COLUMBUS - Disguised under the surface of Ohio State's 48-7 manhandling of Northwestern yesterday was another dominant performance by the Buckeyes' special teams.
Although he didn't need his special teams to win this one, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel knows they just might decide next weekend's showdown with rival Michigan, where the Big Ten title will be on the line in some fashion.
"We think that's the difference-maker - the special units," Tressel said. "If you want to be a championship caliber team - most especially when you go on the road - your special units better be out of this world. When we go on the road this next week, we need to have great special teams."
While the Buckeyes were bottling up Northwestern on defense and pretty much having their way on offense, the special teams phase of the game was just as one-sided. Ohio State blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown, had five kickoffs that were so deep they not returned, and did not allow a punt return.
"They're talented throughout their special teams," Northwestern punter Slade Larscheid said. "We didn't execute well, and as you can see, they were able to execute throughout the game. They have enough speed to cover most of the field, which gave our special teams some trouble."
Ohio State senior kicker Josh Huston, a Findlay High graduate, drilled his first two kickoffs through the end zone, giving him a string of 18 consecutive kicks that were not returned. Huston has pushed 22 of his last 24 kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks, and 45 of his 64 this season.
"That's a great weapon when Josh can kick it deep enough they can't bring it back," OSU senior Nick Mangold said, "and he's been doing it a lot this season. That gives us a pretty big advantage when we've got Ted Ginn and Santonio Holmes back there returning kicks, and the other team starts at the 20 almost every time."
Huston is one of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award, presented annually to the top kicker in college football. The winner will be announced Dec. 8 in Orlando.
FIVE PACK: The Buckeyes rushed for five touchdowns. The last time an Ohio State team rushed for at least five scores in a game was in the 2002 season-opener against Texas Tech, when the Buckeyes had six rushing touchdowns - three by Maurice Clarett, two by Lydell Ross, and one by backup quarterback Scott McMullen.
HAWK TOTALS: Senior linebacker A.J. Hawk had eight tackles and broke the 100-tackle mark for the third consecutive season. He leads the Buckeyes 102 stops on the year and now has 375 career stops to rank sixth in Ohio State history. Hawk trails only Marcus Marek (572 tackles), Tom Cousineau (569), Chris Spielman (546), Steve Tovar (408) and Pepper Johnson (379).
999 AND COUNTING: Ohio State sophomore running back Antonio Pittman came into yesterday's game needing 22 yards to put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. When he went to the locker room with an injury with about five minutes left in the first quarter, Pittman had gained 21 yards, leaving him one yard shy of a grand.
The injury turned out to be a minor hip bruise, and when Pittman returned to the lineup with about eight minutes left in the first half, he broke his first carry for 14 yards. Pittman finished the game with 132 yards on 18 carries and now has 1,120 on the season to rank 20th on Ohio State's single-season list. Pittman is the 23rd player in OSU history to hit 1,000 yards for a season, and the first since Maurice Clarett had 1,230 in 2002.
HAWK AWARDS: Ohio State senior linebacker A.J. Hawk had better get his tuxedo pressed. Hawk is one of three finalists for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's best collegiate linebacker.
The other finalists are Paul Posluszny of Penn State and DeMeco Ryans of Alabama. The winner will be announced on Dec. 10 in Orlando. Ohio State's Andy Katzenmoyer won the award in 1997, and Buckeye Chris Spielman was a finalist in 1986 and 1987.
The award honors former Illinois and Chicago Bear NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus.