Bucks have 2 key games left

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 10, 2003

COLUMBUS - It shouldn't be difficult for the Ohio State Buckeyes to focus on their next two opponents.

Three teams are tied atop the Big Ten going into the final two weekends and the Buckeyes play each of the other co-leaders over that span.

''It's all about those last two games,'' tailback Lydell Ross said. ''It's the Big Ten championship. That's all we can worry about.''

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The No. 4 Buckeyes (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) host No. 11 Purdue (8-2, 5-1) on Saturday while No. 5 Michigan (8-2, 5-1) goes to Northwestern. Seven days later, Purdue travels to rival Indiana and Ohio State visits rival Michigan.

Michigan State and Minnesota each have just two losses.

''That championship is out of our reach,'' Michigan State coach John L. Smith said after Saturday's 33-23 loss at Ohio State. ''You have two losses and you're not going to win this.''

Ohio State maintained its hopes of a repeat Big Ten title by relying on Craig Krenzel's three touchdown passes and a defense that made many big stops against record-setting Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker.

''There's a sense of urgency in everything we're doing,'' Krenzel said after completing 12 of 23 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. ''November performance is what everyone remembers.''

Smoker passed for 351 yards for the Spartans (7-3, 4-2), but 265 yards came in the opening half. Smoker was 35-of-55 for two touchdowns with two interceptions.

The 55 attempts were one more than John Leister's 1980 school mark and Smoker's 35 completions were three more than the MSU record he shared with Leister.

What's more, a Smoker mistake ended up turning the game around when Tyler Everett intercepted a pass and returned it 66 yards.

''They were coming hard,'' Smoker said of Ohio State's front line. ''It's one of the best defenses in the country. It's definitely the best defense we've seen all year.''

Ross rushed for 125 yards on 24 carries and Ben Hartsock, Santonio Holmes and Ryan Hamby caught touchdown passes from Krenzel.

''It was a textbook Krenzel performance,'' Hartsock said. ''He was checking at the line, firing the ball in there and he took some risks today. He wasn't worried about losing his starting position. He was only concerned with beating Michigan State.''

Ohio State took the second-half kickoff and needed just eight plays to cover 80 yards, with Krenzel hitting tight end Hamby on a 2-yard play-action pass for a 24-10 lead. Michigan State's DeAndra Cobb then took the ensuing kickoff back 93 yards to cut the lead to seven points again - his third TD return of the season.

''I was just trying to get the momentum changed,'' Cobb said.

Ohio State's defense took over from there, limiting the Spartans to Smoker's 19-yard scoring pass to Aaron Alexander with 3:21 remaining.

Mike Nugent kicked field goals of 44, 24, 42 and 18 for the Buckeyes, the latter three stretching the lead to 33-17 before the Spartans' final score.

Michigan State led 7-3 and was moving downfield early in the second quarter. On second down at the Ohio State 18, Smoker was pressured, underthrowing the ball down the left sideline. Everett picked off the pass at the 6 and streaked past the Buckeyes bench while teammates and coaches cheered him on and waved towels. He brought the ball back 66 yards to the Michigan State 28.

''That was big. Was it crucial? It really would have given us a boost,'' Smith said. ''Anytime you make a mistake, it's vital - especially against a team like that.''

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel added, ''Turnovers are the key to everything. When there's a 70-yard flop on a turnover like that, that's huge.''

Krenzel then tossed a 17-yard strike to Hartsock for a 10-7 lead.

Michigan State punted on its next possession and Ohio State wasted no time in making it 17-7 on Krenzel's 37-yard TD pass to Holmes.

The Buckeyes won their 15th consecutive home game before a crowd of 105,194, the second largest ever at Ohio Stadium.

''This time of year in the Big Ten, wins are tough to come by,'' Krenzel said. ''I'm just happy we walked away from this game with a win against a great team. We've got two more great football teams coming up.''