COLUMBUS - There was no big hit to blame, no wrestling match he lost in the middle of a big pile of bodies. When freshman Chris Wells fumbled against Illinois in Ohio State's most recent game, it came out of nowhere.
Wells took a handoff from quarterback Troy Smith midway through the second quarter, with the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes pressing their case inside Illinois territory. Wells had a big hole to run through - a gaping span - but after a couple of strides with no contact, the ball came loose and hit the turf.
Illinois recovered, but no one is certain about Wells.
That was the fourth fumble of the season for the Akron native, who Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has used as a short-yardage back, and in relief of starter Antonio Pittman.
"I don't know exactly what happened," Tressel said. "It looked like he made a nice cut and was going to gain a bunch of yards. It looked to me like he was switching it from one hand to the other, he saw this gigantic hole, and sometimes that shocks you, too."
Wells stayed on the bench the rest of the game as the Buckeyes hung on for a 17-10 victory. Tressel said he has not lost faith in Wells, but that the fumbles are a serious concern.
"It is distressing, there's no question about it," Tressel said. "Obviously, Chris has got to work to make sure that doesn't happen anymore. But Chris is going to be one of our running backs and I'm sure he, more than anyone else, wants to make sure that he does what the team needs."
Wells has carried the ball 82 times for 391 yards and four touchdowns this season for the Buckeyes, who play at Northwestern on Saturday. He was an All-American last year at Garfield High where he rushed for 2,134 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior.
Ohio State wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez said he offered Wells some advice to help him get past the fumble woes and concentrate on the plays to come.
"We all talked to him. I told him something that someone told me last year when I dropped a big pass," Gonzalez said. "I told him you will never be able to recover that ball or carry that particular ball, ever again. You will have the chance to carry a thousand more footballs in your career and you just need to worry about those."
Gonzalez said he is confident the fumble trouble Wells is experiencing will subside.
"He is a tough kid and what he is going through is just part of growing as a player," Gonzalez said. "Nobody in our locker room doubts he can carry the ball or do whatever he is doing on offense. We have complete confidence in his abilities and what he can do for our offense."
HISTORY LESSON: Ohio State senior center Doug Datish was part of the Buckeyes' team that went to Northwestern in 2004 and got beat 33-27 in overtime. He said Ohio State remembers the sting of that loss, but won't dwell on it.
"At the time, it burnt pretty good. You carry that scar around," Datish said. "But it is a different year. History is a great thing to learn from. But this is not history - this is now. We concentrate on this year and take every opportunity as they come to stay positive."
POTENT COMBO: Ted Ginn Jr. and Gonzalez have 92 receptions this season, good for 1,276 yards and 13 touchdowns. Ginn is second in the Big Ten in average receptions per game with 4.9, while Gonzalez ranks third in average receiving yards per game at 63.9.
NEARLY GRAND: Running back Antonio Pittman is closing in on a 1,000 yard season. The junior from Akron has 952 rushing yards through 10 games. Pittman rushed for 1,331 yards last season, and should become the first Buckeye since Eddie George (1994-95) to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
THIRD AND GONZO: Nobody moves the chains with the efficiency of Gonzalez, who has 43 receptions with 37 going for first downs. He has six touchdown catches and leads the Buckeyes in receiving yards with 639.
- Matt Markey