A proud Ohio State Alumni Club of Cleveland welcomed OSU head coach Jim Tressel, along with five current players, to the 55th Annual Football Appreciation Banquet on Tuesday.
The outright Big Ten champion Buckeyes (12-0) are coming off their thrilling 42-39 win over Michigan last Saturday and will play in the BCS national championship game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8. Needless to say, there were a lot of happy people at Tuesday’s event, especially with so many of the impact players from this year’s team being from the Cleveland area.
Tressel, wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Brian Robiskie, and defensive linemen David Patterson and Robert Rose are natives of Northeast Ohio and they were happy to make the 2 1/2-hour drive from Columbus to see some old friends on Tuesday. Quarterback Troy Smith was invited but couldn't make it.
It was Tressel and the players' first appearance since the post-game press conference following the Michigan game, and yes, Tressel is slowly getting his voice back. He sounded almost back to normal on Tuesday.
First up, the coach talked about clinching OSU’s first outright Big Ten title in 22 years and their second birth into the BCS championship game in five years.
“It’s awfully exciting and we can’t wait to get back to work,” Tressel said. “Our guys are taking this week off and will enjoy a well-deserved Thanksgiving and then we’ll get back at it a little next week and get ready for final exams, then find out who our final exam is in Phoenix.”
Tressel has proven that long layoffs between games don’t negatively affect his teams. They had six weeks off the last three times they went to the desert for a bowl game and they went 3-0. This time the break is seven weeks.
“Well, I don’t know about having 50 days off, but our guys have gone 12 straight weeks and everyone’s been shooting at them and we’ve played a very solid schedule and all the hype that’s along with it and going to school and all that, they need a little time,” Tressel said. “Plus, I think they are going to be very anxious to go back and work on some fundamental things and we’re going to need to improve considerably if we’re going to be able to win one more.”
Like anyone else, Tressel was surprised that the OSU-UM showdown turned into an offensive shootout.
“Yeah, I would have been surprised if someone would have told me there will be 80 points scored in that game,” he said. “But the skill level of the people in that game and just the pace that it took and how hard everyone was playing… Michael Hart is tough to tackle, but so is Antonio Pittman and Beanie Wells. And Troy Smith, every time you give him the ball something good might happen and his group of receivers have matured tremendously. I thought our offensive line was maybe the surprise to everybody. Everybody thought that was an advantage that Michigan had going into the game and I thought our offensive line did a wonderful job.
“And I thought their offense did a nice job. Defensively, we just had a couple miscues and it was just an unusual game. I didn’t think it was going to be 42-39.”
Freshman running back Chris Wells carried just five times, but he made the most of them with 56 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown which gave OSU its first lead of the game at 14-7.
“I would have liked to have played Beanie a little more,” Tressel said. “But we had some four and five-wide things that we were in and if you would have told me that we would have scored 42 points and Antonio Pittman and Beanie Wells would have played as few plays as they played, I wouldn’t have thought that could happen.
“We didn’t hesitate a bit to put Beanie in. I think it was the fourth series. We wanted Antonio to get in the flow because he’s a great player and we knew he’d make a difference as well, but we wanted Beanie in there as soon as we could.”
Tressel also talked about the 39-yard Smith-to-Ginn touchdown and what a good job Wells and Smith did of selling the fake.
“Well, we’ve been working on that play for a number of weeks,” Tressel said. “And we didn’t necessarily hold it for the Michigan game, but we just didn’t have a need for it the four and five weeks prior to that. But the key was the excellent play action and we called it ‘jump’ because that’s what we wanted Beanie to do: go airborne and if the DB even glances at him it’s too late to catch Teddy and now all of a sudden you’re chasing him and not seeing the football thrown, and so it was well-executed.”
With the Tressel on the cusp of his second national championship at OSU and sixth overall, he was asked when he first knew that the 2006 Buckeyes might be a championship team.
“Probably about 7:15 Saturday,” he quipped. “When Teddy caught the onside kick, I felt pretty good at that point.
“I liked this group all along. But going into spring practice, I really felt the maturity that our seniors had was going to be a lot more impactful than some of the stuff people were talking about like the lost starters on defense, or Santonio (Holmes) is not there, Nick Mangold is not there, Robbie Sims isn’t there. And that’s all true. If you look at in black and white, it makes no sense to put Ohio State No. 1. But the one trump card that I thought we had was we really had 15 fifth-year guys that had been here for five years, then we had a couple other seniors who walked-on or were transfers or whatever, but we have 15 guys that have been here and have learned so many lessons and I knew they would impart their wisdom on the rest of the group.
“And then I felt good about the talent that we had. They were just untested and they got to be tested in the spring and the preseason. And I knew if we could handle September that we could handle anything because that schedule for a young team was a little bit much. But again I think the maturity was the wildcard.”
Smith closed the regular season with 2,507 passing yards (67 comp. pct.), 30 touchdowns and just five interceptions and Tressel is confident Smith will win Heisman Trophy.
“I think there will be no question,” he said.
And it’s a little hard to imagine how far Smith has come under Tressel’s tutelage. Smith was one of the final recruits of the 2002 class (partially due to academics) and was listed as an “athlete” not “quarterback” on Ohio State’s press releases.
“There’s been a lot of stories about him being the last recruit or whatever and I’m not sure that’s accurate because he was in our camp going into his senior year,” Tressel said. “There was no question in our mind that we were recruiting Troy. We wanted to be very honest and upfront about what the situation was going to be and there’s only one football and we had three or four quarterbacks and Justin (Zwick) coming in and we told him that he probably wouldn’t be able to express himself as a quarterback until the spring. And Troy being the unselfish and competitive guy that he is that didn’t bother him and he ran the scout team and did whatever he had to do. But he was offered a scholarship a lot sooner than I think some of the myths that are going around right now.”
Tressel also discussed the intriguing situation of the BCS and which team OSU might play in the title game. It could be a rematch with Michigan, it could be against USC, or it could be against the SEC champion.
“Well, it would be a difficult task against any of those teams,” Tressel said. “Whether it’s Michigan again in January, that’s fine because the good news is that it’s for all the marbles. If it’s Southern Cal, or if it’s Arkansas, or if it’s Florida, to me those are the only four possibilities. I don’t foresee any other teams creeping into the picture.
“But we’re not going to worry about it. This week we’re trying to keep our minds off football and then next week we’ll get back at it a little bit and get back to the beginnings and strength training and those kind of things and fundamental football work. And then we’ll take some time off for final exams and by the time finals are over we’ll know our opponent and we will have had film in for a few days of our opponent, and if it’s Michigan we will have had the film for the last six weeks and just go to work.”
Needless to say, Ohio State’s players and coaches won’t need tour guides in the Phoenix area.
“It’s amazing,” Tressel said. “These fifth-year kids, it will be their fourth trip. And if you knew from the ages of 18-22 that you’d spend 10 days of your life in Phoenix four out of five years you’d be a happy guy.”
The Alumni Club of Cleveland passed out some hardware at its event on Tuesday. All six Buckeyes that were invited were honored.
* Smith won the Lou “The Toe” Groza Award for most outstanding player.
* Ginn received the John Hicks Award for outstanding offensive player.
* Patterson received the J. Milton Costello Award for outstanding defensive player.
* Rose won the John Nagy Award for outstanding freshman player.
* Gonzalez received the Korey Stringer Award for most inspirational player.
* Robiskie won the Woody Hayes Award as the most outstanding scholar-athlete.
Gonzo Checks In
Gonzalez didn’t pass out any Cuban cigars on Tuesday, but everyone still loves him.
One of the secrets to the Buckeyes’ success this year might be their work in the weight room with new strength coach Eric Lichter. Gonzalez talked more about the man who was hired in 2006 and how the Buckeyes are usually able to play well in the fourth quarter.
“One of the things that we were always pretty decent at was finishing football games,” he said. “But the thing that he brings it’s that cutting-edge, aggressive mentality to the weight room. The workouts, it took a lot of guys some adjustment, it really did, because they are high-intensity, they do demand more of athletes and we have shown tremendous growth in the weight room, which has translated on to the field, which is awesome.”
Gonzalez is just happy to be playing in the national championship game. He doesn’t waste time trying to guess who OSU might play.
“It really doesn’t matter,” he said. “My theory is we’re there and that’s all I care about. I know we’re going to play, otherwise I don’t really care.”
Gonzalez was asked if he would be against an OSU-UM rematch.
“We’re certainly not scared of playing Michigan again,” he said.
Gonzalez also gave his take on Smith’s Heisman campaign, and he’s predicting a landslide.
“Absolutely I think he’s going to win the Heisman,” Gonzalez said. “If he doesn’t win the award, it should be discontinued. He’s the best player in college football. There’s nothing else you could say. I can’t imagine there’s too many people that would disagree with that.”