Adversity Hasn't Killed Buckeyes

Malcolm Jenkins

The 2008 Ohio State football team has had to deal with adversity the ones before it did not. But the losses, injuries, turmoil and criticism are on ice, it seems, as the Buckeyes sit one win away – against its archrival, no less – from another Big Ten title.

Early January was a time of optimism – at least when it came to the 2008 season – for Ohio State football fans.

Many of the team's most important players, including stars James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins, declared during the first half of the year's first month that they would return to play for the Buckeyes. Dreams of converting two straight appearances in the BCS National Championship Game into a title began to dance through the heads of many OSU supporters.

That's about the last time things went according to plan. From the team's two losses to numerous off-field distractions, fans have had plenty about which to complain, yet the Buckeyes still stand where they hope to every season: A win against Michigan away from capturing part of a Big Ten title.

So even though major dreams like winning the national title or capturing an unprecedented third straight outright league crown have gone down the drain, there is still plenty to play for heading into the annual clash with the Wolverines.

"We set out to the outright Big Ten and we dropped the ball against Penn State, but to still be in the running because of what happened elsewhere in the Big Ten, it just helps us out a little more," fullback Brandon Smith said. "It makes us feel a little better.

"We're excited and trying to make sure we're doing our part to get that Big Ten championship."

The path to the conference championship is simple. With a win over Michigan, Ohio State will tie for the league crown, though a possible Rose Bowl berth will come down to a later game between Penn State and Michigan State.

The Big Ten title would be the fourth in a row for Ohio State, which shared the trophy with Penn State in 2005. Only one other time in Ohio State history has a team won four straight Big Ten titles; the 1972-77 teams all won at least a share.

Earlier this season before a two-game gantlet with the Spartans and Nittany Lions, a number of players spoke of what it would mean to return to Ohio Stadium one day and be announced to the crowd as four-time Big Ten champions.

That dream was on life support after the Buckeyes lost a fourth-quarter lead against the Nittany Lions at home on Oct. 25.

"At one point, you see Penn State kind of running away with things," receiver Brian Hartline said after Saturday's win against Illinois. "They always say anything can happen in November, but at some point you're kind of like, ‘We might be finishing second.' "

That was the latest bit of adversity to strike the Buckeyes in a season full of it – and that's in addition to losses to Penn State and then-No. 1 USC.

At least three players have been suspended at one point, causing one parent to publicly question the coaching staff. The coaching competencies of the team's coordinators and head coach have been questioned by many fans, and a number of high-profile players have in the eyes of many fallen short of expectations – however high they were – set by some fans and media. And the team had to deal with an injury to standout tailback Chris Wells and a midseason quarterback switch that left it in the hands of a true freshman in Terrelle Pryor.

But a lifeline soon came when Penn State took the field at Iowa on Nov. 8. The Hawkeyes came back to post a one-point victory that was secured in the final seconds, dropping the Nittany Lions from the top of the standings and reviving the Buckeyes' Big Ten title hopes.

"We're very grateful for that," senior kicker Ryan Pretorius said.

Coaches and players have maintained that media and fan criticism rarely reaches that far into the football family, so that hasn't been a huge distraction. And while many of the Buckeyes admitted in interviews recently that this season has at least been tougher on the field than many in the past, that fact didn't seem to burden them too heavily.

That was even true for those seniors who prompted such early optimism about the Buckeyes' chances. All maintained that a national championship was not their end-all, be-all goal from the beginning, and they said Monday that they wouldn't be disappointed in how this season went – especially if it ends with a win Saturday.

"If we beat Michigan, it'll be a lot different," Jenkins said. "But as of right now, if the season ended today, I'd be pretty happy about how it went. I wouldn't regret anything. I think we've all played hard. We've fought and we've had some great times here."

Such is the well-adjusted attitude of the Buckeyes, who have dealt with the defeats and now stand on the precipice of a successful season, even if it's not quite the one they had hoped it would be.

"We've got to remember in the grand scheme of things how blessed that we have been, and we still have a lot to play for," Pretorius said. "I mean, you might reminisce and look back on the season and say we could have done this and we should have done that and what have you, but we have to understand that's not reality.

"A lot of things happen. We've bounced back well from our losses and we've got one more game this season."

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