Buckeyes play hard for Tressel


SAN ANTONIO - Imagine what was going through the mind of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel entering Wednesday night's Alamo Bowl.

He and his Buckeyes were facing a dangerous Oklahoma State team that had given Oklahoma and Texas all they could handle.

His starting quarterback had been suspended, his backup quarterback hadn't played in two months, and his backup to the backup hadn't taken a snap all season.

Last but not least, the Buckeyes were creating national headlines because of possible NCAA rules violations that focused on Tressel's handling of the program and his job security.

So there Tressel was, smiling and talking about the program being in good hands after Ohio State embarrassed Oklahoma State 33-7 before 65,265 in the Alamodome.

"I was fired up about this team throughout the year," said Tressel, who improved to 40-11 overall and 3-1 in bowl games at Ohio State. "It didn't go perfectly at all times, and we didn't do the things every week that we needed to do to win, but I thought our old guys did a great job of leading, and I thought our young guys did a good job of figuring out how to win."

Ohio State's players, it seemed, wanted to beat Oklahoma State for their coach as badly as they wanted to win for themselves.

Unlike Oklahoma State's players, who played poorly following media reports that Cowboys coach Les Miles was a candidate for the LSU vacancy, the Buckeyes ignored outside distractions and maintained their focus.

"The guy's a winner," senior running back Branden Joe said of Tressel. "We have faith and we believe in his plan. If you've got guys believing in the plan, then all you have to do is go out and execute.

"It's funny how people emphasize all the bad things we do. People are going to make bad decisions in life, but it's about how you bounce back from adversity, and I think we've done that."

Joe, who rushed for 57 yards in his final college game, said playing hard for Tressel is second-nature with the Buckeyes.

"He's a proven winner. The numbers don't lie, so why not believe in what he's doing? He's obviously doing something right."

Such as?

"I just wish everybody could see the kind of guys and the kind of coaches we have and then they'd probably stop bad-mouthing us," said junior linebacker Anthony Schlegel, who recorded five tackles against Oklahoma State.

"The reason we're able to shut things out is because coach Tressel and the coaches do a good job of keeping us out of the mix. Everybody just wants to win for each other."

Tressel didn't allow outside distractions to cause a meltdown. Internally, he concentrated on maximizing his team's strengths.

When starting quarterback Troy Smith was suspended last week, Tressel promoted backup Justin Zwick and hatched a plan to develop wide receiver/kick returner/game-breaker Ted Ginn Jr. as the new backup.

Tressel selected Ginn over freshman Todd Boeckman because he didn't want to lose Boeckman's redshirt year by playing him in the Alamo Bowl after not playing him all season.

Ginn filled in admirably at quarterback when Zwick missed several plays due to a hamstring injury and ran for a red-zone touchdown in the third quarter.

"We planned on playing Ted at quarterback. I just didn't know when the right time was going to be," Tressel said. "Then when Justin tweaked his hamstring it was obvious we were going to need help there.

"We had rehearsed about seven or eight plays [for Ginn]. It was nothing fancy. In fact, we even had one pass called, but we didn't have enough guys in the game and had to call timeout."

Zwick was 17-of-27 for 187 yards and a touchdown in his first game action since Oct. 16, when he suffered a shoulder injury against Iowa. It was an encouraging performance for Zwick, who's expected to start next year's opener against Miami while Smith finishes serving his suspension.

And then?

Tressel not only invites a quarterback controversy between Smith and Zwick, he seems almost willing to promote it as a way of motivating the players.

"Justin was ready to play in the Michigan game but it didn't unfold that way," Tressel said. "Last Tuesday and Wednesday of bowl practice, Justin played as well as I've ever seen him play. Then, as fate will have it, he stepped up to the plate when he had an opportunity and did a great job."

Ohio State finished 8-4. The Buckeyes whipped their final two opponents, Michigan and Oklahoma State, by a 70-28 margin.

Tressel believes the Buckeyes can play a lot better next year. He's probably right, and here's why:

The Buckeyes return key players on offense such as Smith, Zwick, Ginn, Santonio Holmes and Anthony Gonzalez. Defensively, the Buckeyes return nine starters, led by Schlegel, A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Donte Whitner.

"Our guys are very proud of themselves and have a lot of confidence in who they are, what they're about and what their program is all about," Tressel said.

"When we have mistakes or errors or bad fortune, they don't blink because they know who they are and they know who we are. We're going to have difficulties and challenges in the future, but I think they're the kind of people that can handle those challenges and a game like this moves you one step toward realizing that."

John Harris is The Blade's sports columnist.

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