Lessons Learned Last Year For OSU

Jim Tressel constantly preaches that his team must focus on the task at hand and not look ahead. However, that message was tested last year when Ohio State faced Illinois and escaped with a 17-10 win. Looking back, Brian Hartline says OSU didn't take the Fighting Illini seriously, but added that won't be happening again in 2007.

With the benefit of hindsight, Nov. 4, 2006, looks like an ominous harbinger of the bad times that were to come.

On that day, the top-ranked Ohio State football team did not play its best football, eking out a 17-10 win over a scuffling Illinois team in Champaign. Two months later, Ohio State would play even worse, losing a 41-14 game in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida.

"We got a little bit too high at a certain point," receiver Brian Hartline said. "Going on the road to not really a hostile environment – it's pretty calm over there in Illinois – and it was a colder game, I don't know, we were just kind of wanting to get out of there and come back to Columbus."

That's right, for once, a Buckeye has acknowledged the team committed the very act that head coach Jim Tressel tries to avoid with every fiber of his being – overlooking an opponent. That revelation might have come with a year of hindsight, but nonetheless, it is odd to hear any Buckeye admit that the OSU gridders ever look beyond the very next second of their lives, but Hartline says it did, in fact, happen last year when the date at a two-win Fighting Illini team hit the schedule.

"I think we just got lazy to be honest," Hartline said. "Sometimes the Illinois name can get you because they were never always a big powerhouse and we kind of got a little complacent last year and confident I think at that point of the year. They caught us sleeping and we couldn't snap out of it."

The numbers are particularly ugly when one considers OSU had a Heisman Trophy winner directing the offense and two first-round NFL Draft picks out wide.

Quarterback Troy Smith threw for 108 yards and was sacked three times. His leading receiver, Brian Robiskie, pulled in 33 yards worth of passes. Tailback Antonio Pittman ran the ball 32 times for a stunning 58 yards. In all, the Buckeyes had just 29 yards and zero points after intermission.

However, expecting a repeat performance would be a bit of a mistake. First of all, it's much harder to overlook the Fighting Illini when they are 7-3 overall, 4-2 in the Big Ten and boast both an excellent rushing attack and a physical defense.

"They beat Wisconsin when Wisconsin was fifth in the nation," right tackle Kirk Barton said. "That's a big win for them. They beat Penn State. All we're thinking about is Illinois and that team."

In addition, a year of perspective should come in handy for Ohio State. Whereas the 2006 Buckeyes were young but had been ranked No. 1 all year, this group, much like its 2002 counterparts, has advanced through a journey rife with a lack of respect from the national pundits.

In '02, the Buckeyes were doubted entering the season, forced to climb the polls through a combination of their winning and the losses of other teams. By seasons' end, even without a loss, the squad was not taken seriously by large portions of the country.

The parallels continue with a dominating defense that most opponents have found impenetrable, but the most notable similarity is the lack of respect afforded OSU and the motivation it provides.

"We didn't really get a whole lot of respect throughout the year and thus far this year," Hartline said. "Last year coming out we were all this and all that and we had this player or that player. This year, at least from an offensive standpoint, we had to prove ourselves, and we still do all year. We still have something to prove going into this game as well, whereas maybe last year we didn't."

The only other potential stumbling block when it comes to devoting full focus to Illinois is the game looming just one week later in Ann Arbor. Obviously, that game holds a pull over anyone scarlet and gray for 365 days a year, but the Buckeyes know there is no looking ahead given what is on the line.

"You probably want to," Hartline said. "You might start getting pulled into it with outside questions and things like that, but I think the biggest thing is just watching Illinois and how much respect I have for Illinois. There's a readiness we need to get for this team because this is a really good team."

"I think this group really understands that we've got work to do," head coach Jim Tressel said.

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