Buckeyes begin key 3-game stretch run

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 7, 2003

COLUMBUS - Three weekends will decide the Big Ten.

''It's a dog fight at the top,'' Michigan State coach John L. Smith said.

There is little room for error among the top contenders. Four teams - No. 7 Ohio State (8-1, 4-1), No. 14 Michigan State (7-2, 4-1), No. 8 Michigan (8-2, 5-1) and No. 16 Purdue (7-2, 4-1) - are almost in a stalemate for the top spot. Barely behind are No. 24 Minnesota (8-2, 4-2), No. 10 Iowa (7-2, 3-2) and Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2), hoping to grab a piece of first place.

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''We talk about November constantly,'' said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose team plays Michigan State on Saturday. ''November is when you really measure yourself as a football team.''

By the end of the month, it will all be sorted out. The season rests on the next three weekends.

''There's a lot of big things to come,'' said Ohio State defensive end Will Smith. ''I know a lot of the guys want to finish hard these next three games.''

The Buckeyes face the tallest task in the conference. After the Spartans, they host Purdue before closing out the regular season at Michigan.

To reach a second consecutive national title game, the defending champions would have to win all three and then hope for some help against the teams ranked ahead of them in the BCS standings.

The players, however, are trying to deal with Michigan State first and worry about the rest later.

''You've got to focus each week on the game at hand, because if we lose this week, it doesn't matter,'' offensive tackle Shane Olivea said.

Ohio State has already won five times by a touchdown or less, after winning half of the games in last year's 14-0 sprint to the title by no more than seven points. The Buckeyes beat lowly Penn State 21-20 last week, winning on backup quarterback Scott McMullen's 5-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins with 1:35 left.

''It's a sign of a good football team,'' Michigan State's Smith said of the Buckeyes' performance. ''They find a way to get it done. Even when they're playing poorly, they find a way of making plays to win a game.''

A new controversy popped up for the Buckeyes this week.

Michigan native Craig Krenzel, 21-2 as a starter, was less than pleased to find out he will share time with McMullen in Saturday's game.

''If I wrote the story, it definitely wouldn't have gone this way,'' he said. ''You've just got to come out every day, no matter what the situation and do your best.''

There is no quarterback controversy for Michigan State. Jeff Smoker is the story of the year in the conference after battling substance-abuse problems to lead the Big Ten in most passing and total offense categories.

''The offense is based around him,'' Ohio State's Smith said. ''It's just the Jeff Smoker show.''

Smoker can turn the game against the Buckeyes around by himself. Like everyone else in the conference, he knows what is at stake.

After Ohio State, the Spartans play at Wisconsin and at home against Penn State.

''It's far from over,'' Smoker said. ''We can still finish tied for the Big Ten.''