When A.J. Hawk joined his parents in their Centerville, Ohio, home on Jan. 1, the Ohio State linebacker watched the Rose Bowl more astutely than usual, admitting he was half-fan, half-scout. Months later in Austin, the quarterback who had starred in that game, Vince Young, scribbled an emphatic message on a grease board, telling teammates if they wanted to beat Ohio State, they needed to meet him on the field at a precise time.
For all of 2005, Texas and Ohio State -- programs that have played a combined 227 years of football, won 10 national titles and eight Heisman trophies -- have been on a collision course to meet for the first time. Tomorrow night's game between second-ranked Texas and fourth-ranked Ohio State will provide some early national title clarity.
Neither school has a history of failing in this position. Texas has won 21 of its past 22 road games. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, have not lost a nonconference home game since 1990 and have never lost a night game at the Horseshoe, also known as Ohio Stadium.
"We could go down there and make history," Young said.
Central to the outcome will be how well Ohio State's confident defensive players contain Young, one of the sport's most dynamic dual threats who would undoubtedly vault to the front of the Heisman race with a strong performance tomorrow. Hawk remembered watching with great interest as Young decimated the defense of Michigan, Ohio State's Big Ten rival, for 372 total yards and five touchdowns in the Longhorns' 38-37 victory.
Fundamentals -- swarming the ball and securing tackles -- become paramount, Hawk said, against a player of Young's caliber.
"We want to be the best" defense in the country, said Hawk, an all-American selection last season. "We don't feel like we are there yet, but we are taking steps. We want to get back to where Ohio State's defense was a few years ago. We kind of lost some of that last season."
The Buckeyes have a senior-laden linebacking corps that is expected to help their overall defense rival that of their defense in 2002, the year Ohio State won the national title. Hawk, a two-time all-Big Ten performer, is complemented by Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter, two sons of football coaches.
Carpenter wasted no time delivering a message to Texas. After Ohio State disposed of Miami (Ohio), 34-14, in its season opener, Carpenter told reporters, "Our goal is when Vince Young leaves here, he won't be a candidate for the Heisman."
This week, Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel, managing to neither offend his linebacker nor add fuel to the pregame chatter, said, "That would not have been my first choice of a statement." Young also refused the bait, saying that he viewed the attention as a compliment.
Young was being coy, of course, because, as Texas Coach Mack Brown noted, "He really embraces this arena." Young, a junior, ensured that preparing for the Ohio State game served as the team's unofficial offseason mantra, taking ownership of the team as he never had before.
"I think that [Rose Bowl] flipped another switch for him and put him in another gear," Brown said.
Young's excitement about Ohio State had no effect on Texas last week, when the Longhorns shrugged off Louisiana-Lafayette, 60-3. Young was efficient, completing 13 of 17 passes and throwing three touchdowns.
Young's elusiveness has never been in question since he was a high school all-American at Houston's Madison High. Tressel can't remember ever seeing someone keep up with him in the open field. Ohio State safety Nate Salley could only compare him to Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons star.
"We have to concentrate on our jobs, but when he gets scrambling, it will be tough," Ohio State cornerback Ashton Youboty said. "His ability to get out and scramble means we have to play a little more conservatively with our coverage against their receivers."
Brown said Ohio State blitzed more against Miami (Ohio) than he expected. That's fine, said Young, who cited his experience facing the likes of current teammate Aaron Harris, former Texas standout Derrick Johnson and former Oklahoma star Teddy Lehman.
Young's throwing motion has been widely criticized as awkward and cited by some as a reason he won't be a star in the NFL. As a sophomore, though, Young completed 59 percent of his passes and, by all accounts, became more polished in the pocket this season.
His maturity in the pocket has made it easier for his offensive linemen. Left tackle Jonathan Scott said Young dropped back and simply picked apart the Louisiana-Lafayette defense last week.
Even without departed running back Cedric Benson in the backfield, Texas has plenty of threats. But all eyes will be on Young, as the Buckeyes attempt to do what their conference cohorts in Ann Arbor, Mich., could not in the Rose Bowl.
"Young is the heartbeat of that team, and we are going to need to stop him," Ohio State defensive end Mike Kudla said. "If he has space, he can be a lethal weapon."