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Buckeyes don’t mind tough stretch in schedule

COLUMBUS — Ohio State had to beat Penn State to stay in the Big Ten race. The next week the Buckeyes needed to beat Iowa to win the conference and go to the Rose Bowl.

With those missions accomplished the last two weeks, the ninth-ranked Buckeyes now face another big game against archrival Michigan on Saturday.

What’s on the line for Ohio State this week?

“I don’t think I can have a good Thanksgiving without winning this game,” defensive tackle Doug Worthington said Monday.

The month of November has brought three consecutive high-pressure games for the Buckeyes (9-2, 6-1), who have wrapped up at least a share of their fifth consecutive Big Ten title.

When offensive tackle Jim Cordle walked into Ohio State’s practice facility on Monday morning, he was greeted by the team’s strength and conditioning director, Eric Lichter. Lichter looked at Cordle, still limping slightly from a midseason foot injury and said, “I think you peaked last week.”

Cordle looked at him with a smile and responded, “No, I still have one more game in me and this team has one more game in us.”

The Buckeyes can lock up an outright conference crown by beating their bitter rivals, but that’s about it.

Michigan (5-6, 1-6) has much more at stake. The Wolverines need a win to qualify for a bowl game, to end a five-game losing skid in conference play, to snap a five-game losing skid to Ohio State, to avoid the basement in the Big Ten and to take some of the heat off embattled second-year head coach Rich Rodriguez.

Ohio State’s players and coaches swear they haven’t been beaten down by the past two grueling games against the best the Big Ten can throw at them. The Buckeyes needed overtime to beat Iowa 27-24 in Columbus on Saturday.

“Someone described this month as tough, tougher and toughest,” coach Jim Tressel said. “We’ve battled through the tough and the tougher, and now we’re excited about the toughest.”

With two-thirds of those hurdles behind them, the Buckeyes find it easier to concentrate on the task at hand.

“We knew that this was how our November was going to go,” wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. “We talked about it — all three are huge games and we were going to have to take them one at a time. The week leading up to (each) game we knew it was going to be the most important game of our year. (We were) able to take care of the Penn State and Iowa games, and now all the focus goes onto Michigan.”

Having come through so much, the Buckeyes recognize they have just one game left before getting some time off to nurse their bruises and to catch up on their sleep.

“It wears you down, that tough stretch, but what energizes you is this game,” Cordle said. “There’s no way we won’t be up for this game.”

The wear and tear has been as much mental as physical. After losing at Purdue on Oct. 17, the Buckeyes have had no margin for error in the Big Ten race.

“We couldn’t turn the ball over, we could miss assignments. We had to be perfect,” tight end Jake Ballard said. “We did just about everything to come out with a win against Iowa and Penn State.”

Players and coaches who are a part of Ohio State teams that beat Michigan receive a small, gold charm in the shape of a pair of football pants. It’s a prized possession for a Buckeye.

In addition to getting yet another one of the trinkets for beating their rivals, the Buckeyes would like nothing more than to deprive the Wolverines of a bowl trip.

“I don’t think we’re going to have any problem with this game as far as getting up for it or being ready for it,” Worthington said. “It’s something that we need, something we want. We’re hungry for it. … Their seniors will go to a bowl game if they beat us, so we don’t want to be the guys who lose those gold pants or catapult them to a nice little sunny trip.”