The visiting Buckeyes led Illinois 17-0 at halftime last Saturday and appeared to be on their way to cruising to another blowout victory. However, a lackluster second half from OSU, coupled with improved play from the Fighting Illini, made the game a lot closer than OSU wanted. However, the No. 1 Buckeyes held on for a 17-10 win to remain undefeated at 10-0 (6-0 Big Ten).
"Going on the road to Illinois was a battle, just like we'd talked about and the fact it was going to be physical," Tressel said. "I thought we were prepared and I thought we came out and did what we needed to do to begin the game, and really even to begin the second half. I don't think we finished like you need to finish and most especially on the road against a team that's going to battle all the way down to the end and that's what Big Ten teams do. I thought our first 40 minutes or so were solid and the last 20 were less than that and because of that, we didn't have near as many winning performances. I think we had three on the defense and maybe two on the offense."
This Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC) the Buckeyes will be facing a Northwestern team that is coming off its best performance of the season – a 21-7 win at Iowa. The Wildcats (3-7, 1-5) are led by sophomore tailback Tyrell Sutton, Ohio's 2004 Mr. Football from Akron Hoban.
"As we move to Northwestern, all you have to do is turn the film on," Tressel said. "And we say that every week, but it seems like we get to play people at the time they're playing their best and I felt that way about Illinois as they were coming in. I feel that way about Northwestern. You put on the Iowa film and it was a decisive win. A year ago, they beat Iowa and they had to score two touchdowns in the last five minutes and they upset them. This year, they didn't upset them. In fact, Northwestern's defense held Iowa to about 60 or 70 fewer yards than we held Iowa's offense to, and Northwestern's offense outgained how many yards we had against Iowa.
"So you need not look any further than that football game, and I think a transition has been made from their standpoint with their quarterback situation. They're settling in on who they are and what they're doing and to me, that's the best thing they've done is that they've decided, OK, here's what (C.J.) Bacher does best and we'll keep our core business with Tyrell Sutton who's fantastic, and what we do and so forth, and then we'll tie the rest of the program around what Bacher does. And to me, that's the mark of good coaching. Sometimes it takes some experimenting. They had other quarterbacks in the game earlier in the year and went through some ups and downs and so forth, and they've gotten to the point now where they really know who they are and what they want to do and you can see it in their play."
Tressel talked about the growth of Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, who is the youngest head coach in the country at 31.
"I'm not sure when you watch a film if you can see head coaching growing or not growing, because you really don't know what they're doing," he said. "Everyone does their head coaching duties different. Some guy's the defensive coordinator, some guy's the offensive coordinator, some guy watches from afar. (Virginia Tech coach) Frank Beamer runs the special teams. Pat was a defensive guy. I think it would be a little hard for me to tell because every decision the head coach makes, like they talk about, boy, that was a good decision they called timeout when they did, or, oh, man, they blew it. You've got lots of help, hey, coach, what do you think about a timeout or do you think we should do this or so and so is limping, we've got to get him out of the game. So, knowing Pat the little bit I do, which I don't know him much, he's a guy that obviously is very open to growing and learning from his staff and input and everything else, he just seems to be a very humble guy, and I'm sure he'll get better every day."
Tressel was asked if it could be a good thing that OSU had a tougher-than-expected game against Illinois.
"I've always been a believer that reality is the best teacher, and if you win a decisive game, you need to know why, and here's what we did to win a decisive game," he said. "If you win a game that's not quite as decisive, why? What was it that we didn't do as well? When you lose a game, what was the reason? Or what were the reasons? So, I don't know if there's such a thing as a magical wake-up call, but I think reality is very important, and the biggest reality you have is that you go to someone else's place, you better play 60 minutes because I don't want to infer that we didn't play well at all there, because if you turn the film off at halftime, it doesn't look much different than any of the four or five games prior to it. Turn it back on, we didn't do the things you need to do. So will it be good for us? If we learn from the reality."
"Probably one-fifth," he said, eliciting laughter from the room. "I don't mean to be a smart alec, but it's not like he was the only guy on the line. And it's not like Tim Schafer didn't do a solid job. Tim Schafer graded out very similar to the rest of the group. So would Alex have graded 95 and then the rest of them grade what they did? I'm not sure we would have been much different. And again, if you turn the film off at the end of 40 plays, you'd probably have five lineman grade winning performance, but that's not football. You have to play all the plays. I think we had 40 plays at the end of the half and ended up with 60, 61, 71, whatever. It wasn't great. So sure, you'd like to have all of your personnel, but if anyone thinks that they were the difference, they're missing the point of this game."
Freshman running back Chris Wells lost his fourth fumble of the season against Illinois and Tressel decided to not play him the rest of the game.
"Well, how concerned am I? You know, tremendously concerned," Tressel said. "Whether it's Chris or anyone doing any job that isn't getting done the way we need it as a team. I'd like to think that he'll, one day, get that under control and I'm hoping it's this day. And I said after the game and I still believe today that if we're going to become a very good team, then he's going to have to be a part of it, because I think bringing at them the ability to come in with three running backs, and I think he's come along in so many phases of the game. He's come along running the ball, he's coming along in his pass, coming along in his receiving responsibilities, he can add a lot to this team.
"Unfortunately, just like a quarterback who can add a lot to the team if they throw it to the other guys, can you afford -- what's the risk versus reward component there? So I'm hoping that he'll be a big, positive part of what we do these next two weeks through the regular season and on into the bowl game."
Tressel was asked if Wells would play again if he loses another fumble.
"Oh, gosh, I don't know," he said. "Give me the rest of the scenario. Am I the next tailback in the game? Then he's playing."
Tressel discussed fifth-year senior Antonio Smith who is a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award, given to the nation's best defensive back. Smith is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship last spring.
"It's a great reminder of what can happen when people believe what they can accomplish," Tressel said. "Because if you would have told me two years ago that Antonio Smith would be starting, I'd have said, oh, boy, I respect your football intellect, but I can't agree. If you'd have told me that this August, I'd have said, you know, I'm not sure. But he believed he could play to that level, and that's what's most important. And it wasn't that anyone disbelieved, but I don't know that anyone was sure, but he was. And that's just the way he is. He's sure he will he'll have that mechanical engineering degree, whether he needs to study until 4 in the morning, but he's going to get it.
"He just has belief in goals and things that he wants to do and the fact that he's a (semi)finalist for the Thorpe Award is a testament to his production, because I'm sure he was not on anyone's watch list, but he produced, and obviously someone noticed him."
Tressel also talked about sophomore middle linebacker James Laurinaitis who leads the team with five interceptions – one off the school record for a linebacker (Chris Spielman).
"He has good ball skills and he has good awareness, and maybe most important, he has good guys in front of him putting pressure on," Tressel said. "And you add all that together, if you're in the right place and you can catch, and the people in front of you are creating a little bit of problems for the guy with the ball in his hands, you have a chance. Now, five's a lot, and I've seen guys go one season with seven and the next two seasons with none. Sometimes it's luck, but he's … I don't know that he's dropped any, so he's been there."
Tressel said that senior defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock – who is a finalist for the Lombardi Award – played at least 40 plays against Illinois and is doing well. Pitcock missed the Minnesota game with a concussion.
Freshman defensive back Kurt Coleman was "banged" towards the end of the Illinois game and is "questionable" this week.
Boone is "another week away" according to Tressel.
Freshman wide receiver Ray Small (concussion) will be "full-go" beginning Wednesday, according to Tressel.
"Outside of losing Mike D'Andrea for the whole year and Anderson Russell for three quarters of the year, we've been very blessed from a health standpoint," Tressel said.
Players of the week
Ohio State did not have an offensive player of the week, Jim Parker offensive lineman of the week, or Jack Tatum hit of the week.
Regarding the lack of offensive honors, Tressel said: "It's based upon the consistency that wasn't demonstrated."
The defensive player of the week was Laurinaitis, the attack force player of the week was sophomore defensive end Lawrence Wilson, and the special teams player of the week was freshman kicker Aaron Pettrey.
Regarding the fast-emerging Wilson, Tressel said: "Lawrence Wilson, we think, is really coming along every day and has been very productive. He was a little banged up in the preseason and I don't know that he began the season like we hoped he would have, and then really this last month or so, we think he's come along. And if he'll keep improving at the rate he is, it's going to be great for the Buckeyes."
Big Ten Teleconference Wrap-up
OSU head coach Jim Tressel met with the national media today via the weekly Big Ten coaches teleconference. Tressel opened with a statement about the Illinois game and the upcoming game against Northwestern.
"We had a tough ball game over at Illinois," Tressel said. "Illinois is a good football team and played hard the entire way. It was a heck of a battle for us. We're pleased we came away with a win. Now we need to take to the road again as we head to Northwestern, and I think that everyone that follows Big Ten football saw that their performance this past weekend was outstanding. We're going to have our hands full, and we've got to get to work this afternoon and get ready for it."
Plenty has been said about OSU's close call against Illinois. Tressel was asked if the game served as a wake-up call for the team.
"I don't know if it would be a wake-up call or just a reality call that when you travel to someone's stadium in the Big Ten conference, you better play for 60 minutes," he said. "I thought we played pretty well for about 40 minutes, but that's not long enough. We played pretty solid first half and we did what we needed to do to start the second half. We kicked off to them, held them, got the ball and moved it down the field, but unfortunately we didn't score. We punted it down deep, so we're doing ok from a field position standpoint. Then the final 20 minutes of the game just weren't to the level you need to compete against a team like Illinois. To their credit, they did what they needed to do. I don't know about a wakeup call, but it's a reality call that you better play 60 minutes."
Tressel talked about why he thought the team tailed off during the final 20 minutes of the game.
"I don't know if you could just put one reason because I think somewhere in the formula you have to factor in Illinois and what they did do," he said. "Then you might begin talking about what we didn't do. Like in all football games or in all parts of football games, there's a lot of ingredients, and I don't know that we had the right ingredients in those last 20 minutes."
Tressel also commented on whether or not the close call would be good for the team overall.
"I think having a tough schedule is a blessing," he said. "We knew going into the game that Illinois was a tough team. They were getting better every week. Just look at their track record. They had a good chance of beating Wisconsin the week before and all the rest. So having a tough schedule I think really prepares you. That tough schedule included traveling over to Illinois and being in a dogfight for 60 minutes. That's healthy as can be, and now we've got another tough one because we get back on the road and we're playing a team who's playing their best football. I think that's good."
One of the criticisms towards OSU following the game was the play of the offensive line. The line was missing Alex Boone during the game, and Tressel was asked if it had a negative effect and what Boone's status was for the coming week.
"For the first 40 minutes, it didn't affect it a whole bunch," he said. "After that perhaps, that was one of the things that we didn't do as well, although I don't know that you could pinpoint it on one particular spot. I would say that Alex is probably questionable for this week. He's getting better, but still I would call him questionable. Ray Small should be back, and we should be pretty much at full strength I'm guessing, outside of Alex."
Next up for the Buckeyes are the Northwestern Wildcats. Northwestern (3-7) is coming off a 21-7 win at Iowa.
"I think a year ago, the Northwestern-Iowa game was one where Northwestern made a great comeback and won the game," Tressel said. "This year's Northwestern-Iowa game, I think from the get-go, Northwestern really had good tempo, really seemed to be in command of the situation. They weren't necessarily dominating the game or anything like that, but they really seemed to be on all cylinders with all phases of their game. This time I'd have to say you need to call it a decisive victory."
Tressel said his team will have no problem avoiding looking past the Wildcats to the season finale against No. 2 Michigan.
"The truth of the matter is you just need to put on the Northwestern-Iowa game," Tressel said. "We know how difficult it is to go there and compete with the Hawkeyes, and I think the Northwestern defense held Iowa's offense to what we held them to, and I think the Northwestern offense had more yards than we had against Iowa, so that's reality, and that's them today. So showing film, giving the facts, the truth, and knowing full well we've got a lot of guys that have played against Northwestern before and how tough it is when you go to other people's stadiums, all those things are true. But really what's most important is our own preparation so that we do our job the best we can."
First-year Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked his thoughts on his team's big win and how far the team has come.
"We've really been playing pretty well for the past month," Fitzgerald said. "As you look at our season, it's probably the best football that we've played. We talk a lot about playing our best football at the end of the season around here, and I really think that we're doing that. We've done that really every year I was around Coach Walker as an assistant coach. Our goals are to be improving at the end of the year and playing for something significant. Obviously we still are; it's not necessarily a bowl berth but we're playing for our seniors and obviously the opportunity to shake up everything in the country. This week's about us, and we're really focusing on getting better. If we can just get better today and tomorrow and Thursday in practice and improve in Saturday's game, I'll be happy with the progress that our young football players are making here."
The Wildcats showed their improvement with the win at Iowa. Tressel discussed the keys in their improvement, including the emergence of quarterback C.J. Bacher.
"I think what they've done such a nice job of is doing what their guys can do," Tressel said. "The more you practice guys, the more you find out 'Okay, here's what he does best' and so forth, and so they've really continued to build around their core offense, which is Tyrell Sutton and just a basic concept of an offense. Then they've taken what Bacher can do, they've also put their other quarterbacks at other spots and so forth and helped the entire cause. Bacher brings a little bit different style to the table than Brewer, and I think they've done a nice job of maximizing that."
Fitzgerald also discussed what Bacher has meant to the Northwestern offense.
"I think what C.J.'s done is he's gone out and is really playing within the framework of our offense," Fitzgerald said. "He's really throwing on time well, he's been taking what the defense gives him and for the most part making good decisions. That's something that we constantly talk about here is everybody on our football team giving our team a chance to win, and if you do that based on what your position calls for, we're going to have success. I really think he's done a nice job of going out and executing what we've asked him to do. He's a better athlete that I think people give him credit for. He's doing a great job of spreading the ball out to our athletes on the perimeter at wide receiver, and also with us being able to throw the ball more effectively it's been able to open the run game up for Tyrell. I think our offensive line is really starting to come together; we've had eight different starters throughout the course of the year, and I think it's really starting to come together. I think C.J.'s performance coupled with the better play of our offensive line is really what's made our offense improve over the last month or so."
The Buckeyes represent Northwestern's chance at playing the role of spoiler. An upset over Ohio State would make the season for the Wildcats. But Fitzgerald said the focus has been internal and not on the fact that the Wildcats are hosting the nation's No. 1 team.
"We're going to focus on Northwestern," he said. "We need to improve, we need to get better. We're playing a lot of young guys right now, a lot of first year starters, and we need to focus on ourselves. It's a great opportunity to play just Big Ten football. I know our guys are excited about the opportunity of playing another game, and we're going to really focus on ourselves this week and try to get better."