COLUMBUS, OHIO — The game plan was to sneak into town early and catch Ohio State football in a semi-relaxed state, well in advance of the inevitable lockdown before Saturday's game against USC -- an almost must-win for the Buckeyes and the beleaguered Big Ten Conference.
The plan failed.
It was too late.
It was Aug. 19.
A glimpse of Ohio State was offered at an evening scrimmage in fabled Ohio Stadium, as beat reporters who cover daily . . . well, what the head coach generally wants covered . . . sat together monitored by two sports information officials.
Cellphone use was strictly prohibited. A team roster was handed out, but several of the numbers were wrong.
The tall player, standing 6 feet 6 inches behind center, wearing black jersey No. 2, was obviously sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
No reporter would be talking to him this day.
It was Wednesday, which was designated by Coach Jim Tressel for special teams' player interviews only. So, after the scrimmage, reporters and television crews scurried to push tape recorders into the faces of the punter, kicker and long snapper.
Control and secrecy are the mother's milk of football. The open locker-room policies at USC and UCLA are almost unheard-of at most major college programs.
And nowhere is the word "clandestine" more appropriate than it is in the Big Ten.
"It's just a different culture," a scrimmage observer noted.
This "iron curtain" mentality may have nothing to do with the conference having won only 1 1/2 football national titles since 1968 -- Michigan's half-share with Nebraska in 1997 and Ohio State's undisputed title in 2002.
It could be noted, though, that Woody Hayes at Ohio State and Michigan's Bo Schembechler -- two titans of Big Ten covert planning -- also struggled in big games.
Schembechler was 5-12 in bowls, 2-8 in the Rose; Hayes was 5-6 in bowls while at Ohio State, with a 4-4 record in Pasadena.
Could clamping down make players more nervous?
"I don't know how it could make them tight," Tressel countered during a post-scrimmage dinner break at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. "I've never had any of my players come in and say, 'Hey Coach, we need to have the media here more.' "
The stakes are always high in Columbus, but never higher, perhaps, than they are now.
The USC game is seen by many as a line-in-the-sand game -- a last stand for a conference with shaken credibility.
The Big Ten went 1-6 last season in bowl games; Michigan is coming off one of its worst seasons; and Penn State got routed by USC in the Rose Bowl.
"Ohio State is a top-10 team playing at home at night against a true freshman quarterback in the second game," said Michael Rosenberg, a Detroit sportswriter and author of "War as They Knew It," a book about the Hayes-Schembechler rivalry. "It shouldn't be that important, but it is. If Ohio State does not win this game, the Big Ten will be considered irrelevant for the rest of the year, and rightfully so."
The conference avoided a disastrous 2009 debut last weekend when Ohio State survived a four-point home win against Navy, Minnesota rallied to beat lowly Syracuse in overtime and Iowa blocked two field goals in the finals seconds to stave off Northern Iowa.
What's gone wrong?
"It's hard to tell," Tressel said. "History tells you that there are cycles."
Even Ohio State, the Big Ten's flagship program this decade, is feeling the heat.. Winners of the 2002 Bowl Championship Series title game, the Buckeyes have lost their last three BCS bowl games.
In 2006 and 2007, Ohio State was played off its feet in consecutive BCS title games by Florida and Louisiana State. Last year, Ohio State played well in the Fiesta Bowl but let victory slip away against Texas.
"Trust me, we hear all about it," Ohio State punter Jon Thoma said of the Big Ten's reputation. "The numbers don't lie."
The punter in August was not allowed to look ahead to USC -- with good reason. Navy wasn't expected to be an easy opener and, as it turned out, it wasn't.
"We know Southern Cal is there," Thoma said. "We know we have a game against Toledo. And we know the Big Ten season is coming. The only other team we think about is Michigan. We have a period every day dedicated to Michigan."
Jake McQuaide, the Buckeyes' long snapper -- again, that's who was available -- understands what is at stake for his team and conference.
"We know people are saying that kind of stuff," McQuaide said. "We don't worry about it too much. . . . We probably don't deserve to be No. 1 right now. We accept that. We have to prove ourselves."
A win Saturday would restore some order for Ohio State and the Big Ten. It could also make partial amends for last year's 35-3 loss to USC at the Coliseum.
Another loss, though, would open the criticism floodgates.
Either way, Tressel isn't going anywhere.
His record of 84-19 lags only slightly behind USC Coach Pete Carroll's mark of 89-15. Each has one BCS championship, though Carroll also won the Associated Press national title in 2003.