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Stout defense? Check. Potent running game? Check. If the Buckeyes are to stay No. 1, it'll be up to their quarterback

AS NO. 1 Ohio State enters the most demanding part of its schedule (at Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois, at Michigan), the college football world still doesn't know how good the Buckeyes are—they have yet to play a top 20 team. And of course Ohio State's 41--14 train wreck against Florida in the BCS championship game last January is still fresh in many people's minds.

However, two characteristics shared by many championship teams were on display during the Buckeyes' 24--17 victory over Michigan State last Saturday in Columbus. First, a top-ranked defense: Ohio State's, which also leads the country in points allowed (7.9 per game), limited the Spartans to 185 total yards. And second, a bruising ground game: Sophomore running back Chris (Beanie) Wells gained a career-high 221 yards on 31 carries, leading a rushing attack that is 22nd in the nation (199.4 yards a game).

Yet after watching their team cruise to a 24--0 lead, Ohio State fans got a pre-Halloween scare when the Spartans returned an interception and a fumble by Buckeyes quarterback Todd Boeckman for third-quarter touchdowns. And it is Boeckman, a 23-year-old fifth-year junior, who is vital to Ohio State's bid to get back to the title game. A 6'5", 243-pound pocket passer with little mobility but a nice touch on long throws, Boeckman is starting for the first time since he was a senior at St. Henry (Ohio) High, in 2002. He delayed his enrollment as a full-time student for one season so he would have two years of eligibility remaining after Troy Smith, who would win the 2006 Heisman, left Columbus.

Despite attempting just 10 passes over the past two seasons, Boeckman was named the starter in August, and he has responded with steady play. He ranks seventh in the nation in passing efficiency (161.4), due largely to his 18 touchdown tosses in just 182 attempts, the best ratio in the country. He has also completed 65.4% of his throws.

Boeckman, who says Smith told him recently to "not let the hype get to your head," believes the experience he gained from being in the program for five years was invaluable. "Just seeing how guys handled themselves on and off the field has been tremendous," he says.

The play-calling of coach Jim Tressel underlines his confidence in Boeckman. Despite losing Smith and wideouts Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez to the NFL last April, Tressel didn't abandon the spread. Against Michigan State, Ohio State was in the spread for about 20 of its 70 snaps.

Tressel, who has never been accused of being pass-happy, has also encouraged Boeckman to throw the deep ball: Through eight games he has six touchdown passes of 36 yards or longer. (Smith had four all of last year.) In the first quarter against the Spartans, Tressel called a bomb to wideout Brian Robiskie on third-and-nine from his own two-yard line. Boeckman completed the pass for a 42-yard gain.

The quarterback knows he has much to improve on, especially in regard to being a more vocal leader and not forcing throws. He also knows the expectations: helping get the Buckeyes back to the BCS title game. "I'm not going to be frightened if something goes wrong, an interception, a fumble," Boeckman says. "I'm going to keep on fighting. I'm going to do what I can to help this team."

Ohio State fans have much riding on it.

ONLY AT SI.COM Gene Menez's Heisman Watch.

Three and Out

1 Florida's Tim Tebow is distancing himself from the crowded Heisman field. Not only is he the nation's top-rated passer (177.5), but he's also on pace to rush for 1,000 yards. Tebow would be the first sophomore to win the 72-year-old award.

2 No. 5 Oregon, which has lost three of its top four receivers to injury or suspension, will lean on tailback Jonathan Stewart against No. 9 USC this Saturday. Last week Stewart ran for a career-high 251 yards in a win over Washington.

3 Temple is making strides under second-year coach Al Golden. The Owls (3--5) have won three straight for the first time since 1990. In its first year in the MAC, Temple is one game out of first in the East Division.



PASSING GRADE Tressel has confidence in Boeckman (17), who hooked up with Jake Ballard (86) for a TD.



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