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January 8, 2008

King: Buckeyes again left looking for answers

NEW ORLEANS As they hurried toward the Superdome tunnel following Monday's 38-24 loss to LSU, Ohio State's players jogged past a trio of policemen on horseback.

Fittingly, one of them stepped in a patch of manure.

For the second straight year, the Buckeyes played for the national title. For the second straight year, the game stunk.

"Man," right tackle Kirk Barton said. "This sucks."

Indeed, Monday's beatdown hatcheted straight through the core of Ohio State's program and the Big Ten conference.

Both carried iffy reputations into the BCS championship the Buckeyes because of their lack of wins against high-quality opponents, the Big Ten because of its 5-10 record in bowl games the past two seasons.

After Monday, the naysayers will only increase. Instead of clearing the stench that lingered from last year's 41-14 loss to Florida, the Buckeyes were beaten badly again, this time by an LSU squad that clearly outclassed Ohio State at almost every position.

"I wish I could put our fans all in one room and apologize to them," receiver Brian Hartline said.

The Buckeyes, 11-2, certainly have some explaining to do.

A 65-yard touchdown run by Chris Wells gave Ohio State a 7-0 first quarter lead, and it was 10-0 after a field goal that was set up by Todd Boeckman's 44-yard pass to Brandon Saine.

Other than those two plays, Ohio State's offense was basically inept against Bo Pelini's LSU defense. The Buckeyes' two other scores came on a short drive that was set up by an interception, and a meaningless touchdown that came with them trailing 38-17 in the game's waning minutes.

"It hurts tremendously," Wells said. "I mean, the pain you really can't compare it to anything. To go to the national championship twice and lose it's incredible."

Even more frustrating is that Ohio State had five, 15-yard personal foul penalties, including one on a roughing-the-kicker call in the third quarter. That blunder kept alive an LSU drive that ended with a Jacob Hester touchdown that made it 31-10.

The Buckeyes never had a chance after that.

"God gave us another great opportunity tonight," defensive tackle Doug Worthington said. "Once again, we couldn't capitalize."

As the final minutes ticked away, hordes of photographers surrounded the Ohio State sideline to capture shots of the Buckeyes in a state of despair. Former players such as Santonio Holmes and Troy Smith tried to provide solace to their former teammates before heading toward the exit with about two minutes left on the clock.

Instead of sticking around for postgame handshakes, most players darted straight toward the locker room as time expired. Some, like lineman Alex Barrow, hung their head and cried. Others cursed at no one in particular.

"We've always tried to let criticism motivate us," left tackle Alex Boone said. "I can't (imagine) what people are going to be saying about us now."

As many barbs as will thrown toward Ohio State for getting blown out for the second straight year, plenty of criticism will be surely be levied once again at the BCS system that allowed them to play in the game in the first place.

Even though they finished the season with just one loss, the Buckeyes' schedule was hardly as strong as the one played by two-loss schools such as USC, Georgia and West Virginia all of whom felt they should've been in Monday's championship instead of Ohio State.

"I don't worry too much about criticism," coach Jim Tressel said. "If you're not tough enough to handle criticism, then you better get out of this game, because there's a whole lot of people that have interest in this game.

"And there are a whole lot of people that don't really have an understanding of what it takes to be good at this game, but yet love to have opinions."

True and this may sound far-fetched but one popular opinion is that it's tough to win when you throw two interceptions, lose a fumble and allow your opponent to convert on eight of its first nine third down opportunities. That's exactly what Tressel's squad did Monday.

Still, as poorly as they played, the Buckeyes can take solace in two things, one of which is that they continued to exhibit grit when the game was all but lost.

"I'm proud of the way we fought," Barton said. "We didn't quit like some said we did last year. Last year we went into the tank a little bit, and (Florida) really took it to us."

The other positive is that Ohio State started just two seniors on offense and only one on defense Monday. Some players, such as junior linebacker James Laurinaitis, are considering entering the NFL draft.

Even if a few Buckeyes leave early, Ohio State will almost certainly enter the 2008 season ranked in the top five, and they're also in the running for quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the country's top-ranked high school senior.

"A lot of guys may shock the world and stay," Worthington said. "We'll be back next season, competing for the national title once again."

In the meantime the Buckeyes won't have much use for the present Tressel gave each of his players for Christmas: a DVD containing clips of national college football pundits saying the Buckeyes didn't belong in the national title game.

Turns out, they were right.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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