Earlier this week, Earle Bruce's dog bit him.

The rest of this week, most of Ohio's football animals -- fans, alumni and media -- have been gnawing away at the Ohio State coach's ankles. The Buckeyes have lost three straight home games, and the OSU faithful want an immediate turnaround.

Bruce says the outcry means nothing to him because of a simple philosophy: see no evil, hear no evil, feel no evil.

"I work from seven in the morning until 11 at night; I read no papers, I listen to no radio and I watch no television programs," Bruce said. "The only other waking hour of the day I spend with my wife, and the rest of the time I'm sleeping."

OSU fans are proud of the team's rich past: six national championships, 11 Rose Bowl appearances, 14 outright and nine shared Big Ten titles, 15 straight winning seasons and a .703 winning percentage in its 91-year football history.

And so those fans rage at the team's immediate past: a 2-3 start this season, including six straight scoreless quarters and the failure to score in the third period of any game. With the graduation of all-America quarterback Art Schlichter, the Buckeye passing attack has suffered, producing only two touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.

In 3 1/2 seasons as head coach, Bruce has produced a 31-10 record and twice finished at the top of the Big Ten. But his shaky start in 1982 has caused many Buckeye fans to wishfully hope that former Coach Woody Hayes could return to the sidelines.

During recent losses at Ohio Stadium, some fans chanted, "Bring Back Woody," "Goodbye Earle" and "Turn Bruce loose." Hayes, who compiled a 205-61-10 mark in 28 years as OSU coach, was fired in January 1979 following a Gator Bowl incident in which he punched Clemson player Charlie Bauman on the sideline moments after Bauman's interception sealed the Tigers' 17-15 win.

In forced retirement, Hayes has emerged as a larger figure than ever in Ohio. His name regularly comes up in discussions about the football team's woes, and many fans treat him as the only coach OSU has ever had. (Hayes, in fact, is erroneously listed in the current campus directory as "Head Coach-Professor Emeritus, Health, Physical Education and Recreation.")

"No, no, I'm going to stay out of the football situation," Hayes said when reached at the office he maintains in the campus' Military Sciences Building. "I think it's better if I say nothing."

While Hayes publicly keeps his distance, he privately remains a part of the OSU program. On occasion, he eats with the team and speaks to the team at Bruce's invitation.

"In most people's eyes around here, he is God," said junior Brent Offenbecher, who has alternated at quarterback with sophomore Mike Tomczak. "He's a great influence on the team. He talked to us Monday after the Wisconsin loss. He told us to keep our heads up. He came in and said he's lost a whole lot more than three games at this stadium."

"When he walks into a room, he draws automatic respect. He's a living legend around this town," said Curt Curtis, a junior linebacker from Churchill High School in Potomac, Md.

If Bruce is bothered by the Hayes shadow, he does not show it. Bruce played for and coached under Hayes here and seems quite comfortable in his relationship with Hayes.

"He's a great man," Bruce said. "He's been my boss, he's been my coach, he's been a loyal friend and much more. He's very supportive of our team."

Despite occasional press reports that his job is in danger, Bruce said he is under no pressure from the school. Others agreed.

"There is no pressure at all from the administration on Coach Bruce. That's newspaper talk," said James Jones, associate athletic director. "This is the type of thing you hear when you're having one offseason. I seem to recall a lot of people wanting Bo Schembechler's head a few years back at Michigan, and Joe Paterno was taking heat at Penn State when he had one bad start."

Still, Bruce recently has been second-guessed constantly on his coaching decisions.

He has had to defend his preference for having the quarterback jog to the sideline to get the next play directly from Bruce, rather than from a messenger guard. He has had to defend moving his No. 1 rusher, Tim Spencer, from tailback to fullback.

And he has been hounded for his play-calling in the Stanford game Sept. 25. With 1:42 to play, Bruce had Tomczak pass on second down from the Stanford 27. Tomczak was intercepted and Stanford then drove for the winning touchdown in a 23-20 game.

"I knew he was going to catch hell when we lost to Stanford," punter Karl Edwards says. "It was a bad call, and he admitted it."

Offensive inconsistency has hurt the Buckeyes thus far. And Bruce has had to juggle offensive linemen because of injuries.

Bruce, who brought back the forward pass to OSU after decades of Hayes' born-to-run offense, said, "Inexperience at our quarterback position has hurt."

Outwardly, the players remain cautiously confident. They know a Big Ten title is possible if they win the rest of their games. They also know an immediate setback -- they play Big Ten leader Illinois Saturday -- could lead to a losing season.

In the midst of losing consecutive games to Stanford, Florida State and Wisconsin, OSU players were introduced to a new experience: getting booed at home.

"We don't have any fans," linebacker Rowland Tatum said after Saturday's 6-0 loss to Wisconsin. "They're just out there to critique us."

The losing streak also has introduced the school to a novel situation: empty seats at Ohio Stadium.

Saturday against Wisconsin, Ohio State had its first nonsellout (there were 1,069 seats unsold) at home since 1968, breaking a string of 86 straight capacity crowds.

Not that one should think interest in Ohio State football is declining; there still were 84,221 fans at the stadium despite a driving rainstorm. But at Ohio State, 1,069 unsold seats is regarded as unlikely as if 1,069 Columbus residents decided to sprout wings and fly.

"Even if the weather were good, we wouldn't have sold out," said Robert Ries, assistant athletic director in charge of tickets. "Interest is lagging a bit this year. The bad start is hurting our sale, as well as the economy."

Interest in OSU football, however, still remains at a level rivaled only by that at such places as Ann Arbor, Mich., South Bend, Ind., and Norman, Okla. As Jones puts it, "Our business is the fans' cup of coffee in the morning. It's what they talk about in this town every day."

The city of Columbus celebrates Ohio State football. Just look up and down North High Street, one of the most unsightly college-town strips America has to offer. The commercial collage that borders the colossal campus includes the Buckeye Pub, Buckeye Liquors, Buckeye Donuts, Buckeye Carryout and the Ohio Stater Inn (plus Bernie's Bagels, Mean Mr. Mustard's, Friendly Florist, Charbart's Char Bar, White Water Saloon, Egg Roll King, Happy's Beverage Center, Fat Jimmy's and enough fast-food places to send Christopher Columbus sprinting in horror back to the Santa Maria if he ever set foot in the town that bears his name.)

"Don't let anyone tell you that OSU football is religion around here," liquor store manager Hugh Steadman said. "People have got their jobs, their bills to worry about. People have kids to feed and other things on their mind. But I will say this -- when OSU loses, people around here are a lot less thrilled about going to work and paying the bills and taking the kids to the movies."

If Ohio State somehow does not win a game the rest of this season, "it won't be the end of the world," said cab driver Homer Peake, "but a whole bunch of people may wish it had ended."