When Ohio State center Corey Linsley entered the press area after a pulsating 42-41 win over Michigan on Saturday, he looked as if he had just dragged himself across the finish line in an Ironman race.
He wore a weary expression and looked emotionally spent. He was walking gingerly because every joint and muscle was screaming for relief.
“I can speak for myself and say I’m exhausted — completely and utterly exhausted,” he said. “And it feels like that for everyone in the locker room.”
That was the concern voiced by coach Urban Meyer about the Big Ten title game at the conference kickoff event last July. He said his team would be at a disadvantage if it won the Leaders Division and played for the crown because the Legends Division champ wouldn’t have had to go through a rivalry game on the scale of OSU-Michigan the week before.
Michigan State will be making its second title game appearance in three years and tuned up for the Buckeyes by knocking off Minnesota at home, 14-3.
But at his media luncheon Monday, Meyer expressed confidence in his players’ ability to work themselves into a frenzy again. Not only is there much at stake — the Buckeyes appear likely to play in the national title game with a win — but the development of his upperclassmen has soothed much of his fears.
“The first thing is you feel pretty strong about the leaders on our team,” he said. “I didn’t feel very strong about them back in January or February. But I feel very strong about them now.
“It was a very draining, emotional win. It’s almost like that three-hour bus ride home was a very good opportunity to let it all out of you and get back to work. That (started) on Sunday. I’m concerned about it, but I trust our leaders.”
The Buckeyes are making their first appearance in the three-year-old Big Ten championship. They went 6-6 in the 2011 regular season under interim coach Luke Fickell, and they couldn’t play in it last season despite going 12-0 because off a postseason ban.
The title push has generated the adrenaline they need to get through the fatigue.
“I don’t feel I have any concern about getting back up for a game,” junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We try to play for championships, and you have to go through The Team Up North to get to them. This is championship week, and I feel we’ll be fine getting ready for this game.”
The Buckeyes found out what they’re playing for on the ride back from Michigan. The players erupted after Auburn’s upset of No. 1 Alabama, potentially opening a spot for them in the national title game. But during that euphoric reaction, at least one team leader took charge and delivered a message that needed to be heard.
“Some people in the back were saying, ‘We’re going to the national championship,’ ” Linsley said. “(Senior receiver) Philly Brown got up and said, ‘Sit down. You guys act like you don’t have a game to play this week.’
“Everyone kind of focused after that. (The energy) was kind of sparked on that bus. Me and (fellow linemen Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell) got in the cold tub when we got back. I don’t think I’ve ever done that after a game. There was a moment of intensity there for a second, but now there’s a level of focus that our dream is here, the chase is real.”
AD on BCS: Although Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs is lobbying hard for a one-loss SEC team to play in the BCS championship, Ohio State AD Gene Smith wouldn’t try to make a case for the Buckeyes, saying it would be premature with a game yet to play.
But he did say he believes unbeaten teams from major conferences deserve spots in that game before those without a perfect record.
“The regular season is a gauntlet for anyone,” he said, and teams should be rewarded for getting through unscathed.
No word yet: Meyer said he hasn’t gotten a decision from the Big Ten about the status of right guard Marcus Hall and hybrid back Dontre Wilson, who were involved in an on-field fracas during the Michigan game. Both players could face suspensions for throwing punches, and Hall didn’t help himself by making obscene gestures to the crowd.
Las Vegas odds: Florida State would be a 9 ½-point favorite over OSU if the two meet for the national title, according to oddsmakers. OSU would be 2 ½-point favorite over Auburn.
The Buckeyes are a six-point favorite over MSU.
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Ohio State (12-0) vs. Michigan State (11-1), 8 p.m. Saturday, FOX, 1410