By RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- There's a countdown clock to the Michigan game inside top-ranked Ohio State's practice facility. As the Buckeyes walk around campus, friends, family and fellow students mention the annual
regular-season finale with the Wolverines.
Even the Buckeyes keep an eye on their rivals. "We go in after our game and we want to see what everyone else has done," linebacker Austin Spitler said. "Obviously, Michigan is one of the first teams we look at, what they did that day. They're always in the back of our heads."
They're just not in the front part, at least not yet. As much as everybody in scarlet and gray wants the showdown they call "The Game" to get here, first the Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) have a tough test with Illinois (7-3, 4-2) on Saturday.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said this week he'd seen no signs his players were looking past the Illini to the showdown on Nov. 17 at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., that will determine the Big Ten championship.
Beat Illinois and Michigan and the Buckeyes are on their way to a second consecutive BCS national championship game.
"Our guys know how good Illinois is," Tressel said. "They faced them a little over a year ago. We've had them on a lot of films. We've gotten to see them a lot. They're at the tops of the Big Ten with a lot of ability. That, to me is what creates focus, is that you know what you're up against."
The Illini won just two games a year ago but took the Buckeyes -- also No. 1 then -- to the closing minutes before falling 17-10.
This year, coach Ron Zook's crew is deeper, stronger and more talented. The evidence is in their record, but also their approach.
"Last year, we were in the position to win but just couldn't get it done. We just had to get over that hump," Zook said. "We talked about it in the offseason a lot -- about how we think we can win and now we have to go win. We have to go do it. Now when our guys go out on the field they have a sense of confidence that if they play the way they are capable of playing and do the things that we have coached them to
do, they are going to succeed."
It was Illinois' defense, led by linebacker J Leman, that held the Buckeyes and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith in check a year ago. Most of that unit is back again, including Leman and stellar cornerback Vontae Davis.
The Illini have 34 sacks, tied for 10th in the nation and just three behind Ohio State.
Before a game earlier this season, Leman introduced the defensive unit as the guys "who put the pain in Champaign."
As good as the defense has been, most of the attention has gone to quarterback Juice Williams and running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Williams is far from the most polished passer, but he is capable of beating teams with his legs or his arm. He needs just nine yards to break his own Illinois record for yards rushing (576) by a quarterback and has a strong enough arm to make big plays down the field.
"That's where they can paralyze you is with their ability to hit a home run, because you have to have to have so many things covered," Tressel said.
Mendenhall already has tied the school mark for 100-yard rushing games in a year with six and needs 17 more yards to set the Illinois season rushing record. He comes in with 1,314 yards.
"We told Rashard at the beginning of the season, if he can have the type of year that we know he can have, we have the chance to have a special season," said Zook, a former Ohio State assistant coach under Tressel's predecessor, John Cooper. "He's done his part."
The Buckeyes say the close call in 2006 hasn't been forgotten. "Last year was more of a wake-up call," wide receiver Brian Hartline said. "They didn't have to earn our respect."
Ohio State's defense has been as good as it gets, giving up seven touchdowns (only two in six home games) and leading the nation in scoring (9.7 points a game) and yards allowed (221 a game).
The offense, with Todd Boeckman at the controls and Chris "Beanie" Wells having a big year (1,165 yards, 10 TDs), is also rolling.
The Buckeyes have won all but one of their games by at least 16 points, but still they're wary of the Illini.
"They've got a great team and they've been playing great football all
year," fullback Dionte Johnson said. "The thing is, we know they're going to give us something different. Last year we went into the game expecting one thing and they hit us with a left hook, so to speak."
With "The Game" so near and so much on the line, the Buckeyes can't afford to get sucker punched.
Source: A.P. Wire; Photo Credit: Collegiate Images