COLUMBUS - Ohio State is a place where they love to pass out the honors.
They like positive reinforcement around here, where at 10-0, the standout players for No. 1 ranked Ohio State have their helmets covered in the prestigious buckeye leaves they earn for exceptional performances.
Each of the Buckeyes' football games is followed in a day or two by an awards ceremony that rivals the Oscars, with citations for the best performance by a special teams player, the hit of the week, and a scout team defensive star, along with all the customary tributes.
But in the aftermath of last weekend's creaky 17-10 win over Illinois, accolades were in short supply. After a harsh self-review, the Ohio State coaches skipped rewarding any players on the offensive side.
The Buckeyes were still smarting over that 29 total yards and zero points they produced in the second half against the Illini - a folly which coach Jim Tressel referred to as "the consistency that wasn't demonstrated."
Tressel, whose team is preparing for another Big Ten trip to Illinois this weekend, this time to face Northwestern, said you can harp on players about not suffering a letdown, or preach to them about the dangers of pulling back on the throttle against any team, but there is no substitute for experiencing the result of such a move.
"I've always been a believer that reality is the best teacher," Tressel said. "If you win a decisive game, then you need to know why. And if you win a game that's not quite as decisive, then why? What was it that we didn't do as well? I don't know if there's such a thing as a magical wake-up call, but I think reality is very important."
Tressel said the Buckeyes might have benefited from a better blend of running and passing plays against Illinois, but there might also have been a malaise that set in after his team held a 17-0 lead at halftime, and then took the ball right back from Illinois to start the second half.
Ohio State had the Illini pinned deep in their end, but the Buckeyes failed to deliver anything resembling a knockout punch. Tressel said he understood his players' reaction.
"They're human, and after we kept them out of the end zone and there's about eight or nine-something to go in the third quarter, and we've got them down on their own 3, you can get comfortable," Tressel said. "The biggest reality you have is that when you go to someone else's place, you better play 60 minutes. We didn't do the things you need to do [in the second half]. So it will be good for us, if we learn from that reality."
Tressel used a football-baseball-medieval analogy to describe the way Ohio State repeatedly put itself in long yardage situations in the second half at Illinois, and then had to contend with a furious Illinois pass rush.
"I'm not sure we were as balanced with our attack as we could have been and we didn't execute on early downs," he said. "And then we got behind the count and we let them come storming the castle pretty good. One thing leads to another, and all of a sudden your momentum has changed."
Ohio State wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez said that regardless of the one-touchdown difference between the Buckeyes and 2-8 Illinois, a closer look at what transpired was not favorable for the Buckeyes.
"The score is important because it determines who wins," Gonzalez said. "But I have always believed a better way to evaluate your performance is to look at each play. You want to execute flawlessly, and we did not do that."
Gonzalez said that despite the dreadful numbers, Ohio State's overall offensive performance was not a nightmare. The Buckeyes still lead the Big Ten in scoring at 34 points per game, and are second in total offense with 398.9 yards per game.
"We are a pretty experienced and confident group, and one bad performance isn't going to change that," Gonzalez said.
"It may be a setback statistically speaking, but it's one of those things where it's never as bad as it seems, and it's never as good as it seems. We didn't do everything great but it wasn't a complete debacle. It just didn't manifest itself in terms of production."
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