After losing on that chilly late October night to then-No. 3 Penn State in a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire clash in Ohio Stadium, the Ohio State football team could have gone one of two ways.
One option was for the Buckeyes to feel sorry for themselves after their national title and outright Big Ten championship hopes disappeared for good. The other was to batten down the hatches, get back to work and be ready to face a 7-2 Northwestern team, an Illinois team that beat them last year and then archrival Michigan.
Through the first two games of that stretch, the Buckeyes have chosen the latter option.
"In the Big Ten, you have to take it one step at a time," wideout Dane Sanzenbacher said. "That was something that was stressed after the Penn State loss. We had to just keep going."
With that in mind, Ohio State was able to move through the Illinois portion of its schedule fairly easily. Northwestern was dispatched by a 45-10 score on its home field, and Illinois also took the "L," this one by a 30-20 score that was clouded by a final-minute touchdown scored against the second-team defense.
Especially on the offensive side of the ball, there have been a number of trends that would make a Buckeye fan excited going into the game against the Wolverines.
"I think we're finally becoming more consistent, performing better from week to week" fullback Brandon Smith said. "One week we would have some breakdowns up front or the next week we would have issues turning the ball over. I think we're finally becoming more and more consistent."
One player who has continued to perform well is Chris Wells. He was the focal point of the Ohio State offense against Northwestern, and his 55-yard touchdown run after being hit in the backfield was the spark the Buckeyes needed on the way to their blowout win. He added another 143 yards against Illinois as well as the team's play of the week when he hurdled UI safety Donsay Hardeman.
He's been joined as a partner in crime by freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who took the time during the team's open week after the Penn State game to work on his footwork and come back a better quarterback.
He earned his first career 100-yard rushing game against the Fighting Illini and also ran for a touchdown, but perhaps most impressive during the two-game stretch in the Land of Lincoln was his passing of the ball. Despite the fact that the games against the Wildcats and Fighting Illini were held in windy, cold conditions, Pryor combined to complete 15 of 24 passes (62.5 percent) for 246 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
The interplay between Pryor and Wells is what the team was hoping for when it made the switch at quarterback, and the improved play of the team's wideouts and offensive line has helped the team chug along. Perhaps most impressively, the Buckeyes have 550 rushing yards over their last seven quarters.
"I think we're all coming together," Pryor said after Ohio State beat Illinois. "We've got the passing game together, we've got the running game, the linemen are starting to key in and play a lot harder and get pumped. I think we're starting to come together and bond together. It's going to be good."
Defensively, the Buckeyes haven't always looked fantastic during the last two games but they have gotten the job done when necessary.
Illinois, in particular, piled up a season-high 455 yards against Ohio State but could not convert the yards into points in the clutch. One reason why was turnovers; Ohio State forced three against Northwestern and two more against Illinois, turnovers which led to a total of 24 points during the two games.
"This era of college football, teams, especially spread offenses, are going to gain some yardage, but it's about coming up with the big turnovers, the big sacks when you need them," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "We have the attitude if you have to hold them to win 42-38, then you hold them to 38 to get the win. If you have to hold them to zero, you hold them to zero."
All season long, Ohio State has spoken about getting better each game until the end of the season. Should all three units work in concert against Michigan, the Maize and Blue would be in trouble.
"I hope we play better than we've ever played, because that's what the last game should be," head coach Jim Tressel said.