Rea's Say: Laurinaitis Too Good To Be True?

Today's column looks at Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis and his reluctance of the spotlight. We also have plenty of information about the OSU-Northwestern game, tidbits from Around The Country and the Fearless Forecast complete with kickoff times and broadcast availabilities.

I honestly thought it was an act. No one can be that humble. Not these days, anyway.

The first time I talked with James Laurinaitis in person, I thought he was putting me on. In this day and age, when you talk to a new recruit, he usually wastes little time talking about how he is going to take the next level by storm.

To say Laurinaitis possesses the 180-degree opposite of that kind of personality would be like saying Jessica Alba is nice-looking. In other words, a gross understatement.

Yet there I was, talking with him after the 2005 Michigan game when he had been thrown into the deep end of the pool because Bobby Carpenter broke a bone in his lower leg on Ohio State's first defensive play of the game. Laurinaitis didn't register a single tackle in that game until the final play, and that was an assist to defensive back Tyler Everett who had corralled U-M tight end Tyler Ecker after a short pass completion.

Despite the fact that it looked like he was all over the field against the Wolverines, lending support to fellow linebackers A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel, Laurinaitis was hypercritical of his performance. He said he was nervous, he said he was "lost out there half the time." He said he kept relying on Carpenter's sideline pep talks during every possession change to keep from throwing up.

Then, when it was Carpenter's turn to speak, he told a different story. He talked of how ready Laurinaitis was to take over, how he had prepared himself to play if needed, and how much talent the freshman from far-off Wayzata, Minn., possesses.

"You don't how good he is yet," Carpenter said. "But you will."

In the season and three games since that 2005 Michigan game, Laurinaitis has gone from being considered a throw-in member of the '05 recruiting class to one of the top defensive players in the country. According to, there were 11 members of that 2005 class that rated four- or five-star rankings. Laurinaitis wasn't one of them. Ditto for Both of the major recruiting services give him their middle-of-the-road three-star rating.

And then last year, when the Buckeyes were supposedly in a rebuilding mode on defense with the loss of Carpenter, Hawk and Schlegel, not to mention Donte Whitner and Ashton Youboty, Laurinaitis exploded onto the scene. He became the heart and soul of the defense based solely on work ethic and performance. He led the team in tackles (115), was second on the defense in minutes played (324) and tied Chris Spielman's school record for most interceptions in a single season by a linebacker with five. That doesn't even count 8½ tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles and two passes batted down.

After the season, the Touchdown Club of Charlotte, N.C., voted Laurinaitis as the best linebacker in college football, naming him over such other more seasoned veterans as two-time Bednarik winner Paul Posluzny of Penn State and Butkus honoree Patrick Willis of Ole Miss.

And Laurinaitis' reaction to winning the prestigious award?

"I'm sure that it was a team award," he said. "Me? The best linebacker in the country? I'm just getting started. This is my first year (as a starter), and I'm still trying to feel my way around. Don't get my wrong – it's a great honor and I'm very appreciative. But do I think I'm the best linebacker in the country? No way."

Again, I wondered if this self-deprecation was for real. After all, this is the kid of a guy who was one of the all-time greats in professional wrestling. You don't get to be called Road Warrior Animal because you shun the spotlight.

Turns out – much to my delight – Laurinaitis is 100 percent genuine. What you see is what you get, and what you hear is what you can bank on.

"He's truly a humble person, a hard-working guy and his own worst critic," said OSU head coach Jim Tressel. "And guys know that – they see the way he practices. No, he's not comfortable with the spotlight (but) that's just because he's constantly analyzing how he could be better.

"And I think that's genuine. It's not something where he says, ‘Well, maybe I should act this way.' That's the way he is. And those are good traits for a leader."

Good traits, indeed. In three games this season, Laurinaitis has led or tied for the lead in tackles. Last year, he led the team in tackles nine times in 13 games. He already has two of the Buckeyes' seven sacks so far this year and two of their three interceptions.

Best of all, he is a game-changer when his team needs him most. Last year in Austin, it was Laurinaitis that caused the Texas fumble on the 1-yard line that prevented the Longhorns from scoring and spurred Ohio State to a 24-7 victory. Last week, it was an intercepted shovel pass (how many times have you ever seen that?) in Seattle that snuffed a Washington drive and helped turn around the Buckeyes' fortunes during a 33-14 win.

Not only is Laurinaitis on the cusp of becoming the next great Ohio State linebacker – if he isn't already there – he is an endearing guy to be around. Once you get to know him, and discover that penchant for deflecting praise to his teammates is not an act, Laurinaitis is bright, articulate, funny, engaging and just fun to be around.

I have covered this program for a large chunk of the last 30 years, and I can tell you that players come and go. But there are precious few like James Laurinaitis. No wonder his teammates elected him a captain. If I had a vote, he'd get mine, too.


• If you are going to the game Saturday, congratulations because you will be witnessing history. Ohio State hosts Northwestern in the 500th home game for the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium.

• OSU holds a decided 57-14-1 advantage in the all-time series with the Wildcats, including a 31-8 edge in Columbus. Northwestern hasn't beaten the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe since a 14-10 win in 1971.

• Ohio State enters the game as the Big Ten leader in total defense (197.0 yards per game), pass defense (120.3) and net punting (39.6).

• Tressel is 5-1 against the Wildcats, losing only that 33-27 overtime game in Evanston in 2004. His average margin of victory in the five wins is 26.8 points, boosted by the last two meetings – 48-7 in 2005 and 54-10 last season.

• Here's a bit of trivia that might win you some money from your buddies. Did you know that between 2003 and 2006, Northwestern won more Big Ten games than Penn State? It's true. During those four seasons, the Wildcats counted 16 conference victories while the Nittany Lions had only 15.

• No one wants any part of NU when the game gets close. In their last 14 games decided by seven points or less, the Wildcats are 11-3. They nearly made it 12-2 last week, but fizzled with four chances at the 7-yard line in a 20-14 loss to Duke.

• Overtime has also been kind to Northwestern since the NCAA instituted the rule in 1996. The Wildcats are 6-1 all-time when the game goes overtime, including a spotless 5-0 against Big Ten opponents.

• The OSU defense has allowed only 22 points in its first three games, the lowest total since 1975. That season, the Buckeyes opened the season with a 21-0 win at Michigan State before returning home for a 17-9 victory over Penn State and a 32-7 decision over North Carolina. Ohio State posted a perfect 11-0 regular-season record in '75, but was upset 23-10 by UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

• The 112th season of Big Ten football kicks off Saturday with 10 teams opening conference play. (Michigan State is at Notre Dame this week.) Ohio State is the two-time defending champion and hasn't won three straight conference titles since a streak of six in a row from 1972-77. Also, the Buckeyes are trying to win back-to-back outright championships for only the third time in school history and the first time since 1954-55.

• The Buckeyes enter Big Ten play with the longest winning streak in conference games at 14. Wisconsin is next with seven straight conference victories. Illinois enters 2007 with the longest league losing streak, having lost six in a row.

• ESPN and ABC have an unusual broadcast arrangement for this week's game. In Ohio and the Chicago area, ABC will carry the game while ESPN will have the Penn State-Michigan matchup. Everywhere else in the country, ESPN will air the Buckeyes and Wildcats while ABC will have the Nittany Lions and Wolverines.

• If you think you've heard the television announce crew before, you have. For the second week in a row, Ron Franklin will have the play-by-play, Ed Cunningham provides the color and Jack Arute will report from the sidelines. In addition, Sirius Satellite Radio will broadcast the game on channel 126. Kickoff is at approximately 3:37 p.m. Eastern.

• Next week's game at Minnesota will be telecast on ESPN2. Game time is 8 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. local time).


• Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has won 15 of his first 16 games with the Badgers, and that represents one of the best starts to a coaching career in Big Ten history. Ohio State's John Eckstrom was 16-0-1 from 1899-1900 and Carroll Widdoes was 16-1 after taking over for Paul Brown in 1944. But Bielema has a way to go to catch Michigan legend Fielding Yost, who was an almost unbelievable 55-0-1 to begin his coaching career.

• Taking over the Indiana program for Terry Hoeppner, head coach Bill Lynch heads into this week's game against Illinois with a chance to do something no other IU coach has ever done – win his first four games. Only two before Lynch had ever won their first three – Hoeppner in 2005 and James Sheldon exactly a century before in 1905.

• Some perspective on Tressel's 200th victory last week and the measure of success that kind of milestone represents. Purdue's Joe Tiller will be coaching in his 200th game Oct. 6 when the Boilermakers host Ohio State.

• Here's some news that is a pleasure to report. Several Nebraska fans who bought season tickets for Wake Forest home contests to ensure they could attend the Sept. 8 game in Winston-Salem have donated their unused tickets to The Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Forsyth County, N.C., and the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bragg (N.C.) Womack Army Medical Center.

• Pittsburgh and Iowa have played only three times over the years, and not since 1952. The schools remedy that situation next season when they renew acquaintances. The Panthers have won two of their previous meetings, including a 26-14 win in '52.

• While Tressel and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer were winning their 200th games last weekend, Mike Bellotti of Oregon was notching win No. 100 with the Ducks.

• Did you know Valparaiso also played football? Well, they do (2-1 so far this season) and someone is impressed enough with the Division I-AA Crusaders to have recently donated $1 million for installation of artificial turf at Valpo's football stadium. The donor wished to remain anonymous.

• Twenty-three years ago today, Washington State pulled off one of the most amazing comebacks in college football history. The Cougars trailed Utah 40-14 with nine minutes left in the game before rallying for four touchdowns to win the game, 42-40.

• Finally, I know this is a basketball note but I couldn't resist. Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl recently filed for divorce from his wife of 25 years, citing irreconcilable differences. Does anyone think it strange that the news comes less than a month after Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt filed for divorce from his husband of 27 years, also citing irreconcilable differences?


It was Upset Saturday last weekend, and if you don't believe me, just ask Louisville … or UCLA … or Georgia Tech … or Auburn … or Iowa … or Northwestern. The list goes on and on. All of the upheaval wreaked some havoc with the forecast last week, turning in the poorest performance to date. Still, we had a 23-7 mark straight up, pushing the season total to 76-14.

Against the spread, we squeezed out another winning weekend – that's three in a row – at 13-11, making the ATS season total 39-30-2. Here is what we're looking at this weekend.


No. 20 Texas A&M at Miami (Fla.): It's hard to know what you're getting in this one because the Aggies haven't played anyone and the Hurricanes' only credible opponent was Oklahoma, and they got rocked 51-13 by the Sooners. The Fighting Franchiones have a pretty solid offense but are one of those teams that gives up yardage by the chunks. The U is always pretty solid in the Orange Bowl, and I think new coach Randy Sherman is looking for a statement game … Miami 27, Texas A&M 24, (7:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN)


No. 4 Oklahoma at Tulsa: The Sooners have opened with three consecutive blowouts, outscoring opponents by a 184-26 margin, their most dominant start to a season in 3½ decades. And they don't figure to slow down much against the Golden Hurricane, although Tulsa can score some points, outlasting BYU in a 55-47 score-a-thon last week. The OU defense is likely just a tad more nasty, even if it on the road … Oklahoma 49, Tulsa 7. (8 p.m. EDT, ESPN2)


Washington State at No. 1 USC: The Trojans aren't likely to break a sweat this week as they begin Pac-10 play. They hold a decidedly lopsided 54-8-3 record in the series with Wazzoo, including 31 of the last 35. Petey's Pack also has been unbeatable at home since 2001, winning 34 in a row, including 23 straight conference games in the Coliseum. Sooner or later, SC is going to get tested. It just won't be this week … USC 45, Washington State 17.(8 p.m. EDT, ABC Regional/ESPN GamePlan)

No. 12 South Carolina at No. 2 LSU: To show the fallacy of the national polls, the Gamecocks were unranked just two weeks ago. Now, they are the considered the 12th-best team in the nation? Oh, well. Doesn't really matter because they will be the latest to go into Baton Rouge and return feeling as if they've been through a shredder. This is being hyped as a pretty even match, but don't believe it. The Tigers will roll through another opponent … LSU 35, South Carolina 7. (3:30 p.m. EDT, CBS)

No. 3 Florida at Mississippi: Here's just about all you need to know about this matchup: The Gators have allowed only 138 yards rushing in their first three games, an average of 46.0 per outing. Meanwhile, Ole Miss is struggling with its running attack, gaining only 54 yards last week during a 31-17 loss to Vanderbilt. Look for the Urban Legends to lay another smackdown on a fellow SEC school … Florida 48, Mississippi 7. (3:30 p.m. EDT, CBS)

East Carolina at No. 5 West Virginia: If anyone has the Mountaineers' vaunted running attack figured out, it may Skip Holtz's Pirates. Two years ago, they held WVU to a season-low 127 yards, and last year held the Pat White-Steve Slaton Express to only 153 yards. Unfortunately for ECU, neither of those efforts resulted in a victory. Look for the Mountain Men to struggle on the ground again, but also look for them to squeeze out a victory. They've never lost to the Pirates in 11 meetings in Motown … West Virginia 26, East Carolina 20. (12 noon EDT, ESPN2)

Arizona at No. 6 Cal: If the Bears are feeling frisky about moving up in the rankings, they need look no further than last year's game against the Wildcats to ground themselves in reality. Zona scored three touchdowns in the second half and hung a 24-20 upset loss on Cal. In that game, Bears QB Nathan Longshore (he was only "Nate" last year) pitched three interceptions to help the Wildcats' cause. But Longshore has improved this season, and Arizona is coming off a disappointing 29-27 loss to New Mexico … Cal 34, Arizona 14. (6 p.m. EDT, Versus)

Rice at No. 7 Texas: Despite going 3-0 so far this season, the Longhorns have dropped three spots in the national rankings because of lackluster wins. They figure to get well this week because the Owls are always good for what ails the Orangebloods. UT-Austin has won 36 of the last 37 games in this series, and holds a commanding 67-21-1 record all-time against Rice, which is 0-3 this year including a season-opening loss to Division I-AA opponent Nicholls State. Plus, the Longhorns gets star receivers Billy Pittman (suspension) and Limas Sweed (ankle) back this week … Texas 37, Rice 10. (7 p.m. EDT, FSN)


No. 13 Oregon at Stanford: Are the Ducks for real? Are they are powerful as they've shown the last two weeks while shredding Michigan and Fresno State? We're not totally convinced although we are sure that QB Dennis Dixon and RB Jonathan Stewart are the real deal. Dixon has already thrown for 565 yards and seven TDs while combining with Stewart for 619 yards on the ground and six more scores. Those stats are likely to go up against the Cardinal, who are 1-6 at home since the renovation of Stanford Stadium was completed … Oregon 37, Stanford 7.

Army at No. 14 Boston College: Don't look now, but the Eagles are on the cusp of cracking the top 10 and quarterback Matt Ryan may be picking up some Heisman Trophy consideration. After last week's upset at Georgia Tech, BC returns home with a couple of streaks alive. It has won 13 of the last 14 against the Black Knights, including the last four in a row, and hasn't lost to anyone in Chestnut Hill in 13 straight games, winning those contests by an average of 18.2 points. Sounds like a pretty decent spread to me … Boston College 28, Army 10. (1 p.m. EDT, ESPN Classic)

No. 15 Clemson at N.C. State: The Wolfpack hired Tom O'Brien away from Boston College in the offseason to see if he could bring a little Eagle magic to Raleigh. O'Brien is a perfect 2-0 against the Tigers, beating them twice in overtime when he was at BC. Things may be a little bit rougher for him this time around, though. Although his team won last week, it was against I-AA Wofford, the Pack is working on a nine-game losing streak against I-A competition. The Tigers are usually shaky away from Death Valley, but they should be able to squeak by in this one … Clemson 24, N.C. State 16. (12 noon EDT, ESPN GamePlan)

No. 22 Georgia at No. 16 Alabama: I'm not quite sure how the Crimson Tide went from being unranked to No. 16 this week, especially after blowing a 21-point lead and then barely escaping with a home win over Arkansas. Call it the Saban Factor as pollsters are eager to build St. Nick up so they watch him come crashing back down. I don't think it happens this week, however, because even though Bama's defense is suspect, it can certainly outscore UGA's up-and-down offense. It should be close, but I give the edge to the Homesteaders … Alabama 20, Georgia 17. (7:45 p.m. EDT, ESPN)

William & Mary at No. 17 Virginia Tech: The Hokies seem to have figured some things out on defense after getting poleaxed by LSU two weeks ago. It's a good thing, too, because W&M quarterback Jake Phillips is Division I-AA's leading passer with 1,010 yards, eight TDs and no interceptions in three games so far this year. The Tribe will need Phillips to have a great game, though, because they lost leading rusher DeBrian Holmes last week with a broken ankle. Also, they haven't beaten a ranked team since 1967 … Virginia Tech 31, William & Mary 17.

Syracuse at No. 18 Louisville: After a mini-scare from Middle Tennessee State two weeks ago and an upset loss last week at Kentucky, the Cardinals finally get back to the Pizza Box where they can start piling up the offensive numbers again. And they should do so with abandon against the Orange, which has already surrendered 118 points this season to the likes of Washington, Iowa and Illinois. This one has the potential to get very ugly very early … Louisville 63, Syracuse 21. (12 noon EDT, ESPN GamePlan)

Charleston Southern at No. 19 Hawaii: I don't particularly care for all of these I-A vs. I-AA matchups. Therefore, when a team like the Warriors schedules two lesser-division opponents, I wonder what the payoff can be. We already know that Colt Brennan can throw. We don't need another game in the 70s to prove that. Of course, if I was writing for and got the chance to follow my team to the 50th state, I wouldn't be complaining … Hawaii 70, Charleston Southern 14.

No. 21 Kentucky at Arkansas: Another AP poll anomaly somehow has the Wildcats ranked and the Razorbacks among the also-rans. We'll see if that holds up for a second week in a row as UK gets a taste of Arkansas star running back Darren McFadden and his talented backup Felix Jones. That duo has combined for 571 yards and four TDs as the Hogs are averaging 325.5 yards per game on the ground. Compare that to Kentucky's defense, which is dead last in the SEC against the run. I look for the Razorbacks to bounce back in Fayetteville … Arkansas 31, Kentucky 24. (6 p.m. EDT, ESPN2)

North Carolina at No. 23 South Florida: The Bulls mark a milestone this week, hosting the Tar Heels as a nationally ranked team for the first time since making the leap to Division I-A seven years ago. They may get to stay awhile longer, too, since Butch Davis has yet to get his program rolling in Chapel Hill. UNC has lost two of its first three games this season and hasn't got its offense untracked yet, something that fits right into the hand of South Florida's defense … South Florida 23, North Carolina 14. (12 noon EDT, ESPN)

Ball State at No. 24 Nebraska: One week after being dominated by USC, the Cornhuskers look to regroup against the Cardinals. David Letterman U. has gotten a little better over the years, and has won three straight road games and eight of its last 10 away from its friendly confines in Muncie, Ind. But it is facing a team that prides itself on its running attack, and the Ball Staters rank fifth-worst in the country against the run. After being stuffed by the Trojans last week, look for NU to run wild … Nebraska 45, Ball State 14.

Illinois State at No. 25 Missouri: Hopefully, Mizzou will enjoy its national ranking while it can. After taking on the Redbirds this week, the Tigers have a three-week stretch upcoming with Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. This week's opponent, Illinois State, is a Division I-AA team but a pretty good one. And it doesn't mind playing on the road, winning eight of its last 11 away from home. But the Birds are 0-4 all-time against Big 12 teams, and I see no reason why the Tigers don't make it 0-5 … Missouri 34, Illinois State 14.


Illinois at Indiana: This game would seem to be a tasty little nugget with a pair of teams intent upon making a statement at the other's expense. The Illini have lost 30 of their last 32 conference games, but everyone acknowledges that Ron Zook has that program pointed in the right direction. IU hasn't been much better over the past couple of seasons, but they are perhaps everyone's sentimental favorite as the Hoosiers try to rally in the memory of former coach Terry Hoeppner. Indiana trails in the all-time series by a hefty margin, but they have beaten Illinois four of the last five in Bloomington. Therefore … Indiana 33, Illinois 30. (12 noon EDT, Big Ten Network)

Michigan State at Notre Dame: The Spartans are the only conference team that doesn't start league play this week, and they travel to South Bend to meet the reeling Irish. How bad is Notre Dame? Real bad. Here is just one stat – they rank dead last in the country out of 119 Division I-A schools at running the ball. In three games, the team has rushed 100 times for minus-14 yards. And, no, that's not a misprint. Look for Sparty to score early and often … Michigan State 35, Notre Dame 0. (3:30 p.m. EDT, NBC)

Purdue at Minnesota: The Tim Brewster Era is getting off to a rocky start in Minneapolis, and opening against the high-flying Boilermakers isn't going to make things any smoother. Purdue is seventh in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 49.7 points per game, and the Gophers are 104th in scoring defense, allowing an average of 36.3 per outing. This is one of the tightest all-time series in Big Ten history with Minnesota holding a slight 31-29 edge. After Saturday, the margin gets narrower … Purdue 45, Minnesota 27. (9 p.m. EDT, ESPN2)

No. 10 Penn State at Michigan: Before the season, you would have marked this one in the win column for the Wolverines. How quickly the tide has turned. While U-M was having its well-publicized struggles, JoePa and his Nittany Lions were quietly amassing three straight convincing wins that included outscoring the opposition by a 135-34 margin. The fact remains that no one believes Penn State is as good as it has played, and no one believes Michigan is as bad as they have played. But perception still counts for something, and although JoePa hasn't beaten Michigan since 1996, I think that U-M defense collapses once again … Penn State 31, Michigan 10. (3:30 p.m. EDT, ABC/ESPN)

Iowa at No. 9 Wisconsin: Before you are quick to pick the Badgers in a walkover here, you might want to know that the Hawkeyes are the only remaining Division I-A team in the nation that has yet to surrender a touchdown this season. Got your attention? How about the fact that Iowa has won four of the last five in this series, and is the last team to beat Wisconsin in Camp Randall? Convinced yet? Me neither … Wisconsin 20, Iowa 7. (8 p.m. EDT, ABC Regional/ESPN GamePlan)

Northwestern at No. 8 Ohio State: There really is no excuse for the Buckeyes to do anything in this game but dominate. The Wildcats have some nice players, including Sutton, who is as good as there is in the Big Ten if he's healthy. But Northwestern really doesn't match up very well on either side of the ball, and if OSU can simply retain the mind-set they had last week in Washington, there should be no problem at all … Ohio State 38, Northwestern 10. (3:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN/ABC)


Here are the games where I'll take the chalk: Texas A&M at Miami-FL (-2½); Oklahoma (-20) at Tulsa; Washington State at USC (-24½); South Carolina at LSU (-15); Florida (-20) at Mississippi; Arizona at Cal (-16); Oregon (-14½) at Stanford; Clemson (-6½) at N.C. State; Georgia at Alabama (-2½); Syracuse at Louisville (-36); Kentucky at Arkansas (-6½); Ball State at Nebraska (-21½); Michigan State (-12) at Notre Dame; Purdue (-13½) at Minnesota; Penn State (-2½) at Michigan; Iowa at Wisconsin (-7½) and Northwestern at Ohio State (-22).

There aren't many games this week where I'll take the points, but these are too good to pass up: East Carolina (+27) at West Virginia; Rice (+41) at Texas; Army (+30) at Boston College; North Carolina (+14½) at South Florida; and Illinois at Indiana (+3½).

Enjoy the games and we'll see you again next week.

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