Beaten-down Buckeyes try to focus on football

COLUMBUS, OHIO (AP) - Luke Fickell doesn’t remember much about running onto the field for his first game as a player at Ohio State.

Expected to see playing time as a callow freshman on the defensive line in 1992, he was too busy thinking about his responsibilities after the kickoff.

Odds are, he won’t remember much about his first game as a head coach, either. The 18th-ranked Buckeyes and Fickell hope to put nine months of accusations, investigations, suspensions and uproar behind them when they host Akron on Saturday.

“I was more focused and worried and understanding of what my job was and I didn’t get to absorb the atmosphere and look around and be in awe of the 98,000 (in the stands) at that time,” Fickell said of his first game as a player. “I was focused on what I had to do. I presume it’ll be very similar come Saturday, that I won’t give myself a chance to look around at the 106,000 and think about anything other than what, for that 60 minutes, has to be done.”

It’s been a long, strange trip for the Buckeyes to reach this point. Shortly after beating Michigan for the ninth time in coach Jim Tressel’s 10 seasons last November, Ohio State learned that several players had taken cash and tattoos from the subject of a federal drug-trafficking probe. The school ended up suspending five players for the first five games of 2011 _ including four junior starters on offense, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor _ and another for this season’s opener.

While looking into another matter, Ohio State officials discovered that Tressel had known of the players’ improper benefits for more than 10 months but, in violation of his contract and NCAA rules, had not told his superiors what he knew.

Originally suspended for just two games, Tressel was forced to resign on May 30 after weeks of allegations and rumors. Soon after that, Tressel’s pet player, Pryor, surrendered his final year of eligibility to jump to the NFL.

As if that weren’t enough, Ohio State announced on Thursday that three more Buckeyes players _ starters at tailback Jordan Hall and cornerback Travis Howard and backup safety Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown _ were suspended for acccepting improper benefits after the other players were penalized for the same thing. All three will sit out at least the first game, and possibly more, while the NCAA decides whether to reinstate them for the remainder of the season.

So the beaten-down Buckeyes are left with lots of losses to graduation and scandal and a stadium full of question marks. Few think they’ll accomplish much while they await the other cleat to drop when the NCAA levies its final penalties, most likely in October or early November. Ohio State has offered to vacate the 2010 season, repay $338,000 and go on two years of NCAA probation.

Those left behind are ready for the doubters.

“I love being the underdog. I love surprising people,” hybrid linebacker/safety Tyler Moeller, a sixth-year senior, said. “A lot of teams I’ve been on were expected to win. This year’s a little bit different and I kind of like that.”

Tight end Jake Stoneburner said he’s motivated by all those who believe Ohio State is in ruins.

“I feel like every year we have haters, this year it’s probably more than ever,” he said. “But we have to just go out there and put our actions out on the field and prove people wrong.”

With Pryor now an Oakland Raider, 25-year-old ex-minor-league pitcher Joe Bauserman will split the quarterback job with true freshman Braxton Miller. Bauserman, with a better grasp of the playbook, gets the first snap but Miller is being given every possible chance by the coaching staff to make the starting job his.

At tailback, Dan Herron is sitting out the first five games (along with starting tackle Mike Adams, top returning receiver DeVier Posey and Sugar Bowl star at defensive end Solomon Thomas) and will be replaced by up-and-comers Jaamal Berry, Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith.

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