Saturday, November 16, 2002

Tressel flashes lengthy resume

OSU coach knows late-season rigors

Enquirer news services

COLUMBUS - This is Jim Tressel's time of year. He's the marathon runner of college football coaches.

While some of his peers' teams stand on rubbery legs, praying to get to the finish line if they haven't hit the wall already, Tressel is feeling limber and prepping his 11-0 Ohio State Buckeyes for a strong finishing kick.

"It feels right now, because of the number of games (we've played), like a postseason type of situation," said Tressel, awaiting today's 3:30 p.m. battle at Illinois (4-6). "We're entering Game 12, and that's a long season for players and maybe coaches as well.

"Fortunately, I've had a lot of experience in the postseason. I've coached about 30 postseason games as a head coach, so I've been here before from a length-of-season standpoint, and every game is critical."

In 15 years at Youngstown State, Tressel took the Penguins to the Division I-AA playoffs 10 times. They won four national championships and reached the title game six times, never playing fewer than 12 games.

If these Buckeyes have anything in common with Tressel's four title teams, they should just now be hitting their stride.

That's what worries Illinois coach Ron Turner, who knows something about marathon seasons, having spent time as an NFL assistant. He has watched Ohio State's defense get stronger, knowing his Illini must somehow solve that impregnable force and win their final two games for bowl eligibility.

"There's a lot at stake for both teams," Turner said. "If Ohio State wins out, they'll be playing for a national championship. We need to keep winning to have any chance of playing in a bowl game. There's definitely a sense of urgency for both teams."

Illinois defensive end Derrick Strong seemed to be serving up a back-handed compliment when he called the Buckeyes a "nice" Big Ten team.

"When you're in the Big Ten, any team can win on any day," said Strong, who obviously doesn't believe OSU is invincible. "No doubt we'll be juiced because (a national TV audience) will be looking at us, and it's a big game for us."

"A lot of seniors on this team need to step up," said Strong, a junior. "If we step up, there's not a lot of teams who can stop us from doing what we need to do."

Led by record-setting senior quarterback Kurt Kittner, the 2001 Illini won an undisputed Big Ten championship, only to get hammered 47-34 by LSU in a Sugar Bowl loss that wasn't that close.

That began a slide that saw Illinois lose five of its first six games this season, including a 38-35 decision to San Jose State - the same team Ohio State trounced, 50-7.

The Illini began to turn things around with a 38-31 overtime victory over Purdue after losing two games in five days to Michigan and Minnesota.

It was tough enough that their game with the Gophers in the Metrodome was moved up to Thursday because of a World Series conflict. But the Illini fumbled at the goal line as they were poised to take a 17-10 halftime lead.

Minnesota converted the turnover into a TD and that 14-point swing triggered a 31-10 Gophers' win.

"You could see in the second half they didn't weather that storm," Tressel said. "I thought that was an unfortunate scheduling quirk, but they've fought through that and keep playing better."

In winning three of their past four games, the Illini have averaged 40 points in those victories and now boast the Big Ten's top offense. Jon Beutjer, a transfer from Iowa, has settled in as the starting quarterback after dueling Dustin Ward most of the season, and 221-pound senior tailback Antoineo Harris has rushed for 1,090 yards and eight TDs.

Five receivers have caught at least 26 passes, led by the wideout duo of Brandon Lloyd (55 receptions, seven TDs) and Walter Young (40 receptions, five TDs). Lloyd (hip flexor) and fullback Carey Davis (knee sprain) were nonfactors in last week's 37-20 win at Wisconsin, but are expected to play Saturday. Davis has caught 29 passes and is averaging 5.6 yards on 56 carries.

"I'm sure they'll have the mind-set of being the spoiler," Ohio State middle linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "There's pressure (on the Buckeyes) to be prepared, not pressure to win. We have to go out there and play with reckless abandon, not holding anything back in reserve."

"As the season has gone on, we've handled adversity; we've climbed some mountains. We have great confidence that we're not going to stumble."

Ohio State at Illinois

When: 3:30 p.m. today.

TV: Ch. 9, 2.

Radio: WBOB-AM (1160), WSRW-FM (106.7).

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