The Nittany Lions left Big Ten play Oct. 10 to earn an easy win against Eastern Illinois. In the following two weeks, Penn State got back to league play with convincing wins that put it back in the hunt for a conference title.
One of those wins came by 25 points Saturday against Michigan, which was coming off of its own foray into nonleague play with a comically easy 57-point win against Delaware State on Oct. 17.
The moral of the story? How a team approaches a week off of Big Ten play, even against as overmatched a foe as most think OSU's Saturday opponent of New Mexico State is, can make a big difference upon returning to conference play.
"I think the reality we sit in right now is here we are in late October, we have goals that we have in mind," head coach Jim Tressel said Tuesday. "We have progression we would like to make and we know we have a very, very short time to do that. We've got a football game here that's a nonconference game which is a little bit unusual for our guys. We haven't done a whole bunch of that this late in the season but what's most critical is starting with today's practice, we get better at what we do."
It's particularly important for Ohio State to improve because of a look at the November schedule. The three games that follow the New Mexico State game are against ranked Penn State and Iowa teams followed by the annual rivalry showdown with Michigan. Any loss in those games likely would end the Buckeyes' chances at a fifth straight Big Ten championship.
Senior offensive lineman Jim Cordle said that leaving Big Ten play now – the latest the Buckeyes have done so since a win against Oregon on Nov. 17, 1962, between victories against Indiana and Michigan – is distracting, but that can't be an issue going forward.
"We have to realize that everything is up in the air the last three games, our goals," senior offensive lineman Jim Cordle said. "In practice, it's gotta be there. That motivation and intensity has to be there."
Tressel pointed out the team is practicing only three times per week at this point in the season, leaving the team with 12 regular-season practices left as of Tuesday morning. They will have nine to go after the game against NMSU, meaning there aren't many opportunities left to iron out the team's many inconsistencies, especially those on offense.
As a result, don't expect the Buckeyes to take it easy against the Aggies. Tressel said Tuesday that players like Brandon Saine and Orhian Johnson, both of whom had concussion-like symptoms against Minnesota, would play if cleared even though the Buckeyes might not need all hands on deck against NMSU (3-5) as 40-point favorites. The same goes for Dan Herron, who has missed the last two games with an injured ankle.
"This is an important game, that's one thing," Tressel said. "We need to get better. That's just as important. So the best chance you have to get better is on Saturdays. Practices are critical. It's at a certain level, but it's not at the level that a game is, playing in front of the fans and the excitement and the energy, so no, if a guy can play, if he's allowed to play, he's going to play."
In addition, when Ohio State struggles in nonconference games, it has seemed to have set the tone for big games the following week in past seasons. After a 20-2 win against Akron in 2007, Ohio State sleptwalk through the first half at Washington a week later, and last year's 25-14 win against Ohio University was the precursor to a demolition at USC the next week.
"It happens," cornerback Chimdi Chekwa said of leaving a nonleague game with the feeling that the team didn't improve. "It doesn't feel like a loss, but it feels as close as it can be to a loss."
Beating the Aggies would improve the Buckeyes to 7-2 on the year and increase OSU's winning streak to two, but talking to the OSU players on Tuesday made it clear that this week's game is just as important for the future as it is simply to get the win.
"We have to make sure that we know the three games after this are very important, but it doesn't mean anything if we don't get this job done and make sure that we get better during this week," Doug Worthington said. "You don't want to let down and have to pick it up the next weekend."