Tight end Ben Hartsock, always a top blocker, has caught 31 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns this season.
TERRY GILLIAM / AP Enlarge
COLUMBUS - Ohio State tight end Ben Hartsock is growing weary of those who keep bashing the Buckeyes.
“It seems like we ve spent most of the season defending ourselves, rather than defending our national championship,” he said yesterday. “We always seem to be the underdogs, because the critics always say we didn t win pretty, we just skated by.
“No matter how ugly it looks or what it takes, we find a way to win games. Winning close games has become Ohio State s calling card.”
The Buckeyes are 24-1 over the last two seasons, the only blip being a 17-10 loss at Wisconsin on Oct. 11. More importantly, OSU is 12-1 during that stretch in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Hartsock expects another tight game Saturday when No. 4 Ohio State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) plays No. 5 Michigan (9-2, 6-1) for the outright Big Ten championship at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
For the first time since 1997, the winner of the 100th anniversary game will secure at least a berth in the Rose Bowl. And depending on how the Bowl Championship Series rankings play out over the next three weeks, Ohio State might get a chance to defend its national title in the Sugar Bowl.
That s because the Buckeyes moved up to No. 2 in the latest BCS rankings released last night.
“As hard as it is for everybody to believe, I don t think the BCS is really in our mindset this week,” Hartsock said. “If we don t beat Michigan, it s not going to matter a whole lot where we are rated.”
Until this year, the 6-4, 265-pound Hartsock was nothing more than a glorified offensive lineman. The fifth-year senior was expected to block, then block some more.
However, Hartsock s role was redefined a few games into this season. With the Buckeyes running game struggling, he became more of an offensive threat, and has responded with a career-high 31 receptions for 277 yards and two touchdowns.
His career totals prior to this year: 25 catches for 229 yards and three TDs.
“I ve become more of a viable option on offense, along with the other tight ends,” Hartsock said. “I think it adds a whole other dimension. Even though my numbers are up, I ve maintained my status as far as my blocking role goes.”
He is the team s second-leading receiver and his 31 receptions are the most by an Ohio State tight end since Rickey Dudley made 37 grabs in 1995. The school record is 45, set twice by John Frank in 1981 and 1983.
“There can t be a better blocking tight end in college football than Ben Hartsock. If there is, I d like to see him,” coach Jim Tressel said. “He does an extraordinary job. He worked hard all summer long and in the off-season to become an even better receiver. He was always very adequate, but he s gone beyond that, in my estimation.”
“Coming into his senior year, Ben wanted to get a lot better,” quarterback Craig Krenzel said. “He took a lot of time this summer, learning the protections and trying to understand the scheme of things and what we re trying to do, not just what route he has to run.
“And it s definitely paid off for him in terms of knowing where to be and when to be there.”
Hartsock is averaging 8.9 yards per catch. His backup, redshirt sophomore Ryan Hamby, has added 15 catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns on a team has won three home games this year - and four the past two seasons - without the benefit of an offensive touchdown.
“One of the great things about this offense, and having Craig at quarterback, is you know if you re open, you re going to get the ball,” Hartsock said. “Even if you re not the first or second option, if Craig gets enough time, he s going to find you.”
Hartsock grew up milking cows on a 600-acre farm outside Chillicothe, Ohio. That s where he developed his extraordinary work ethic.
“He works hard in the classroom and trains hard and is very meticulous,” Tressel said. “You can tell that in both his football and his academics.”
Hartsock is surrounded by Ohio State boosters. His wife Amy, his parents Tim and Patricia, and his brother Nathaniel all graduated from the university. His sister Abby is a sophomore there.
Hartsock carries a 3.75 grade-point average in biology and pre-medicine. He plans to enroll in medical school once his football career is finished.
For now, all he s focused on is helping the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines for the third consecutive season.
“They ve really come on strong late in the season,” Hartsock said. “I think they kind of figured out what was going wrong with them early on and they re starting to peak right now. We ll have to be at our best to beat them.”
Ohio State punter B.J. Sander yesterday was honored as Big Ten special teams player of the week for his performance in Saturday s 16-13 overtime victory over Purdue.
The senior, who replaced All-American Andy Groom, dropped seven of his 10 punts inside the 20-yard line, giving Purdue an average starting field position of the 15-yard line.
Sander, honored for the second time this season, totaled 413 yards on his 10 punts and put five inside the 10.