- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio | Ohio State’s darkened team bus was on its way back from the airport to campus on Saturday night when word spread that unbeaten Penn State was on the ropes at Iowa.

The 10th-ranked Buckeyes, returning home after a lopsided win at Northwestern, took notice.

The bus driver had a small radio that he handed to coach Jim Tressel. Everyone else used cell phones to get updates.

Penn State led 23-21 when Daniel Murray came on the field for a 31-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds.

“When the Iowa kicker kicked it through, you could see that piqued interest because all of a sudden you’re ostensibly back with a shot [at the Big Ten title] if you do your work,” Tressel said Tuesday.

What was thought to be out of reach — a chance at a fourth consecutive conference title — was suddenly back on the table.

A team that had no definitive goals after losses to Southern Cal and Penn State wiped away any hope of a national title — or even a Big Ten crown — suddenly had one.

“Now everything is back in our hands,” cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. “If we want a share of the Big Ten championship or even win it outright, depending on what happens, it’s up to us. We’ve got to win these games.”

Michigan State (9-2, 6-1) has a bye this week. Penn State (9-1, 5-1) hosts Indiana before entertaining the Spartans in a game that likely will determine at least a share of the Big Ten title. A rejuvenated and no longer-rudderless Ohio State (8-2, 5-1) plays at Illinois this week before hosting rival Michigan in the season finale.

With two wins, the Buckeyes are assured of at least a piece of the Big Ten title and may be in store for something much bigger — the inside track to an at-large Bowl Championship Series berth.

Because of how many people they bring to games and how many TVs are tuned in when they’re playing, the Buckeyes are a popular choice come bowl season.

Tressel acknowledges that, but he is also aware that such talk can be distracting.

“The only thought I have on that is you can’t be 10-2 until you’re 9-2, and being 9-2 is going to be a challenge,” he said of the game at Illinois (5-5, 3-3). “If we would become 10-2, we will get as our works deserve.”

Tight end Rory Nicol said the Buckeyes are excited about the possibilities but fully aware of how much still can be lost. He said the coaching staff talks constantly about how the biggest games are played at the end.

“Statistically over the years, the teams that end up being good in the Big Ten don’t lose in November. It’s so true,” he said. “Really, our goals now are to be undefeated in November and then let everything else take care of itself.”

Linebacker James Laurinaitis isn’t a fan of speculation about bowl trips, rankings and title games. His mantra is the only game that matters is the next one — and the Buckeyes feel they owe the Illini, who sent Ohio State to its only regular-season loss a year ago.

“We always say we’ll play for what we can control,” Laurinaitis said. “We just have to keep battling. Things are going to happen in college football — it’s crazy. Obviously, we know we can only control our own destiny with what we do, and that’s playing well on Saturday.”

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