COLUMBUS - Whether they grow up on a dairy farm in the west, near the banks of the Ohio River down south or on the streets of Cleveland, there's something about Ohio State that beckons the state's best high school football players.
For those other schools that call Ohio home, it's a huge hurdle.
"For the most part, kids in Ohio dream about playing for Ohio State," said Akron coach J.D. Brookhart, who will lead his Zips against the 12th-ranked Buckeyes today. "It's not always an opportunity that's given to them, so this is a big game for them. There's a little extra incentive."
That motivation seldom results in a win. For years, the Buckeyes wouldn't risk their domination of the state by even thinking about playing an in-state opponent. Since that 58-year policy ended in 1992, Ohio State is 15-0 against its closest neighbors, by an average score of 34-12.
The Buckeyes play three Ohio opponents this year, the most they've played since the 1926 team took on Wittenberg, Wilmington and Ohio Wesleyan and won by a combined 100-7.
They opened with a 38-6 win against Youngstown State last week. Akron, out of the Mid-American Conference, debuted by beating Army 22-14 at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
What adds spice to in-state games is that so many players know guys on the other team, and the players at the smaller schools frequently feel they were overlooked by Ohio State. That may not just be a perception.
"Any time an Ohio team comes into Ohio State, they definitely want to feel that they can prove something," Buckeyes defensive lineman Vernon Gholston said. "We just have to be ready for it. They're a good football team."
But then he added, "They beat, uh, I'm not sure what they did last week." Told the Zips defeated Army, he added, "Did they? Well, we've got to be ready for that."
Akron gave the Buckeyes fits the only other time the teams have met in the last century. In Jim Tressel's first game as Ohio State's head coach exactly six years from today's meeting, the Zips never led but lost only 28-14.
That relatively close call, along with the hits the Big Ten has taken recently (a 2-5 bowl record, Michigan's stunning loss to Appalachian State and Minnesota falling to Bowling Green, another MAC team), has given the underdogs hope.
"Overall the gap's closing," said Brookhart, whose team is coming off a 5-7 season. "I think we're getting there. It takes some time as you're building a program to get everything that you want: the athletes, the character, the academics"
Both teams have plenty of room for improvement despite winning their first games.
First-time starter Todd Boeckman was steady (17 of 23 passing for 225 yards and two TDs) for Ohio State, but the ground game looked befuddled whenever it got close to the goal line. Chris "Beanie" Wells, billed as the latest in a long line of star running backs for the Buckeyes, had 46 yards on 16 carries.
On defense the Buckeyes didn't give up a touchdown but also didn't force a turnover.
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