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November 13, 2007

Buckeyes must find way to bounce back

COLUMBUS, Ohio There was no use wondering if the glass was half-empty or half-full. A 28-21 loss to Illinois, which cost Ohio State a chance to play for the national championship, settled that issue.

"It's tough," Ohio State junior Marcus Freeman said after the game. "We wanted to be national champions."

Instead, the disappointed Buckeyes were left trying to convince themselves something remained in that figurative glass that was worth consuming.

A victory over archrival Michigan this Saturday will secure the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl, and those carrots still are tremendous motivation. At least, that's what Ohio State players kept saying after the loss to Illinois - as if repeating it over and over would help them believe it.

"The biggest thing is we have to go home and reflect on (the loss to Illinois) a little bit, but we can't harp on it for too long," Ohio State junior defensive end Vernon Gholston said. "We still have one of our goals to achieve, winning the Big Ten."

All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis echoed that sentiment. "Everybody around here knows this is 'the week,' no matter what happens," he said.

On other campuses, before other games, those comments might be dismissed. But the Big Ten championship never is a consolation prize in Columbus, and a victory over Michigan always is cherished.

Michigan has won 42 Big Ten championships. Ohio State has won 31. And one of them has won or shared five of the past six Big Ten titles.

So, the importance of the game and this rivalry wasn't lost on the Buckeyes, even when they still were digesting the disappointment of losing to Illinois.

"We better start today," Ohio State tackle Kirk Barton said after the loss to Illinois last Saturday night. "I might not sleep at all. I'll work out and try to clear my head. I won't watch TV or get on the Internet because I don't want to relive this game."

Who could blame him?

Ohio State was completely out of character in so many ways in its only loss of the season. The Buckeyes' defense had allowed only 650 rushing yards on the season, but gave up 260 to the Illini. Ohio State had boasted about forcing opponents to go three-and-out on almost half their offensive possessions. Yet, Illinois converted three third-down plays and a fourth down on its final drive, which consumed the final eight minutes of the game.

Quarterback Todd Boeckman had thrown at least two touchdown passes in every game, but did not throw a scoring pass against Illinois and was intercepted three times.

The Buckeyes' offensive line, which had allowed just 12 sacks all season, gave up two to Illinois. In addition, the Illini pressured Boeckman relentlessly.

For those reasons, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said he didn't want the Buckeyes to forget the loss.

"We do need to look back and improve upon what we didn't do," Tressel said Monday. "So I would hope we don't forget where we need to do better and what the lessons learned from that game are.

"Now, if we sit there and that's all we're thinking about, then we're not going to be ready and obviously that will hurt us. But I think our guys will be able to focus on the task at hand because this is Ohio State-Michigan."

Sophomore cornerback Donald Washington said the Buckeyes got the message and won't let one lost opportunity cause them to overlook others.

"Last week didn't go the way we wanted it to, but we have another week to get better," he said. "There's still life after last week. This is a time when we have to come together as a team, and I'm confident that we'll put it together."

Olin Buchanan is a Heisman trophy voter and the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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