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Back For Thirds

After two one-sided losses in BCS title game, Ohio State is taking it (ready now) one game at a time

September 07, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- This time around, the Ohio State players aren't talking redemption.

"We can't focus on the past," quarterback Todd Boeckman said.

This time around, the coaches aren't using motivational tricks or fancy speeches or signs on the locker room wall.

After two straight trips to the national championship game and two losses, after frustration and embarrassment of national proportions, the Buckeyes want to start with a blank slate.

But if you think they have forgotten about those two defeats, you're wrong. Dead wrong.

"Our mood has been . . . yeah, we're disappointed," tight end Rory Nicol said. "I can't sit here and say that we're not."

Saturday's game against No. 1 USC at the Coliseum represents a major step in Ohio State's quest to reach a third consecutive Bowl Championship Series title game and, at the very least, a chance to prove they can defeat a top-notch opponent.

The players say they have learned a few things from past disappointments. They are approaching Saturday -- and this season -- in a different way.

Go back to the winter of 2007, when the undefeated and top-ranked Buckeyes were favored to defeat Florida for the championship.

"No one thought that anyone was going to beat us," Nicol recalled. "Maybe guys bought into that."

The result: Ohio State managed only 82 yards in offense and was slammed, 41-14.

The following spring and summer, it seems that vengeance became the program's theme. Coach Jim Tressel had the code on the locks to the football facility changed to 4-1-1-4, a daily reminder to every player and coach coming through the door.

Later in the season, he handed out a DVD that might as well have been a horror show: television commentators belittling Ohio State, Florida players holding up the crystal trophy, opposing fans chanting "Buckeyes Gator Bait."

Linebacker James Laurinaitis says that embarrassment was the predominant emotion. Defensive back Malcolm Jenkins wonders if that wasn't a mistake.

"It was like, we've got to get back, we've got to redeem ourselves," Jenkins said. "I feel like we paid too much attention to it."

The truth was, the 2007 Ohio State team was not as experienced as its predecessor, having lost quarterback Troy Smith and receiver Ted Ginn Jr., among others.

After a late-season stumble against Illinois, the Buckeyes slipped to No. 7 and reached the 2008 title game through the back door as other contenders slipped away. The ensuing 38-24 loss to Louisiana State, while nearly as lopsided as the Florida game, felt different to the players.

The Buckeyes actually led 10-0 in the first quarter when the mistakes began. Two penalties set up an LSU touchdown. LSU blocked a field-goal attempt. Boeckman had a pass intercepted.

By halftime, LSU led, 24-10.

"Not many people would say it, but I think we were a few plays away from being in that game," Laurinaitis said. "We truly felt we deserved to be there."

So, despite inevitable comparisons to the Buffalo Bills and their four Super Bowl losses, a new attitude has come over the Buckeyes this fall. It might have something to do with 20 returning starters on a senior-laden roster.

There is no special code on the door locks. Boeckman says the coaches have posted a few newspaper clips on the bulletin board, just enough to get players fired up, but not much more.

"To be honest," the quarterback said, "we haven't been talking about it too much."

Tressel appears to have settled on the notion that each player must address the two losses in his own way.

"There might be one guy saying 'Oh man, I can't believe this' and maybe losing confidence," he said. "Another guy might be saying, 'What are they getting on us for? We were in the national championship game.' "

The coach has asked his players to focus on that sports cliche of taking it one week at a time. He is relying on veteran leadership to manage the team's frame of mind.

"They know that we're a mature bunch," Laurinaitis said. "This summer has been very businesslike."

A blowout victory over Youngstown State and a narrow escape over Ohio had set up the showdown with USC. And the last two seasons have taught the Buckeyes not to look toward January.

Nicol talks about how hard it was simply to reach the BCS title game.

"There's adversity and injuries, and there are all the things that can happen throughout the year," Nicol said. "I guess we're just focused on being mentally sharp and being as good as we can be as often as possible."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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