Sunday Morning QB: The Stage Is Set

In this week's edition of Sunday Morning Quarterback, we have notes on Ohio State's win at Northwestern. We also look ahead to the Michigan game and have notes on Brian Hartline, Chris Wells, scores before halftime, the BCS, the Heisman and much more. Click here for more.

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 54-10 win over Northwestern:

* As always, Ohio State has moved all of its usual Tuesday media events to Monday. Reporters will come in from all over the country today to query Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes about the importance of the Ohio State-Michigan game.

Tressel noted that his No. 1-ranked team is among a small group of schools that can still realize a national championship dream this year.

"The excitement we have is we are heading into game 12 and we still have a chance to reach our goals," he said. "We understand we haven't reached them. There are not many teams out there who have a chance to reach them.

"But I think this group of seniors handled all of the stuff. People have been talking since late September that we had no tough games until Michigan. I am sure now they are excited about it because it is also their senior day."

* Tressel was asked if he, his coaches or his players root for Michigan to win its games so the teams can have this kind of undefeated showdown with so much significance.

"You know, we don't even pay much attention," Tressel said. "In the nonconference games, we would say that we would root for our conference people. But mostly we've been rooting for the Buckeyes."

Safety Brandon Mitchell added, "Anytime anyone plays a team from the Big Ten, we root for that Big Ten team. It always makes it good when it's a top-ranked team in our conference."

* Tailback Antonio Pittman had another workmanlike day with 81 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. He moved past the 1,000-yard mark on the year for the second season in a row.

He is the first OSU back since Eddie George in 1994-95 to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and he joins a select group of backs also including Archie Griffin, Tim Spencer and Keith Byars who hit the 1,000-yard plateau in back-to-back seasons.

"That's huge," Pittman said. "Our offensive line has worked hard for me all year. For me to get 1,000 yards for the second year in a row, that was one of my goals. But I owe it all to the offensive line."

* Redshirt freshman wide receiver Brian Hartline came up big at Northwestern with three catches for 47 yards and his first two touchdown grabs of his career.

"Brian Hartline is a player," Tressel said. "He plays on special teams. He'll play any position you want to put him at. He'll play in the three-wide, four-wide or five-wide sets. He is a competitor. A couple of times he was in the seam and made some tough catches and got hit."

Quarterback Troy Smith has been excited to see Hartline emerge as a target to complement Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Brian Robiskie.

"When you've got a situation where you've got a young guy who can make some plays for you, that is a tremendous lift to know we have another guy we can lean on," Smith said. "Hartline has been there the whole season. He has continued to blossom and grow. I think he can be a great wide receiver here."

* The Buckeyes were also glad to see freshman tailback Chris Wells come through the Northwestern game without a fumble.

The 230-pound Wells, who has lost four fumbles this year, could be counted upon to get tough yards against Michigan. Chris Wells entered the NU game after sophomore Maurice Wells and did not get a carry until late in the first half when the Buckeyes already led 21-3.

But he was solid in the second half, finishing with 99 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

"It's huge any time you've got a young back and he can step up to the forefront and he can display his talents, that is huge," Smith said. "For Beanie, it is especially because of what kind of kid he is. He walks around all day with a smile on his face.

"He's getting closer to being another great back here."

Pittman, who has taken his fellow Akron native Chris Wells under his wing, was glad to see his protégé have a positive day toting the rock.

"He came out and played all right," Pittman said. "He and Mo Wells got after it. They kept it rolling for us."

* Once again, Ohio State showed great poise by striking for a touchdown before the end of the first half.

The Buckeyes led 27-10 with time winding down. Facing third-and-20 at the NU 34 and just 10 seconds left, Smith threw caution to the wind and threw deep to Ginn for the 34-yard touchdown with three seconds left. That strike staked OSU to a 33-10 halftime advantage.

That play marked the seventh time in 11 games OSU has scored in the final three minutes of the first half, including five scores in the final minute. Here is a look at the four other final-minute first half scores:

At Texas, the Buckeyes grabbed the lead for good at 14-7 on Smith's 29-yard TD pass to Ginn – the one that made the cover of Sports Illustrated – with 16 seconds left.

At Michigan State, Smith found Gonzalez for a 12-yard TD with 39 seconds left. That put OSU ahead 24-0 and sent many Spartans fans to the exits on a cold, blustery day.

Against Indiana, Smith hit Jake Ballard with a 1-yard TD pass with 20 seconds left in the half for a commanding 28-3 lead.

And at Illinois, Aaron Pettrey's 50-yard field goal with 56 seconds left in the half gave OSU a 17-0 advantage.

* Mitchell said the OSU defense wanted to make a statement against NU. Five turnovers later, one would say they accomplished that goal.

"Last week (at Illinois), we didn't play as well as we wanted to," Mitchell said. "Each week, we want to take a step forward. Last week, we thought we took a step backwards. With this game, we wanted to take two steps forward.

"Coach Heacock does a good job of telling us we can't focus on the last play. We have to focus on the next play."

* Likewise, the OSU offense wanted to put its season's-worst showing at Illinois behind it. Working with short fields after the turnovers and Larry Grant's blocked punt certainly helped.

"The defense set us up with great field position," said center Doug Datish. "They got those turnovers and we were able to put the game away early. This was a good game for us after what happened last week. We were able to answer some questions and get a good vibe."

Ginn said this 425-yard showing was more like it.

"Coming off the Illinois game, we showed a lot of things where we could get better," Ginn said. "This week, we knew we had to come out and be perfect."

Pittman added, "We could not have two games like that in a row."

Tressel liked the way the Buckeyes got down to business and grabbed a 21-0 first-quarter lead.

"We thought it was very important for us to come here and play and have a decisive showing on the road," Tressel said. "They had played well the last three weeks. When you meet a team on the rise, it can be a great challenge. We knew we had to do a good job against them."

* Pittman was asked if he and Chris Wells caught up with fellow Akron native Tyrell Sutton, a sophomore standout at tailback for NU. Sutton had a touchdown catch and 57 yards on 12 carries against OSU.

"We talked," Pittman said. "He's having a great year even though his carries have been kind of limited. He is still having a great year and making us proud."

* This week's reason to lampoon the new timing rules came at the end of the first half. The rules are designed to speed up the game.

However, both Northwestern and Ohio State used timeouts – each two minutes in duration – in the final minute of the half to prevent time from coming off the clock before the first play of an offensive series.

So much for speeding up the game. What will they think of next?

Because of the road game, we will truncate our look at college football at-large.

* Going Bowling (Big Ten version): The winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game will be ticketed for the BCS national championship game. To my way of thinking, the loser of that game – provided it does not end up No. 2 in the standings – will go to the Rose Bowl.

It is unfortunate that conferences are limited to two BCS teams because Wisconsin, which should move to 11-1 with a win over Buffalo next week, would deserve BCS consideration. Instead, UW will head to the Capital One Bowl – a great debut for rookie coach Bret Bielema.

The Outback Bowl would choose next and Penn State, which can get to 8-4 with a win over Michigan State, would be the almost certain pick.

This is where things get sticky. Iowa would be preferable to Purdue for the Alamo Bowl, provided Iowa can defeat Minnesota. But I think Purdue, which could end up 9-4 with wins over Indiana and Hawaii, will get the nod.

That puts Iowa in the Insight Bowl. It will take an upset for Indiana (playing Purdue), Minnesota (playing Iowa) or Michigan State (playing Penn State) to get to six wins and qualify for postseason play. The Big Ten may end up with just five bowl-eligible teams, leaving spots in the Champs Sports Bowl and Motor City Bowl open for other conferences.

* BCS Picture: This past weekend saw unbeaten Louisville and once-beatens Texas, Cal and Auburn all go by the wayside. That leaves roughly seven teams in the chase for the national championship.

The new BCS rankings have Ohio State and Michigan one and two, respectively, followed by USC, Florida, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Arkansas. USC's win over Oregon moved the Trojans up four spots to third. With key games remaining against Cal and Notre Dame, USC could have the juice to stay in the top three and maybe even move into the top two after the OSU-Michigan game.

It is impossible to figure how pollsters will respond to the OSU-Michigan game. The winner will certainly be No. 1. But if Michigan loses a close game or in controversial fashion, do the human pollsters keep the Wolverines No. 2? And if Ohio State loses, how far do the Buckeyes fall? This is where Texas' loss hurts OSU – both in the computer rankings and in the fact the Longhorns were like a net beneath OSU. There is no way the pollsters could have put OSU below Texas with a 17-point win at Austin.

And then there are the computers. Michigan is No. 1 in the computer component. That's OK. I get that. Their wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin really stand out and, honestly at this point, trump anything Ohio State has done – at least on paper. But Rutgers is now No. 2 in the computer polls? I am supposed to buy that? This is a magical year for the Scarlet Knights and – at least with the records – but I'm not sure how Rutgers' wins over Ohio U., Pittsburgh and Louisville equate with what Ohio State has done.

As I mentioned last week, though, if USC can run the table, I think the Trojans will be the pick to play the OSU-Michigan winner. It would be a tough call between Florida and Notre Dame after that.

* Heisman Watch: OSU's Troy Smith (185 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT passing vs. Northwestern; 2,191 yards, 26 TDs, 4 INTs for the year) is still my top pick here. Notre Dame's Brady Quinn continued his torrid pace, though. He threw for 207 yards and four TDs against Air Force, giving him 2,786 yards with 29 TDs and 4 INTs on the year.

Rutgers' Ray Rice improved his stock with 131 yards and two TDs against Louisville. He has 1,334 yards and 15 TDs rushing this year. Michigan's Mike Hart had 92 yards and a TD in the win over Indiana, giving him 1,373 yards and 10 TDs rushing for the year.

* My New Top 15: The losses by Louisville, Texas, Auburn and California shake things up. Florida loses some momentum, while USC, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Rutgers all gain some. Here's what I have: Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, USC, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Louisville, West Virginia, LSU, Texas, Boise State, Wake Forest, Auburn.

* Games To Watch: West Virginia-Pittsburgh (Thursday), Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, Cal-USC, Rutgers-Cincinnati, Virginia Tech-Wake Forest, Maryland-Boston College.

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 (5-5), lost to Toledo 17-13, Nov. 7; vs. Ball State, Nov. 14.

Sept. 9, at Texas (9-2), lost to Kansas State 45-42, Nov. 11; idle, Nov. 18.

Sept. 16, Cincinnati (5-5), lost to West Virginia 42-24, Nov. 11; vs. Rutgers, Nov. 18.

Sept. 23, Penn State (7-4), beat Temple 47-0, Nov. 11; vs. Michigan State, Nov. 18.

Sept. 30, at Iowa (6-5), lost to Wisconsin 24-21, Nov. 11; at Minnesota, Nov. 18.

Oct. 7, Bowling Green (4-6), idle, Nov. 11; vs. Miami (Ohio), Nov. 15.

Oct. 14, at Michigan State (4-7), lost to Minnesota 31-18, Nov. 11; at Penn State, Nov. 18.

Oct. 21, Indiana (5-6), lost to Michigan 34-3, Nov. 11; at Purdue, Nov. 18.

Oct. 28, Minnesota (5-6), beat Michigan State 31-18, Nov. 11; vs. Iowa, Nov. 18.

Nov. 4, at Illinois (2-9), lost to Purdue 42-31, Nov. 11; at Northwestern, Nov. 18.

Nov. 11, at Northwestern (3-8), lost to Ohio State 54-10, Nov. 11; vs. Illinois, Nov. 18.

Nov. 18, (3:30 p.m., ABC) Michigan (11-0), beat Indiana 34-3, Nov. 11; at Ohio State, Nov. 18.

Big Ten Standings

Team (Overall, Big Ten)

Michigan (11-0, 7-0)

Ohio State (11-0, 7-0)

Wisconsin (10-1, 7-1)

Penn State (7-4, 4-3)

Purdue (7-4, 4-3)

Indiana (5-6, 3-4)

Iowa (6-5, 2-5)

Minnesota (5-6, 2-5)

Michigan State (4-7, 1-6)

Northwestern (3-8, 1-6)

Illinois (2-9, 1-6)

Nov. 11 Games

Wisconsin 24, Iowa 21

Purdue 42, Illinois 31

Minnesota 31, Michigan State 18

Ohio State 54, Northwestern 10

Michigan 34, Indiana 3

Penn State 47, Temple 0

Nov. 18 Games

Illinois at Northwestern, noon (ESPN360)

Indiana at Purdue, noon (ESPN Classic)

Iowa at Minnesota, noon (ESPN-Plus)

Michigan State at Penn State, noon (ESPN2)

Buffalo at Wisconsin, noon (ESPNU)

Michigan at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

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