September 10, 2002 at 9:43 PM EST - Updated July 10 at 7:56 PM
By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said it's too early to determine if unbeaten Washington State or the Buckeyes belong among the nation's elite teams.
"The only top 10 teams there are in the country are the ones that are in the top 10 in December," Tressel said. "The rest of it is temporary top 10 teams."
The Buckeyes have rocked overmatched Texas Tech and Kent State by a combined score of 96-38. Washington State has pounded Nevada 31-7 and Idaho 49-14 -- a far cry from what the Cougars will face in upcoming opponents such as Oregon, Washington, Southern Cal and UCLA.
So even though Saturday's game is of national interest -- draft guru Mel Kiper even called it "the best nonconference game of the year" -- the Buckeyes are trying hard to not get too carried away.
"We know that it's only the third game of the season. It's still early," Ohio State strong safety Michael Doss said. "We still have 11 more weeks to go."
In recent years, Ohio State has shown early promise but has wilted in games that it could easily have won. A year ago, the Buckeyes' only loss in their first four games was a narrow 13-6 defeat at UCLA. The year before, they won their first five games and moved to No. 5 in the rankings before plummeting with a 29-17 loss at home to Minnesota.
As a result, Ohio State's players have tried to distance themselves from talk about rankings, future opponents and anything other than the game at hand.
"It's exciting, but it's also one of those balances we need to focus on as a team," tight end Ben Hartsock said. "This is an exciting time to be at Ohio State. It's a huge honor to be considered one of the most powerful teams in the country this year. But we also need to be very aware and to not let outside influences poison our team. We need to maintain our focus."
It's not only the Buckeyes who must measure how good they are.
"This program is the perfect time. It's early in the season. We've got some guys banged up ... We'll find out if we match them," said Washington State quarterback Jason Gesser. "I'm excited to see how they (defense) can play against a big strong offensive. I'm interested in how our offensive line plays against big D line like they have."
This will be the first major test for the Buckeyes. Tressel said there was no comparison between the Cougars and Ohio State's first two opponents.
"Their athletes are much, much better than the last two teams," he said. "They've had people attack them like we're going to on offense and defense. They're going to be able to reflect back on, 'OK, when Oregon did this against us, we did that.' Or 'When Stanford did this, we did that.' They've been together. They're a much better team and further along than the last two teams we've played."
Both teams are averaging at least 40 points and 440 yards on offense and both are averaging more than 7 yards per offensive play.
Washington State is led by Gesser, who has completed 64 percent of his passes for four touchdowns with one interception.
His Ohio State counterpart is Craig Krenzel, who has hit on 82 percent of his passes for one touchdown and hasn't thrown an interception. Krenzel, in his first full season as a starter, has also rushed for 45 yards on six carries. A week ago against Kent State, he completed his first 11 attempts.
Neither Krenzel nor the rest of the Buckeyes have made many mistakes in building 38-7 and 38-0 leads in their first two games. Tressel, however, was upset when freshman tailback Maurice Clarett and sophomore Maurice Hall each lost fumbles.
Tressel is a perfectionist who has been known to reset the clock and start over when he doesn't like the way his team starts a segment of practice -- in his own way, turning back the clock to erase the mistakes.
He spoke of the two turnovers as if they nearly cost the Buckeyes a game.
"There's no question that those turnovers, we survived them," he said. "We're going to be challenged to make sure we hang on to that football tightly. We have to be perfect at that against Washington State."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)