COLUMBUS Ohio State once owned Northwestern. The Buckeyes had a title, the legal papers, and the keys. The Wildcats were theirs.
But that long-standing arrangement ended last season, when Northwestern stood up and declared its independence, snapping a string of 24 straight losses to Ohio State. Until last year s 33-27 overtime win, Northwestern had not beaten the Buckeyes since the 1971 season.
And it was not just a one-sided series for that long stretch the Buckeyes put up 70 points once, cleared the 60-point barrier four times, and exceeded 50 points against Northwestern nine times.
So even though the much-anticipated finale with Michigan is just over a week away, nobody in the Ohio State camp seems to be taking their eyes off Northwestern, a team whose rapid-reload spread offense leads the Big Ten in passing, and charts more than 500 yards per game of offense.
Oh no, all of our focus is on Northwestern, especially after what happened last year, Ohio State senior defensive end Mike Kudla said. There s no way you can bypass them and start thinking about next week. You think of last year s game and how poorly we played, and I think that just sits in your mind.
Kudla said the ability to keep sight of the task at hand has been a strength of this Buckeyes team.
That s one of the biggest things about this team is the focus, he said. Each week, we re able to lock in on one team. Even the first week, we had Miami and of course we had Texas the next week, but all of our focus went to Miami. That s just one of the great things, that we can focus and lock in.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said there is a definite advantage to having a difficult opponent like Northwestern on the schedule in advance of the Michigan game, because it creates an environment where preparation is at a premium and distractions can be costly.
I think that s a good thing, and it s usually that way, because we re playing in the Big Ten, Tressel said. Usually when you re in Week 10, it s a pretty good team you face. So in the Big Ten you re going to have to stay focused. And if anyone is looking beyond Northwestern, we ve got a problem.
Tressel said Northwestern still has the talented and prolific Brett Basanez at quarterback, and he is far and away the leader in the Big Ten with an average of better than 341 yards passing in conference games. But Basanez will face a much better Ohio State defense than what he saw in 2004.
The guys playing defense for us now are much more experienced, Tressel said. There s a lot more experience, but so is Northwestern, so it s not like it s a great advantage. But we can only control what we re doing. And I think with the experience that we ve gained over the course of time since then, we re a different team.
Kudla and the team s 15 other seniors play their final game in Ohio Stadium against Northwestern, and Kudla said that is motivation enough.
Coming in here and playing with all these guys, and the relationships that we ve built over the past couple years, it s just a special thing, Kudla said. And to play in the Shoe every week like that, it s a tremendous honor and it s so special and you don t understand until you re there and you get to be a part of it. It s been a great couple of years here. So, you can t regret anything. It s an honor to be here.
After all of the pomp and circumstance of senior day, Kudla said it will come down to simply settling a score with Northwestern, the team the Buckeyes had dominated for so long until last year s meeting in Evanston.
That s one of the games that we kind of thought about all summer, while we were working out, Kudla said.