Hungry Buckeyes Say This Year Is Different

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 4 -- Facing a three-touchdown deficit in last year's national championship game, Ohio State left tackle Alex Boone glanced at teammate Troy Smith and noticed how calm and cool he looked. If the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was not panicked, Boone did not feel he needed to worry.

Reality set in only when Boone looked at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter: "I was just like, 'Wow, what are we doing here?' " One year after that humbling 41-14 loss to Florida, Ohio State is back in the national championship game, but the Buckeyes say they have an entirely different mind-set and have learned several lessons from last year's embarrassing blowout.

Unlike the attitude of last year's team, which players described as complacent and distracted, this year's top-ranked Buckeyes team appears hungry and motivated to face second-ranked Louisiana State on Monday in the BCS title game. After losing several offensive standouts, including Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., most doubted Ohio State could return to the title game. And after a season in which the Buckeyes have rarely looked overpowering, some still doubt whether they deserve a second chance.

"Everyone was telling us how good we were last year," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "I kind of like this side better, when you have the world telling you not only that you won't win, but that you're not worthy of being here. Everyone said we couldn't do anything the entire year."

To stoke the team's competitive fires further, Coach Jim Tressel gave each player a 10-minute DVD to take home after Christmas that featured clips of several analysts and commentators criticizing Ohio State since the Florida loss. The criticism was so harsh it made Boone's grandmother upset.

"She started crying," Boone said. "She wanted to kill someone. It was people just talking smack. It makes you humble. I kind of wish we went into the game like this last year. This year, we hear we are a bunch of nobodies and we don't amount to anything. You hear that for a while and you start to crave; you just want to play so bad."

Kirk Barton, Ohio State's right tackle, joked he is now a huge fan of ESPN analyst Mark May and has a poster of May in a Washington Redskins jersey on his wall. Boone recalled a fan's e-mail to an ESPN college football show saying that, should Ohio State lose to LSU, the Buckeyes should be banned from college football for five years.

"I just think they really just hate us just because we're Ohio State," Boone said. "But we deserve a lot of criticism because we didn't play at all. We really just did nothing" in last year's title game.

Part of the problem, several players said, was that many of the starters were focused on other things, including potential NFL careers. Boone said he was also distracted and did not think the game was going to be that difficult.

On the bus ride back from the Columbus airport, Boone told the team he blamed himself for the loss, an apology that helped to set the tenor for this season. The embarrassing result was particularly troubling for Boone and Barton because the two struggled against Florida's fast and aggressive pass rush.

The margin of victory strengthened the notion that Southeastern Conference teams have a significant speed advantage over Big Ten teams. Facing another SEC team in this year's title game, the Buckeyes have taken a different approach to preparing in part because of their struggles against Florida.

Players said they have performed more sprint work before workouts so they can practice becoming more effective while fatigued. Players and coaches from both teams have played down the speed advantage in this year's title game, and the Buckeyes seem equally amused and motivated by the tag of being a slow and plodding team.

"I don't know why [the perception] is out there," Barton said. "But one bad game will do that."

Another adjustment Ohio State has made for this year's title game was its preparation time in the host city. The Buckeyes arrived for last year's title game in Glendale, Ariz., on Dec. 29, and players felt they were susceptible to too many distractions in the area. This year, Ohio State did not arrive until Wednesday, five days before Monday's game at the Louisiana Superdome.

"The environment is a lot more businesslike," Jenkins said. "A lot of guys are not out and about. We can approach this a little differently. The only place I have gone so far is Walgreens."

For one year, all the Buckeyes have heard about is their 0-8 record in bowl games against SEC teams. They have lived with the pain of last year's defeat for a year and know that another loss could be even more devastating to their psyche and their program's reputation. Unlike last year, this year's game represents an opportunity they are determined not to squander.

"It is a blessing to be here a second time," Boone said. "We can't take this one for granted."

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