Last year, as the Buckeyes were coasting to a 38-6 victory over NCAA Division I-AA foe Youngstown State, the defending national champion of that division, Appalachian State, was staging a historic upset of Michigan. This year, with the Penguins again serving as the third-ranked Buckeyes' opening opponent, it makes sense that Ohio State would not want a reprisal of history in Ohio Stadium Saturday.
Except for talkative left tackle Alex Boone, there's an example that hits home even harder that shows why the Buckeyes cannot look past the Penguins – or next week's opponent, Ohio University – before a hyped showdown Sept. 13 with USC.
"Last year, we started to overlook those (opening) teams and we started to get into a situation where you're not really winning at halftime," Boone said. "It was 3-2 last year against Akron, I remember."
Yes, some forget the Buckeyes had their own scare last season, falling behind Akron 2-0 early and taking a paltry 3-2 lead into intermission during the season's second game on the way to a less than impressive 20-2 win over the Zips.
That game against the Zips proved to be the second week in a row the Buckeyes weren't firing on all cylinders while working in basically an entirely new offense. The game against Youngstown State was one-sided on the scoreboard, but the Penguins hung with the Buckeyes in some ways. Chris Wells was kept to just 46 yards on 16 carries, and the Buckeyes notably struggled in short-yardage situations.
This week, most of the Buckeyes have said they weren't exactly pleased with last season's showing against the Penguins, one reason it's hard to find them looking ahead.
"People are like, ‘USC, USC.' You're like, ‘No, Youngstown,' " Boone said. "This is what we're focused on. Yeah, USC is in the back of our mind, but it's Youngstown first and then we'll move from there."
At the same time, the Buckeyes have acknowledged that they are at least excited about the chance to play in the Los Angeles Coliseum during the third week of the campaign to play a game that has been one of the most hyped on the 2008 college schedule. Many have decreed that game is the No. 1 nonconference game to look forward to during the season, and it certainly is the jewel of the non-league slate for a Big Ten Conference attempting to up its credibility in the eyes of some national pundits.
Ohio State also has a chance to redeem itself – at least to those that deem the Buckeyes in need of it – with a win over the Trojans after two straight pronounced losses in the BCS National Championship Game.
Despite all that, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins had a simple answer when asked how he keeps his eyes on the Penguins.
"You honestly focus on them," Jenkins said. "Right now our agenda is to take care of Youngstown and that's what we're focusing on. Once we finish that, it'll be Ohio University. When that week comes, that's when we'll focus on it."
Wideout Brian Hartline said he's not surprised that upsets continue to happen in college football, whether they are Michigan's loss to Appalachian State or high profile upsets in BCS games such as Boise State's famed 2007 win over Oklahoma.
The loquacious receiver has often talked about the shrinking talent gap – helped on by the 85-scholarship limit – between the so-called haves and have-nots of college football during his time at Ohio State, and he continued that this fall.
"Upsets can happen at any point," Hartline said. "I always keep saying there's so much talent anymore. The best talent doesn't always go to the first 12 schools or whatever you want to call it. Year in and year out, there's ‘surprises' and you're only surprised if you're foolish. If you have have a good coaching system, you can win. Not all of the best talent can go to USC and Ohio State and Florida. There's talent everywhere."
That includes at the I-AA – or "Football Championship Subdivision" – level, a fact evidenced last year when Michigan suffered its historic upset loss and when Minnesota fell at home to North Dakota State. Games between Division I-A teams and their lower brethren proliferated when the NCAA instituted the 12th game for the 2006 season and sent teams into a frenzy to fill dates that were suddenly open.
Ohio State made the Penguins, the former school of head coach Jim Tressel, their first opponent from the lower division, and Tressel acknowledged that with schedules pretty much set through 2012, another I-AA foe is unlikely to make its way to the docket.
Many complain about the competitive imbalance of many of the games between the teams from different divisions – after all, Big Ten teams not named Michigan or Minnesota in 2007 won their games against I-AA teams by an average of 31.3 points – but OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said the contest is another chance for the Buckeyes to improve.
"You better take care of business every day," said Heacock, whose brother Jon is the head coach at Youngstown State. "I think you become better when you do that. If we can just every day get better and go out and play Youngstown and play the best game we can possibly play and then the next day get better and the next day and the next day. I just think you get in trouble looking out there."