CHARLES REX ARBOGAST / AP Enlarge
COLUMBUS - Sitting in a motor coach chugging its way across town on an otherwise dreary Saturday night - that seems like kind of an odd place to have your dreams of a fourth straight Big Ten championship suddenly pull a Lazarus job.
But that's just what happened as the Ohio State Buckeyes, several hours removed from another ceremonial pounding of Northwestern, learned that Iowa had stunned previously unbeaten Penn State with a last-second winning field goal. That meant the Big Ten title, given up for dead here two weeks ago when the Buckeyes lost to Penn State, was amazingly back in play.
The Buckeyes (8-2) had completed their postgame commitments after whacking Northwestern 45-10, bused to the airport in Chicago, taken a charter flight back home, and were making the bus ride to the Woody Hayes Center on campus when cell phone chatter informed them of Penn State's demise.
Iowa's upset win means Ohio State, Penn State (9-1) and Michigan State (9-2) all have just one loss in the conference, with two weeks left in the season. The scenarios are many, and the bowl rewards for the Big Ten's top three are hidden in a sealed mayonnaise jar on Funk's front porch, since Wagnalls wants no part of the BCS mess.
But what is clear is that Ohio State, which won the conference championship outright the past two years and shared it with Penn State in 2005, needs to win this Saturday at Illinois and then close out the season with a victory at home over rival Michigan to claim a 33rd Big Ten championship. Only Michigan (42) has more.
Saturday's results made Ohio State coach Jim Tressel's words from last week seem prophetic, since he cautioned against any letdown despite the fact the goal of reaching a third straight national title game had essentially vaporized, and the Buckeyes' Big Ten championship chances looked dismal.
"Who knows what can happen," Tressel said. "There's been a lot that's happened in the first few weeks of November and into the course of December over the last few football seasons."
Tressel said at the time that the Buckeyes were still stinging after a 13-6 loss to Penn State at home on the last Saturday in October.
"How quickly you move back to what you need to be doing is the key," Tressel said. "I don't sense anybody that's just wallowing in disappointment, but yet I would not feel good at all if there wasn't a little bit of an edge to all of us, because we would like to be better off than we are now."
Ohio State senior defensive back Malcolm Jenkins followed that line of thinking in his comments after the win at Northwestern, but before he learned about Penn State's loss.
"We know what our situation is and that we are gonna need some help in the Big Ten," Jenkins said. "But we just have to stay focused and take advantage of whatever opportunities we have in these final games."
After getting an assist from Iowa, everything but the national championship game seems to still be on the table - BCS bowl game, Big Ten title, Rose Bowl. Penn State would have to lose at home this week to a weak Indiana team, and then defeat Michigan State the following week for Ohio State to win a third consecutive outright Big Ten crown.
An Ohio State loss in the final two games would open the door for Penn State to take the outright championship by winning out, or Michigan State to win it by beating Penn State in a couple of weeks. The Spartans have not won a Big Ten title since 1990.
A three-way tie is possible, but not likely, since it would require a Penn State loss to Indiana and then a win over Michigan State, plus an Ohio State loss in one of its two final games.
Tressel has shown no interest in engaging in these many dueling scenarios, opting instead to stick with his familiar mantras.
"I think the first thing you always play for is to become the best you can become," he said when the subject came up last week.
"You always want to be the Big Ten champions. You always want to earn the opportunity to become the national champion. This year's not over. The bottom line, though, is that you keep working to become the best you can be, and we always say you get as your works deserve."
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