October 15, 2002 at 9:16 PM EST - Updated July 12 at 4:41 AM
By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio State players can finally admit that they're looking forward to playing Wisconsin.
Since the summer, the Buckeyes have spoken fervently about how they were only concentrating on the opponent at hand. Still, thoughts of the Badgers kept creeping into their minds and occasionally into their words.
"It's no secret that we've all had our eyes on this football game for a lot of reasons," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said Tuesday.
The principal reason is that Wisconsin (5-2, 0-2 Big Ten) stands in the way of the Buckeyes' march through the conference. Fourth-ranked Ohio State (7-0, 2-0) is a half-game behind No. 15 Iowa in the league -- and does not play the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten's rotating eight-game schedule this season. Therefore, the Buckeyes can't afford a slip as long as Iowa continues to win.
In addition, Ohio State is still in the hunt for a spot in the Fiesta Bowl for the BCS national championship. One loss and that hope would probably crumble.
There are other reasons why the game has taken on special importance:
There's bad blood between the teams.
Both sides have accused the other of a lack of respect.
Wisconsin players believe the Buckeyes danced on the W logo at midfield after beating the Badgers two years ago. Ohio State players are upset that Wisconsin quarterback Brooks Bollinger allegedly signed an autograph that denigrated the Buckeyes and Ohio Stadium.
"We're going to go up there to win a game, not dance on a logo," Ohio State offensive tackle Shane Olivea said. "That's the way I look at it. We'll do the dancing when we get back to Columbus."
The teams have become rivals.
The visiting team has won the last three meetings, and there have been several on-the-field encounters. There has been loads of trash talk, showboating and taunting.
"I would say it's a rivalry," Ohio State linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "I don't really think we care a whole lot for each other because of the incidents that have happened in the past."
The Buckeyes haven't been road warriors.
Ohio State has looked tentative and sloppy in edging Cincinnati 23-19 and Northwestern 27-16 in its only road games. Quarterback Craig Krenzel was intercepted twice in the former game and freshman tailback Maurice Clarett lost three fumbles in the latter.
"The quality of our football team is going to be tested and the maturity of our football team is going to be tested," Tressel said of the game at Camp Randall Stadium. "We're anxious to go up against a team that obviously is going to raise up just like Wisconsin always does."
After Saturday, the Buckeyes' only remaining road games are at Purdue (3-4) and at Illinois (2-5).
Over the next six weeks, the Buckeyes play six Big Ten opponents with a combined record of 25-15 - adding to the Buckeyes' feeling of urgency.
Wisconsin has lost its last two games, each by three points.
Those losses might have added to the importance of the Ohio State game.
"When you have a difficult defeat you have to cut it loose and let go of it and move forward," Badgers coach Barry Alvarez said. "(You have to) get on to the next game and get full concentration on the next game as soon as you can."
A year ago, the Badgers came into Ohio Stadium and fell behind 17-0 early in the second quarter before pulling out a 20-17 victory.
Wilhelm says the Buckeyes learned from and were strengthened by that loss.
"We're a different class of people this year. We're in a different situation," he said. "We're 7-0, we've improved week to week in every aspect of the game. We just hope to go up to Wisconsin and have the preparation that we have for these next three or four days accumulate into a victory."
Tressel announced Tuesday that backup linebacker Fred Pagac Jr. has been suspended for Saturday's game. The redshirt junior was arrested and charged with persistent disorderly conduct when police said they found him trying to fight outside a bar near campus early Sunday morning. Pagac is scheduled to appear Wednesday in Franklin County Municipal Court.
Tressel said Pagac did not face sanctions from the university, but would not play because of team rules.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)