After three years of paying it forward, Brian Rolle is ready to see the return on his investment.
The senior linebacker and Ohio State captain wants to end his career with the Buckeyes the same way he began it: with a share of the Big Ten title. Capturing the conference crown this season would allow OSU to tie a league record with a piece of six consecutive titles, joining the 1972-77 Buckeyes as the only squads to do so.
That fact plays prominently on Rolle’s mind.
“(Winning a Big Ten title) would mean a lot to me because the guys before us, they paved the way for us to be great,” he said. “All we have to do is embrace it and get better each week and if we do win another Big Ten championship it would be great for our seniors.”
That spate of recent success means that no member of this year’s roster has ever experienced a season during which the Buckeyes did not win a Big Ten title. The five-year span ties the 1988-92 Michigan squads for the second-longest streak in league history.
The importance placed on winning a conference crown starts with head coach Jim Tressel. Rather than focusing solely on national titles, the head coach preaches the importance of controlling what is in his power to control. A chance at a national title will come, he tells his players, only if they first take care of their own schedule.
It is an attitude that is not always innately possessed by the Buckeyes. Redshirt freshman quarterback Kenneth Guiton, a native of Houston, said he only knew Big 12 and Texas football. Redshirt freshman running back Jaamal Berry, who hails from Miami, said he grew up watching NFL football and did not start learning about the Big Ten until he was being recruited.
Guiton said he did not fully grasp the importance of winning a Big Ten title until last year’s team captured one.
“It didn’t sink in until we actually won it last year,” he said. “It really sunk in that winning a Big Ten championship is big here and it’s something that’s basically going to become a part of tradition. We’ve been doing a great job with it so far and we don’t expect to slow down now.”
Berry described OSU’s overtime victory against Iowa last season – when fans rushed the field after Devin Barclay’s 39-yard field goal punched a ticket to the Rose Bowl – as “one of the greatest things ever.”
Illinois serves as the first conference test for the Buckeyes. The Fighting Illini enjoyed an open week while the Buckeyes were beating Eastern Michigan, and with two new coordinators on staff they present a bit of a mystery for OSU.
“I haven’t seen much of Illinois but I know every Big Ten team we play, they’re going to be tough,” Rolle said. “Defense is always going to be good in the Big Ten and fast and the offenses are good. I know Illinois has a pretty good offense as well as a great defense. We’ve got to come out firing.”
It is the time of year Dexter Larimore looks forward to. Although he is tied for fifth on the team with 11 tackles and second with 3½ tackles for a loss, the senior nose tackle is getting into the portion of the schedule where he feels he truly shines: Big Ten play.
“As a nose guard, I love when they’re coming at me,” he said. “I take pride in trying to stop the run, trying to make sure they don’t get any rushing yards. At least you know if you’re getting beat or you’re not getting beat. Sometimes they’ll spread you out and you’re just running around all day. To me, I don’t really like running around and chasing quarterbacks. I’d rather have people coming at me.”
However, as both he and Rolle pointed out, Illinois might not exactly fit that mold.
“Big Ten play is a whole different game,” the lineman said. “It’s something that is physical. They’ll pound you and then a team like Illinois you never know what they’re going to come out with. They might try to pound you early but they’re probably going to try to go over the top. They’re going to do some different things.”
Regardless of what the Fighting Illini might attempt to do, this group of Buckeyes does not want to be the ones responsible for breaking the streak.
“It would be very strange,” junior running back Dan Herron said of not winning a title. “I don’t want to be part of that group that doesn’t win it. I want to be the guy that says I won it every year I was here. It never gets old. That’s definitely one of our big goals, to win the Big Ten championship every year. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
If OSU is capable of capturing another league crown, bigger things could be in store.
“I know if you go undefeated you’re in pretty good shape,” senior cornerback Devon Torrence said. “You can’t be asked to do anything else. We can’t control that. The only thing we can do is go out there and try to be undefeated.”