COLUMBUS - Ohio State may not have been concentrating solely on Illinois when it struggled to beat the Illini last season.
The Buckeyes swear it won`t happen again - even as a date with archrival Michigan looms on Nov. 17.
So why did the unbeaten Buckeyes have so much trouble in a
17-10 victory at Champaign, Ill., against a team that finished the season 2-10?
"I think we just got lazy, to be honest," Ohio State receiver Brian Hartline said Tuesday. "Sometimes the Illinois name can get you. They were never a big powerhouse. We kind of got a little bit too complacent last year and confident at that point in the year. They caught us sleeping and we couldn`t snap out of it."
Coach Jim Tressel said he didn`t foresee that being a problem this Saturday, with the Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) again ranked No. 1 hosting an Illinois (7-3, 4-2) team having a turnaround season.
"This group really understands that we`ve got work to do," Tressel said.
No one could blame the Buckeyes if they`re peeking ahead. The Big Ten has become a two-horse race, with Michigan and the Buckeyes both unbeaten through six games. The Wolverines play at Wisconsin in another marquee game on Saturday, before next week`s annual rivalry game between Ohio State and Michigan at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
Backup linebacker and special-teams standout Austin Spitler said it`s hard to focus on Illinois when "The Game" is just around the corner.
"Michigan`s always in the back of our minds - first day of camp to last game of the year - they`re always there because it`s such a big rivalry and such a big game for us," he said. "But our team prides itself on going week to week, 1-0 each week, and just concentrating on the team that we have that week."
That wasn`t always the case.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Michigan and Ohio State dominated what was known as the "Big Two and the Little Eight," then-Ohio State coach Woody Hayes made no pretense about practicing for Michigan weeks before the game. He didn`t tell his players that, but his assistants were well aware Hayes was thinking ahead to the game that defines each Ohio State season.
"Every Monday we practiced for Michigan," said Earle Bruce, an assistant to Hayes from 1966 to 1971 who then succeeded Hayes as coach of the Buckeyes in 1979. "The players had to know. All of a sudden we`re running this package every Monday and it has no relationship with the team we`re playing that week."
Bruce said that in 1971 Hayes had the Buckeyes spend three days practicing for the Michigan game instead of their next opponent, Colorado. And Colorado was No. 10 in the nation. And it was only September.
Those days are long since over, with parity rocking college football and with the possibility of 10 of the 11 Big Ten schools qualifying for a bowl game.
Ohio State`s game at Illinois last year was two weeks before the showdown with No. 2 Michigan - the first time the two had come into the game ranked Nos. 1 and 2. Hartline didn`t blame that game for the Buckeyes` lack of focus at Illinois so much as a lack of respect for the Illini.
He said that`s changed dramatically.
"The amount of respect we have for that team is just about as high as anybody else," he said. "Being able to watch them do what they`ve done this year so far, we have a lot of respect for them. ... It`ll be a different game this year."
BUCKEYE BUZZ: Illinois has struggled, and now is reaping the rewards from several down years.
With records of 5-7, 1-11, 2-8, 2-9 and 2-10 the last five years since winning the Big Ten title, the Illini have put together a 7-3 mark this season heading into Saturday`s 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Ohio Stadium.
"They have the blend that makes for good teams," coach Jim Tressel said on Tuesday. "They have a bunch of older kids who have suffered somewhat, been through some tough years. They were recruited in the next couple of years after they were outright Big Ten champs in 2001, and things didn`t go as well as they envisioned. But they fought through it. There`s five seniors on defense and four seniors on offense who have been playing a long time. They just kept growing, they`re tough and it means a lot to them."
VOTE HIM IN, NOT OUT: Remember how popular the Web site www.fireronzook.com used to be when current Illinois coach Ron Zook was the top man in Gainesville?
There used to be thousands of hits after Gators losses.
How times have changed. Now that the Illini are playing well under Zook, the football team`s Web site is asking fans to vote once a day for Zook as Liberty Mutual national coach of the year.
BIG HITTER: WR Brian Hartline won the Jack Tatum hit of the week based on the applause (and cheering) of his teammates on Tuesday afternoon.
A winner a couple of times a year ago as a special-teams player, Hartline had a crunching block on Chris "Beanie" Wells` third and final touchdown run of the day in the fourth quarter.
"Their safety rolled down and I just came from the outside and had a little crackback," Hartline said with a grin. "I took him out and that was a good one."
CATCHY: Illinois LB J Leman (yes, his first name is J, no period, no other letters) introduced the starters on defense during a televised game earlier this season.
At the very end, he concluded, "That`s the unit that puts the â€˜pain` in Champaign."
NEAR THE BOTTOM:Â The Buckeyes are unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country, but they`re 118th out of the 119 Bowl Subdivision teams when it comes to kickoff return yardage. They average 17.35 yards per return, just ahead of last-place New Mexico State`s 16.94. Unbeaten Kansas is No. 1 at almost 31 yards per return.
Asked what the problem is, Tressel said there were several factors. "One, we haven`t had much practice - which I would just assume not have much practice with that unit," he said. "Two, we haven`t hit that one that you need. A lot of times you move from 118th to 62nd with one home run, and (it`s hard) when you only get a couple a game."