Malcolm Jenkins can tell you better than I this time.
"That we're not invincible."
Or, maybe more specifically:
"We can't even get away with just playing our ‘A' game," the Ohio State cornerback said. "We have to play our best every week and improve every week or we can fall short of what we want to accomplish."
What the Buckeyes wanted was a chance to redeem themselves in the national championship game next January. Instead, they are refocusing this week on beating Michigan.
The explanation from Jenkins is especially meaningful because for all the talk of how Ohio State was pushed around at the line of scrimmage (and it was), one could make a strong case that the biggest reason the Buckeyes lost was their secondary, looking new and playing fantastic all season, did not play well against the Fighting Illini.
The Buckeyes could have afforded to give some ground to Illinois up front and still come out on top had they gotten expected play from their deep people, but Donald Washington missed part of the game shaking off the effects of his head hitting the turf, Chimdi Chekwa was victimized for a long touchdown pass and Jenkins said he personally played his worst game.
All three were having excellent seasons up to this point, but last Saturday they let Juice Williams' pedestrian stable of wide receivers get open on a consistent basis.
To his credit, Williams showed he can be a good throwing quarterback by taking advantage, but the fact remains that is an area Ohio State seemed to enter the game with an advantage only to see the opponent play better, even with No. 1 weapon Arrelious Benn missing part of the day.
One also wonders where the last line of defense was on Daniel Dufrene's 80-yard run on Illinois' opening drive.
But, then again, it always comes down to the line of scrimmage. That is where Big Ten championships are won, and no matter how many teams implement spread offenses or different defensive looks, that will always be true.
Entering the game, Ohio State appeared to have a talent advantage on the outside going both ways – that is, not only were the Buckeye defensive backs better than the Illinois receivers but also OSU wideouts Brian Robiskie, Brian Harline and Ray Small formed a favorable matchup against the Fighting Illini DBs.
Beyond Hartline's game-opening 65-yard catch and run, however, neither advantage materialized for Jim Tressel's team.
Illinois dropped both safeties deep after Hartline's opening salvo, and the rest of the game the Buckeye receivers (including fourth wideout Dane Sanzenbacher) combined to catch nine passes for 67 yards.
The strategy worked mostly because Illinois' front seven was able to hold up reasonably well against the run and to pressure Boeckman relentlessly when he dropped back to pass.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State's defensive line – with two of its better players, Robert Rose and Todd Denlinger slowed by injuries – had been showing cracks since Kent State ran for 161 yards Oct. 13, and that group must play well to free Ohio State's linebackers to make plays.
For all the talent blessed upon James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and Larry Grant, they are what they are: modern speed-oriented linebackers. The days of Dick Butkus – or even Steve Tovar – taking on offensive linemen are over. That's just not how linebackers are built now, so if linemen get to them, they will usually be blocked.
Summing it up then?
The battles in the trenches shaped up more or less like they should have, but the day was carried by Illinois' ability to make big plays against the OSU secondary (Where was the safety on Daniel Dufrene's 80-yard run, by the way?) because the Buckeyes finally found a team good enough to beat them at less than their overall best.
What we expect to learn this week:
The fourth part of the most recent OSU-Michigan mini-series within the rivalry should teach us just where the programs stand in relation to each other.
In 2004, both teams were composed much differently than they were when a veteran Michigan team beat a similarly experienced Ohio State squad a season earlier in the 100th edition of The Game.
While the Wolverines, with notable holdovers Braylon Edwards and Marlin Jackson along with freshmen Mike Hart and Chad Henne, had a far better regular season than did Ohio State in 2004, the Buckeyes wiped them out in Ohio Stadium that year with sophomore quarterback Troy Smith and freshmen wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez making some of the biggest plays.
The Buckeyes won that one going away, 37-21, and though the combined margin of victory the past two seasons is just seven points, that number falls far short of telling the full story.
Ohio State has not forced a Michigan turnover since 2004, and the Buckeyes' five giveaways in the last two games have gone a long way in preventing blowouts.
Strictly watching scrimmage play – which offense is better against which defense and vice versa – there has been no comparison between the two teams.
So the question remains, has Jim Tressel taken the Buckeyes a full step ahead of Michigan in terms of program quality?
Recent times say yes, but we should have an even better idea of it by Saturday night.
A little extra perspective:
While Hartline said yesterday watching the film of the Illinois game turned the page for him, I'm not quite to that point yet, not until adding just one last bit of perspective.
The Buckeyes did not play their best against Illinois, but that loss is far less embarrassing than such debacles as the 1998 Michigan State game, the 2003 Wisconsin loss or even the 1996 Michigan game in which Shawn Springs' slip cost Ohio State a win over an eight-win squad of Wolverines (Those respective Spartans and Badgers combined to go 13-12).
And of course it is a far cry from Jan. 8, 2007.
In those regular season games, Ohio State played poorly and let inferior teams win. Out in the desert, the teams were evenly matched but one ran away with the momentum and the win.
The Buckeyes were far from their best but didn't play terribly either this past Saturday. Illinois, on the other hand, played about as well as it could and deservedly won the game. All in all, this is not the worst place to be. Worse is losing to Stanford, Notre Dame or a Division I-AA team.
This is just painful, unpleasant - the downside of the joy of watching a team win 29 of 31 games.
Sometimes the bad guys are better for a day or two. It's better than seeing them just play less worse than the good guys and pull out a victory.
Good teams have hiccups - there's no doubt about that - so if Ohio State puts together a complete game this weekend it will win going away and we can go back to believing this is one of the better football teams to be fielded in Columbus, at least since the end of Woody Hayes' reign.
Not 2002 or 1968 good, but a very nice team nonetheless.
1996 at the worst. Of course, if the Buckeyes struggle, it will be hard to avoid concluding the Big Ten is just that bad, that they were never really tested (as some thought) until November and that this is merely and average OSU squad.
I'm betting on the happier ending, but we'll see.
All-Buckeye Beaters Team Nominations:
Since the first All-Buckeye Beaters Team was named in December last year, this is the first time there is actually a victorious team from which to pick players.
Juice Williams is a lock. Not only did he masterfully run the read option on the game's final drive, he showed that he can throw it pretty well when he is on.
Although he was not the team's leading rusher, we're going to go with Rashard Mendenhall, too. His 88 yards were tough ones, and he slipped a fair number of tackles, turning bad plays into average ones and so-so gains into positives.
As far as the men making holes for them, all five – from left to right Xavier Fulton, Martin O'Donnell, Ryan McDonald, Jon Assamoah and Akim Millington – will get consideration when it comes time to pick the final squad.
And I suppose by default the man who scored the game-winning touchdown – Jacob Willis – must be included as well.
On the other side of the ball, linebacker J. Leman (team-high 12 tackles, including two for loss) is a natural (he made last year's squad, by the way) and safety Justin Sanders had a nice game as well with seven tackles, including one for loss.
Also: end Will Davis had a sack and was one of the many Illini to get in Boeckman's face all day, while cornerback Marcus Thomas made four solo tackles and had the crucial interception that ended Ohio State's last possession of the day.
Fit For DVR This Week:
Let's keep this as simple as possible: Watch The Game at noon on ABC, and take the next two weeks to see who enters the radar for a possible bowl opponent.
Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll
1. Ohio State (Still the best team overall, unless perhaps Buckeyes lose this weekend.)
2. Illinois (Fighting Illini could be undefeated.)
3. Wisconsin (Good win for the Badgers after
getting beaten up in Columbus a week earlier.)
4. Michigan (How dangerous is a wounded Wolverine? We'll soon find out.)
5. Penn State (What can you say about a win over Temple?)
6. Michigan State (Spartans found a team fading worse than they are.)
7. Purdue (This would be said-fading team.)
8. Northwestern (‘Cats show some late-season life.)
9. Indiana (Better get one more win to assure a bowl bid.)
10. Iowa (Scoring 21 points against Minnesota is like being shut out by most other teams.)
11. Minnesota (Not even hopes of winning a pig could fire up the Gophers for victory.)