 13:28 left in the first quarter.
"On that play, (safety) Jamario (O'Neal) had him held up," Laurinaitis said. "We work on that in practice. I just tried to rip the ball out and fortunately I was able to get it out."
Ohio State needed five plays to convert that miscue into points. Smith connected on all three of his pass attempts on this drive. OSU's first play was a 29-yard pass from Smith to Gonzalez on a seam route. He then found Ginn for a 4-yard gain. Pittman had a pair of 4-yard runs, giving OSU a first down at the NU 14. On first down there, Smith threw right to Hartline for the 9-yard touchdown. He caught the pass in front of NU's Reggie McPherson, giving the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead with 11:28 left in the first quarter.
"Troy found him in the same spot in practice and we thought that might be there against this defense," Tressel said.
On the second play of NU's ensuing series, Bacher bobbled the shotgun snap. OSU's blitzing corner Antonio Smith recovered the loose ball at the NU 27 with 10:49 left in the first quarter.
Ohio State used four plays to convert that turnover. Smith found tight end Rory Nicol for a 9-yard gain. Pittman then converted the first down with a 3-yard gain. Smith then faked a throw and gave the ball on a draw to Pittman and he rolled for 14 yards down to the NU 1-yard line. On first down there, Pittman tried the middle. But he bounced off a pile of linemen and went outside to the right, beating a pair of NU defenders to the pylon for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 9:25 left in the first quarter.
Things went from bad to worse for Northwestern later in the first. On second-and-7 at the NU 43, Bacher tried an out route to Ross Lane. But the throw was 2 yards behind Lane and Mitchell made the easy pick and outraced everybody down the sideline for his 46-yard touchdown return that pushed the OSU lead to 21-0 with 3:38 left in the first quarter.
"We knew they were an outside throwing team," said Mitchell, who notched his second interception of the year. "I was the flat defender. I dropped into the flat. He threw it out there and fortunately I was able to make the play."
Northwestern put together a 12-play, 69-yard march down to the OSU 11. But a pair of Bacher incompletions there helped lead NU to settle for Joel Howells' 29-yard field goal, cutting the OSU lead to 21-3 with 13:59 left in the first half.
The Buckeyes then mounted a threat, driving down to the NU 6. Smith hit Pittman with a screen pass for a first down at the 1, but NU's Deante Battle dug the ball out and teammate Corey Wootton recovered the fumble on the goal line for a touchback.
"I was trying to stretch it out and get the touchdown," said Pittman, who also lost a fumble at Illinois last week. "I thought I was in, but the call turned the other way."
OSU needed three plays to find the end zone. Two Pittman runs netted 7 yards before, on third-and-3 at the 9, OSU deployed five wide receivers. Smith looked to his right before coming back to his left and finding Hartline in the back of the end zone for the 9-yard touchdown. Aaron Pettrey's PAT kick was blocked by Wootton, but OSU still led 27-3 with 4:34 left in the half.
Northwestern then moved 75 yards in six plays. Bacher completed 5 of 6 throws on this drive, including the 8-yard touchdown to Tyrell Sutton on a screen pass. That cut the OSU lead to 27-10 with 2:10 left.
The teams then traded turnovers in the final two minutes of the half as Smith's deep pass to Ginn was intercepted by NU's Sherrick McManis at the NU 23 with 1:06 left.
"I thought the wind got a hold of it," Ginn said. "I had a step (on the defender). I tried to go up and bat it down, but I could not make the play."
But two plays later, NU receiver Rashard Ward fumbled after a catch. OSU's Jenkins forced the fumble and teammate Jay Richardson recovered it at the NU 24 with 32 seconds left in the half.
The Buckeyes were pushed back by a holding penalty on guard T.J. Downing. With 10 seconds left and OSU facing third-and-20 at the NU 34, Smith went for broke. He threw deep left to Ginn on a fade pattern. He hauled the pass in at the 3 and carried NU's McManis with him into the end zone for the 34-yard touchdown.
"He knew Teddy was taking off," Tressel said. "He ran through some things first. To me, the athletic part was what Ted did. I'm not sure he knew it was coming and all of a sudden he turned his head and Troy dropped it into his bread basket. That was a spectacular play by a great quarterback."
Holder A.J. Trapasso fumbled the snap and tried to run for the PAT, but was stopped short of the goal line. Still, OSU had taken a commanding 33-10 lead with three seconds left in the half.
Ohio State padded its lead with a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter.
The first one was set up by yet another NU turnover as Homan made a nifty interception of a Bacher pass near the sideline at the NU 39 with 11:02 left in the third quarter. The Buckeyes needed five plays to put the ball into the end zone. Smith had runs of 11 and 8 yards before dialing up Gonzalez for a 6-yard slant and the touchdown. On the play, OSU had a five-wide receiver set. Smith saw Gonzalez locked up with safety Brendan Smith and put the ball into him for the score and a 40-10 lead with 8:52 left in the third.
The Buckeyes then drove nine plays in 80 yards for another score. This drive included a 33-yard burst by Chris Wells. It also featured a nifty 25-yard pass from Smith to Maurice Wells, converting a third down and giving OSU a first down at the NU 3. Two plays later, Chris Wells went over the top for the 1-yard touchdown and a 47-10 lead with 15 seconds left in the third quarter.
Third-string quarterback Todd Boeckman got into the scoring column with a 4-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-goal with 2:29 left. That touchdown, which pushed the lead to 54-10, was set up by a Chris Wells 25-yard run.
* The Buckeyes played their second game without starting left tackle Alex Boone, who is sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Senior Tim Schafer started at left tackle, but redshirt freshman Jimmy Cordle, also the backup center, saw time there throughout the game as well. It remains unclear whether Boone will return for next week's game with Michigan.
* Pittman now has 1,032 yards on the season to go with 12 touchdowns. Pittman, who had 1,331 yards last year, becomes the first OSU running back since Eddie George in 1994-95 to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
Pittman is just the fifth OSU running back to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, joining George, Archie Griffin, Keith Byars and Tim Spencer.
* On the year, Smith has now thrown for 2,191 yards with 26 touchdowns against four interceptions. In his career, Smith has now thrown for 5,369 yards with 50 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
* The 54-point outburst was OSU's largest since a 72-0 win over Pittsburgh in 1996.
* A sellout crowd of 47,130 attended the game, eclipsing the previous Ryan Field season mark of just 29,387 set for the Oct. 21 game against Michigan State. OSU fans appeared to outnumber NU fans at least three-to-one.
* OSU's 18-game winning streak is its third longest in school history. The Buckeyes won 22 straight games between the 1967-69 seasons and 19 straight between 2002-03.
* Ohio State now leads the all-time series 57-14-1, including 25-6-1 in Evanston.
* The 2006 Buckeyes are the fifth team in school history to open a season 11-0 and first since the 2002 national championship year. Other seasons with a 11-0 start include 1975, 1979 and 1995.
This also marks the eighth 11-win season in OSU history. The Buckeyes have now reached the 11-win plateau in three of Tressel's six seasons.
* OSU's record as the nation's No. 1 team is now 62-8-1.
* In the records department under Tressel, Ohio State is now 19-8 in road games and 37-10 in Big Ten games. The Buckeyes are also 46-3 under Tressel with a halftime lead and 49-3 when they lead after three quarters. Tressel is now 5-1 all-time against NU.