I'll tackle the impressiveness of those wins in a moment, but those wins seem to show that the Buckeyes' 14-game conference winning streak in games away from home hasn't shown any signs of ending of late.
That streak started after one of the most painful moments of late for Ohio State fans, a 17-10 loss at Penn State in 2005 that ended any hopes of a national title for what might have been the most talented Buckeye team of the last five seasons. But borne out of that evening in State College has been one of the most impressive runs in Buckeye history.
Over the past 14 Big Ten road games, the Buckeyes have won by an average margin of victory of 21.3 points. All but three of the wins – at Michigan in 2005, Illinois in 2006 and Wisconsin earlier this year – have been by double digits and five of the wins have been by 30 points or more.
Even more impressive is the fact that eight of those 14 wins have come against teams that were ranked in the Associated Press top 25 when Ohio State stepped onto the field to play the game.
How has Ohio State done it? They've won the old-fashioned way, for the most part, and by that I mean forcing turnovers and outrushing the opponents. Nine of the 14 defeated opponents committed multiple turnovers and all were outrushed. Ohio State has averaged 201.4 rushing yards per game during the streak, while opponents average just 80.3.
Considering the struggles had by Illinois' running game and the fact that the Fighting Illini is 82nd in the nation in turnover margin, it seems like the Buckeyes should be able to follow that plan again in Champaign tomorrow. Then again, Illinois outrushed Ohio State last year and won the turnover battle during their upset win in Ohio Stadium, which snapped the Buckeyes' 28-game regular-season and 20-game Big Ten winning streaks.
Part of the reason has to do with the supreme focus head coach Jim Tressel instills in his team each week, and another part might be the way Ohio State fans dominate road venues. Last weekend in Evanston, more than half of the crowd appeared to be wearing scarlet, and plenty of red dotted the green-and-white-out that took place earlier this year at MSU.
"We talk a lot about the difficulty of winning on the road and that it does take maybe a little bit more focus because you don't necessarily have that energy that that home crowd brings," Tressel said on Tuesday. "Although I have to tell you, at Northwestern you walked out there and you were looking around for all purple and it was a lot of red.
"But we do talk about the fact that it just takes a little bit more to overcome the energy that can be manufactured by the home crowd and that it's going to take a little bit better performance, but it will take that this week."
Here are the 14 games in a row the Buckeyes have won combined with the turnover totals and rushing yards for each team:
2005: 41-10 W at Indiana; 2 IU turnovers; OSU outrushes Indiana 240-42
2005: 45-31 W at No. 22 Minnesota; 1 turnover; OSU 216-182
2005: 25-21 W at No. 17 Michigan; 0 turnovers; OSU 118-32
2006: 38-17 W at No. 13 Iowa; 4 turnovers; OSU 214-87
2006: 38-7 W at Michigan State; 1 turnover; OSU 182-63
2006: 17-10 W at Illinois; 2 turnovers; OSU 116-99
2006: 54-10 W at Northwestern; 5 turnovers; OSU 231-68
2007: 30-7 W at Minnesota; 2 turnovers; OSU 250-45
2007: 23-7 W at No. 23 Purdue; 0 turnovers; OSU 181-4
2007: 37-17 W at No. 25 Penn State; 2 turnovers; OSU 200-139
2007: 14-3 W at No. 21 Michigan; 0 turnovers; OSU 229-15
2008: 20-17 W at No. 18 Wisconsin; 2 turnovers; OSU 183-179
2008: 45-7 W at No. 20 Michigan State; 5 turnovers; OSU 216-52
2008: 45-10 W at Northwestern; 3 turnovers; OSU 244-117
But What Of The Wins?
Despite the dominating final scorelines of the last two road games, I haven't been able to shake the feeling that while Ohio State clearly was the better team in both, there were still a few things that bugged me about each contest.
For example, against Michigan State, two of the scores were on turnovers forced by the defense that were run back for touchdowns. Those are generally pretty fluke plays that can't be counted on; without them, the final is probably 31-7, a solid but not dominating score. Not that it needed any, but Ohio State had just 58 yards of total offense in the second half, and the total of 332 yards for the game wasn't exactly the makings of a prolific offensive outburst. And MSU had 180 yards in the second half, including 159 through the air with a backup quarterback in the game.
As for Northwestern, perhaps my final thoughts were clouded by the first quarter of the game, a stanza in which Ohio State rushed for a grand total of minus-1 yard on 11 carries. By the time the game was over, the Buckeyes had 244 rushing yards, meaning they compiled 245 over the final three quarters. That's an outstanding total, but I still can't shake the memories of the early struggles, and I might argue that many of those late rushing yards were because of the efforts of two nearly superhuman players in Chris Wells and Terrelle Pryor.
Defensively, the Buckeyes were good but not great. Northwestern's backup quarterback, Mike Kafka, looked like a world beater on the ground at times despite a fairly inconsistent arm. A number of designed rushing plays worked very well against an OSU front that should have been expecting them, although credit must go to the Buckeyes for preventing NU from ever getting into a rhythm and building on the successful plays. Still, the Wildcats never went three-and-out and had five drives of 29 yards or more.
I'm not saying this to bring down Buckeye fans or to really criticize what the Buckeyes accomplished in either game. All I'm saying is that I was left wondering if the performances in each game matched the final score, and if that fact might lead to some overconfidence on the part of OSU fans or players. We'll find out how the team responds Saturday.
Play Of The Week
Viewers didn't have to wait very long for this week's play, as it occurred on Ohio State's opening drive of the game and showed off a few of the things Pryor had worked on during the open week.
Facing a third-and-16 from the Northwestern 46, Ohio State came out in a four-wide set. The formation was one the Buckeyes used repeatedly during the game, with Brian Robiskie alone on the left side and trips to the right. Brian Hartline was the inside receiver, while Dane Sanzenbacher was outside of him and DeVier Posey was on the outside. Wells was to the right of Pryor, who was in the shotgun.
At the snap, Northwestern brought six defenders on a blitz, but Ohio State was up to the task with its six pass protectors, including Wells. Left end Ben Johnson was manhandled by Alex Boone, while Jim Cordle stonewalled linebacker Prince Kwateng. On the right side, the Buckeyes picked up NU's stunt. End Corey Wootton tried to go inside but Bryant Browning was on him the entire way; linebacker Nate Williams went outside but was met by Wells.
Tackle John Gill started with two men on him, as guard Steve Rehring and center Michael Brewster holding up the potential All-Big Ten candidate. The sixth man coming, safety Brad Phillips, started a few yards behind the line of scrimmage and thought he had a clear path, but Brewster came off of the double team on Gill and chipped Phillips, sending him tumbling through the air.
All the while, Pryor stood tight in the pocket and looked deep. Though Robiskie was behind Sherrick McManis on a post, he instead chose to go for broke and loft a pass for Brian Hartline, who had gotten four yards behind reserve safety Brian Peters. The ball was just a bit outside of Hartline but on the money, and the junior wideout spun, caught the ball at the 6 and then tumbled to the 2 where Peters fell on him. The play totaled 44 yards, one of a handful of big plays the Buckeyes had during the game.
On the next play, Wells plunged in from 2 yards out to make the score 7-0.
Tressel used to play to illustrate one way in which Pryor grew during the off week.
"The one that he threw early to Brian Hartline down the field, great job by Mike Brewster coming back and cutting that guy after he delivered to the right guard, another guy, but that guy was tumbling through the air and landing at Terrelle's feet and Terrelle's feet were still good, which I thought was a great sign because some people, when bodies are flying, all of a sudden their feet start getting nervous and so I think his feet was the biggest thing," Tressel said.
Around The Big Ten
It's hard not to feel bad for Michigan State, who was just as much a loser when Penn State lost to Iowa as the Nittany Lions. While Penn State's national title bid was dashed, Michigan State's Big Ten hopes went down the drain as well barring a goofy finish to the Big Ten season.
Previously, the Spartans would have been the Big Ten's Rose Bowl participant should it have beaten Penn State on Nov. 22 and the two schools, along with Ohio State, were tied atop the Big Ten standings at the end of the year. In a way, Michigan State, which held the tiebreaker by virtue of having not played a Division I-AA team, held its own destiny – win out and likely go to Pasadena.
Now, unless Ohio State loses, the Spartans are out of luck. If the Buckeyes go 7-1, Michigan State has no chance of making the Rose Bowl because the tiebreaker shifts to head-to-head record if two teams are tied for the lead. If it's the Buckeyes and Spartans tied, then, Ohio State moves on because of beating Michigan State in East Lansing. If Penn State wins out and beats Michigan State, they get the bid by virtue of having defeated Ohio State.
Also on life support, but slightly stronger than last week, are Ohio State's hopes at a third straight outright Big Ten title. The road to that is clear: Penn State must lose at home this weekend to last-place Indiana and then defeat Michigan State while the Buckeyes win out. Not likely, but possible.
The Big Ten below the top three has turned into a swamp of mediocrity. No other teams are above .500 in the league, though Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa and Illinois are at 3-3. There's a very real possibility that each of those teams could finish 4-4, making the bowl selection process an interesting case.
Some major statistics from the past week:
**Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark completed just 9 of 23 passes against Iowa for 86 yards and a killer fourth-quarter interception that led to Iowa's game-winning drive.
**Minnesota's offense was held to 188 yards while getting blown out at home by Michigan, a total that was 15 yards short of what U-M backup quarterback Nick Sheridan threw for. No Minnesota wideout had more than three catches or 36 yards receiving.
**Purdue quarterback Justin Siller, after leading a 48-point outburst against Michigan, was held to 83 yards passing and 6 rushing by Michigan State.
**Four players threw passes for Indiana, combining to complete just 13 of 34. Kellen Lewis was 0-for-5.