November is for Contenders

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Last updated: 11/01/2011 4:06 PM

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Football
Fickell, Buckeyes Know November is for Contenders
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Luke Fickell didn’t quote his former boss during Tuesday’s weekly press luncheon, but Jim Tressel’s adage remains intact: Winners win in November.

At 5-3, Ohio State is having a down season—at least by the standards Tressel set in Columbus over the last decade. The last time they entered November of the season with as many losses was 2004, which is also the last time the Buckeyes were unranked heading into the final month of the season.

“We say it again, how you start isn't exactly what they remember, but how you finish is the key,” Fickell said Tuesday on the heels of Ohio State’s thrilling 33-29 win over Wisconsin. 

“And November's always been a focus for us.”

It is the month that separates the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the awkward pretenders from the legitimate Big Ten contenders.

It has indisputably belonged to Ohio State.

When the weather drops and snowfall blankets the Midwest, the Buckeyes have been at their best since Tressel took over the program back in 2001. Fickell joined the staff a year later and he has been a part of only three losses in the month of November over the last nine seasons.

That’s how good Ohio State has been when it matters most.

Since their last defeat at the hands of arch-rival Michigan, which came on Nov. 22, 2003, the Buckeyes are an incredible 20-2 in the final month of the season (including three wins last year which have since been vacated).

“November is where the real games begin,” said Fickell, who knows what it is like to lose big games down the stretch.

“Today is November 1. It's about us getting better and we're going to make sure those guys understand that our preparation will match up with our performance.”

There is a reason the Buckeyes have won or tied for the last six Big Ten championships (including the one vacated co-championship from 2010). They have won their past 10 November games by a combined score of 357-164.

Their only loss in November since the end of the 2004 season was a 28-21 upset by Illinois at Ohio Stadium back on Nov. 7, 2007—and the Illini needed a little help from the referees to pull that one out.

“I think the way we've kind of always done it here, that I can remember, wherever I've been, is when you can focus on yourselves and what you can do to get better,” Fickell said.

This was supposed to be the year when November didn’t mean as much, when the Buckeyes were just hoping to salvage a season that had long been in the tank. It started with a crushing defeat at Miami (Fla.), and then Ohio State started conference play with back-to-back losses.

It was all but over, especially after the Buckeyes completely gave away what looked like a sure victory at Nebraska by blowing a 21-point lead in the second half. They were 0-2 in conference play without an offense and with a defense that was reeling.

The rest of the Big Ten was grinning. No more Tressel. No more Terrelle Pryor. No more Ohio State dominance.

Then suddenly, everything shifted. The Buckeyes got Mike Adams back and then Boom Herron. They beat an undefeated Illinois team on the road and upset No. 15 Wisconsin in raucous thriller under the lights.

November suddenly took on a whole different meaning for the Buckeyes.

“We've obviously got a goal here to win the Big Ten every year and to have that still in front of us,” Fickell said.

“It is probably something that the guys on the team are more aware of than us coaches to make sure we understand that we're not looking ahead of anything. We take care of our own business. We take care of the things we can control and good things will happen.”

What Fickell and the Buckeyes have in front of them now is an Indiana team still searching for its first conference win the season, not to mention a little dignity. The Hoosiers’ only win of the season came against South Carolina State—a team that is 5-4, in the FCS.

Indiana is 0-5 in the Big Ten, having been outscored 302-209 overall and 220-99 in conference play. They have allowed 40+ points in four straight games, including a 59-38 loss to Northwestern this past week, but Fickell said the Buckeyes are no position to take the Hoosiers lightly.

“We focus on one game at a time. We're in no place to look past anything,” he said.

“But what we're thinking is a big part of it. And we can pound things into their head and us as coaches can do the same thing but it ultimately comes down to you controlling your mind.”

The Buckeyes will likely hang half-a-hundred on the Hoosiers Saturday without breaking a sweat. They should, they are certainly good enough and Indiana is equally bad enough, but football is not just played on the field, it’s also played in the minds of the players who step between the white lines.

“If you let your mind wander, you can ask a million different questions about different things,” Fickell said.

“If as a coach you let your mind wander and worry about other things, you can become, whether it's complacency or lose energy based on something else.”

Fickell isn’t about to let that happen after everything this team has been through.

“Your preparation begins on that Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. So there will be no let-down,” Fickell said.

“Got a lot better chance at being able to push them too when they're feeling pretty good about themselves. So I promise that will happen.”

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