Much was made of the quintet of rushing groups the Buckeyes were going to face during those final five games. Michigan State featured the inside/outside duo of Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer, Penn State had Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster, Wisconsin had P.J. Hill, Illinois is led by Rashard Mendenhall and Michigan has the conference's leading rusher in Mike Hart.
Instead, through the first of the three of those contests, the running back who has been the one to watch has been Ohio State's Chris Wells. "Beanie" has 77 carries and 523 yards, the latest effort a 21-carry, 169-yard, three-touchdown performance Saturday against Wisconsin.
"Let's face it, since this second half, this row of five toughies in a row, he's been OK," said offensive coordinator Jim Bollman.
Wells has been more than OK, especially in situations in which his team has needed him. Against both Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Buckeyes leaned on him in important situations.
When Michigan State climbed to within a touchdown late in the Oct. 20 contest, it was Wells who came to the rescue, carrying the ball for three first downs in a row to burn the minute three minutes and change to close out OSU's 24-17 victory.
Against the Badgers, Wells had an even more obvious impact. When Wisconsin took a 17-10 lead, Ohio State responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive keyed by the big man from Akron. On the possession, Wells carried the ball six times for 54 yards.
The final 31 yards came on his final carry. With Ohio State holding the ball on first-and-10, Wells picked up a key block from guard Steve Rehring, cut left after breaking through the hole and raced to the corner of the end zone to get the Buckeyes the tying touchdown.
On the next drive, Beanie was at it again. First, he ripped off an 11-yard run, then he put Ohio State ahead for good when he hit the hole, broke the arm tackle of defensive back Aubrey Pleasant and again found paydirt. The run was nearly identical to his first touchdown, right down to the cutback the sophomore made once breaking into the second level.
When he crossed the pylon with 3:16 to play on his third touchdown run of the day, Wells had capped an impressive second half that boosted the Buckeyes to victory.
"For me it feels great," Wells said of the three touchdowns. "The offensive line is just great, tremendously talented."
Still, he stopped short of calling the day a successful one, mainly because of a first half during which he gained just 26 yards on six carries, leading him to deem his play as "terrible." Afterward, he admitted that he might have made it clear that he wanted to see the ball some more during the second half.
"Of course," he said. "I mean, being a running back at this school I feel as if I want the ball all the time. I wasn't happy in the first half but there's nothing we can do about it now."
"We talked about running the ball a little bit more," Bollman said. "That just kind of naturally happened. We didn't plan to run it as much as we ended up doing it, but that's fine. Beanie ended up pounding it pretty good at times."
If there has a key to his improved stretch of late – other than health, which has come as the status of his gimpy ankle has improved – it might be patience. Early in the season, Wells would often be at full speed every time approaching the line of scrimmage, sometimes not letting his blockers set up holes sufficiently. By the time he hit the halfway point, he had calmed down enough to make plays work to their potential.
"That's where the coaches come into play," fullback Dionte Johnson said. "They've been talking to him to calm down a little bit. He was a little overanxious, trying to do too much in the beginning."
Another new wrinkle came with Wells' celebratory technique. Instead of the usual head-slapping and hugging with his teammates, Wells ran immediately to the sideline after each score and planted himself on the bench. Wells said the act had nothing to do with Alex Boone, the 313-pound OSU tackle who jumped over Brian Hartline a week ago while celebrating six points.
"No, it wasn't to stay away from Alex Boone," he said. "It was just to get to the bench and sit down. I want to send a message to my team that just because someone scores a touchdown to put us back in the game, you still have to go out there and continue to play football."
As for the ballyhooed backs to go against him, MSU's Caulcrick and Ringer combined for just 58 yards, Kinlaw and Royster finished with 97 and Hill missed this game with a foot injury. Meanwhile, Wells has passed the 1,000-yard mark on the season. With numbers like that, it's becoming more and more clear that it's Wells who is in the spotlight, a place the soft-spoken back might want to get used to.
"It doesn't bother me at all, (but) I'd rather not have the spotlight and just win the football games," he said.