COLUMBUS - As the Ohio State football team prepares for two in a row on the road, coach Jim Tressel knows he is likely almost out of good luck. In last weekend's win over Michigan State, the Buckeyes dodged a couple of bullets, used their get-out-of-jail-free card, and essentially spent their good fortune.
Ohio State fumbled the ball away four times in that game, and Michigan State ended up in scoring position on every one of them. The turnovers put the Spartans in business at the Ohio State 4, 23 and 26-yard lines, and at the Michigan State 37.
The Buckeyes managed to escape by allowing only a touchdown and a field goal in those four misadventures, but Tressel knows the toll could have been much higher. The Buckeyes did not force a single turnover by the Spartans, and suffered several special teams blunders.
"We've got to make some dramatic changes in taking care of the football," Tressel said yesterday. "I can't remember a time where we lost the turnover margin four to zero and had as many mistakes in our special units, and still came up with a win."
The Michigan State game continued a trend - Ohio State is last in the Big Ten and ranked 104th nationally in turnover margin. Through six games, the Buckeyes have given the ball up 13 times while taking it away just seven. They overcame the miscues against Michigan State, but Tressel is not counting on having the same blessings while playing at Indiana and Minnesota the next two weeks.
"I guess the only thing that can overcome some of those facts and realities is if you just play with great passion through the course of the game and find a way to win. And I think that's perhaps what we did," Tressel said. "But we have to understand that, as we head on the road, which is a difficult thing to do, that we've got to square away that turnover margin."
Tressel said he expects the Buckeyes, who have fumbled the ball away 10 times, to turn the tables and start creating errors by the opposition, especially in the kicking game, and set Ohio State's offense up on a short field.
"As we move forward and hit the road in the Big Ten," Tressel said, "the truths don't change. We need to play with that great passion, we need to play with the same amount of intensity and speed and intent, no matter what the score is. But we've got to do some things better. We've got to make sure we take care of that football and knock their football loose a few times."
Tressel said he did not expect to be addressing an issue like taking care of the ball when the season moved into its second half.
"We're going into Game 7, so as you go into that back half of the season, you've got to get better at every position and every technique," he said. "Practice time diminishes a little bit as the season goes on just because of the normal wear and tear. But now the focus on technique and making sure we do things right has got to really increase, and that's what it will be all about starting today."
Tressel said he did not think the Buckeyes' sloppiness with the ball was a crisis kind of issue, but it was important enough for him to re-think the way certain areas have been emphasized in practice. He added that ball security should be as basic as the other fundamentals the Ohio State staff stresses all of the time.
"I guess you need to stress it more and stress it better and be more effective in helping people understand how important it is," Tressel said. "But it still comes down to there being a deep-seated belief, and that's important. Obviously, there's a deep-seated belief in our games that we're going to play hard no matter what's going on. It's built in - if they just play hard, that's what we do. It's got to get built into us that we don't turn it over."
Tressel said he expects the Ohio State defense, the best in the Big Ten by allowing only 274 yards per game and a meager 66 yards per game on the ground, will create some turnovers.
"We can't change what we're doing on defense to have more take-aways. I think we just need to keep doing what we're doing," Tressel said. "And offensively, if I have the privilege of touching that ball, I've got to make sure I hand it to the official, and then there's no questions."
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