COLUMBUS - To accomplish anything of real significance on the national stage this football season, the Ohio State Buckeyes had to get to this point - undefeated and headed to Los Angeles to face No. 1-ranked Southern California.
It was tougher than expected.
The Buckeyes played a couple of home games against lesser opponents where there was minimal risk on their part and zippo potential reward - other than the huge injection of turnstile, concession, parking and television cash into the athletic department.
Ohio State was a huge favorite against the likes of Youngstown State and Ohio University, so a 43-0 win carries no sway, and an ugly 26-14 victory worked against the Buckeyes. Ohio State is 2-0 but has dropped three places in the polls since the season started.
The Buckeyes know their performance against Ohio did nothing but damage their image around the country.
"We'll get some criticism after people look at how we played [against Ohio]," Buckeyes senior running back Maurice Wells said, "but I don't think that game gives a good picture of this team. We're better than that - we just gotta go out and show it."
They are going to go out - the Buckeyes fly to California early Thursday - but showing it is a different deal. Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman, who was a shaky 16-of-26 against Ohio on mostly short stuff and took three sacks while scrambling from the pocket a half dozen times, undersold the Buckeyes' chore list for this week.
"We need to get a lot better," Boeckman repeated several times following the Ohio game. "We need to get a lot better if we want to go out to the Coliseum and get a victory."
Just one team has done that since the middle of the 2001 season, as the Trojans have gone 38-1 at home over that stretch. A lowly Stanford outfit upset USC at home last season, costing the Trojans a shot at the national title game. Southern California, which had a bye last weekend, got everyone's attention by whacking Virginia 52-7 on the road in its opener.
"They were very impressive," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "I think everyone knows that they're a great football team. We'll have to play better than we did this game, that's for sure."
Senior defensive back Malcolm Jenkins tried to cast the poor showing against Ohio into a constructive light.
"I think it was a good experience for us as a team to face some adversity going into this week," Jenkins said, "because we're going to face a lot of it, going away on the road and [playing] a night game in a hostile environment."
Tressel, who has taken his Ohio State teams on the road to face Texas, Washington, UCLA, and North Carolina State, said the Buckeyes have a lot to do to prepare for Southern California, but their fate will be decided by how Ohio State performs.
"I think everyone knows that they're a great football team, but the key to the game for us will be us," Tressel said. "And the key to the game for them will be them, and we'll see which team's better."
The Buckeyes are expecting the return of starting running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, who sat out the Ohio game with an injury to the big toe on his right foot. He had 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis said last night Wells worked out while the Buckeyes practiced earlier in the day.
"I saw him on the side a little bit, running, kind of testing it out," Laurinaitis said. "From what I could tell, he looked great, so we'll see how the week progresses."
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