COLUMBUS Up until 1926, when Ohio State and Illinois met on the football field, the winner took home a live turtle. The original hard-shelled prize, known as Illibuck, died the following year, and ever since then a wooden turtle goes to the victorious team.
There is a little more at stake this Saturday, at least for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State has to get past the struggling Illini and then offensive- minded Northwestern to give the season finale at Michigan the most drama. The Buckeyes hope winning the final three games will catapult them to something a lot more prestigious than a toothless reptile.
The national championship might be out of the picture for us now, but we can still win the Big Ten title, wide receiver Santonio Holmes said. That would be huge.
The focus now is just to keep winning. We can t worry about what might have been. We just have to try to win, and everything will take care of itself.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel is a lot more concerned about the here and now than he is with the later on. Illinois comes into Ohio Stadium a 35-point underdog, and the psychological impact of such a huge disparity puts a wrinkle in his brow.
It makes you uncomfortable, because we re not 35 points better, Tressel said. And that s if we do everything perfectly.
Tressel said he prefers to pay little attention to the record of the opponent or the recent outcomes of conference games, and put the real emphasis on moving his team a rung higher on the ladder each week.
We ve really got to focus on Ohio State becoming the best team we can be in November, because that s where you win championships, Tressel said. Our next opponent happens to be Illinois, and it happens to be a team that s hungry. I m sure they feel a little improvement. But this is still going to be about what we do.
The prospect of playing the No. 12 Buckeyes has first-year Illinois coach Ron Zook mixing up his figures of speech.
We re jumping out of the fire into the frying pan, Zook said. We re going to Columbus, to play a very, very talented, well-coached football team in the Ohio State Buckeyes. It s going to be important that we continue to improve and get to the place where we re supposed to be.
Zook has cause for concern. His Illini are last in the Big Ten in scoring, with just 20.1 points per game, and last in keeping the opposition off the scoreboard, allowing 40 per game. The Buckeyes have averaged better than 40 in their last two games, road wins over Indiana and Minnesota.
It is a great challenge, a monumental challenge in the fact that they re very, very athletic, Zook said.
What has Zook most confused about just where his team will land in the heat of the kitchen is the Ohio State defense, the best in the Big Ten through eight games. Even after Minnesota wiggled its way to 578 yards in defeat, the Buckeyes still lead the conference by allowing just 295.2 yards per game. Linebackers A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel put Zook s offense on the hot seat.
They ve arguably got one of the best linebacking corps in the country, Zook said. They take Carpenter and put him down as a rush guy at times. They re very, very athletic. They chase the football, they ve got a great scheme, and their safeties are big-time hitters. They re going to fill the box up and put a lot of pressure on you.
There s a reason why they are ranked where they are in the country on defense.
Ohio State junior defensive back Donte Whitner said there is no looking past Illinois, but an acute awareness of just how much is riding on every game this month.
We still have got a shot at a BCS bowl and the Big Ten title, Whitner said. We would love to do both and send this year s seniors out the right way.
Contact Matt Markey at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.