COLUMBUS — Whether they grow up on a dairy farm near Van Wert in the west, near the banks of the meandering Ohio River down south or on the streets of Cleveland a stone’s throw from Lake Erie, there’s something about Ohio State that beckons the state’s best high school football players.
It’s a fact that makes life simpler for coach Jim Tressel, who basically has his pick of the top players produced within the borders.
For those challenging the Buckeyes, particularly those who also 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, whose Zips go up 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 deigning to play 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 college 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 debuted by beating Army 22-14 at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
What adds spice to in-state games is that so many players know somebody 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 Tressel’s first game as Ohio State’s 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 last week), 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, totaled 46 yards on 16 carries, with 20 yards coming on one carry.
On defense, the Buckeyes didn’t give up a touchdown but also didn’t force a turnover, with free safety Anderson Russell dropping an interception while all alone and nothing but green turf in front of him.
The Zips never trailed against the Cadets, but another first-time starting quarterback, Chris Jacquemain, had just an OK game. He hit on 14 of 24 passes for 125 yards and a score without an interception.
The defense stymied Army, limiting it to 58 yards rushing and intercepting two passes while giving up 184 yards passing on 44 attempts.
“The biggest piece of the puzzle is that they (Akron’s defenders) do have eight guys that they can and will commit to the attack,” said Ohio State running backs coach Dick Tressel, Jim’s older brother. “You’d better be ready to deal with that.”
The Buckeyes’ familiarity with the other in-state schools can sometimes lead to overconfidence. The players are aware that Ohio State hasn’t lost to another Ohio college since 1921, a 7-6 loss to Oberlin.
“We try to never overlook our opponent,” cornerback Donald Washington said. “We have to prepare the same way, whether we’re playing the best team in the nation or one of the teams not ranked among the best. We have to have that same focus throughout the season, so we don’t slip up.”