It's all about the run at Ohio State. It always has been, really.
Ask anyone wedged in a booth in the Varsity Club on Saturdays in the fall. People at this iconic Columbus hangout on West Lane Avenue gather to pledge their allegiance to all things Buckeye. Their deity: Woody Hayes. His mantra? Three-yards-and-a cloud of dust. That's how he built this program—and no coach who has followed Hayes has forgotten it.
People at the Varsity, located about 500 yards from Ohio Stadium, love their ballcarriers more than any other players in Scarlet and Gray. Les Horvath, Vic Janowicz and Howard "Hopalong" Cassady were their pigskin-toting heroes from the black-and-white era. Tim Spencer, Keith Byars and Eddie George came to us in living color.
And, of course, there was Archie Griffin. He'll always be No. 45, the gold standard for all things Ohio State. Griffin is as much a part of Ohio State lore as Buckeye Grove, "Hang on Sloopy" and the pregame sessions by The Best Damn Band in the Land.
Chris Wells is etching his place in Ohio State lore, ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Griffin. Who knows: By the time Wells, a junior, leaves Columbus – which could be after this season – he may be the best of all.
"People probably think I'm crazy when I say it, but Chris Wells is the closest thing to Jim Brown that I've ever seen," Griffin said this summer. "That says a whole lot, I know, but I really believe it."
Wells - listed as doubtful by OSU coaches after suffering a foot injury in the opener - is going to have to recover and run like the former Cleveland Browns great Saturday when No. 5 Ohio State plays at No. 1 USC in what's shaping up as the 2008 version of the "Game of the Century."
"I think coaches are aware of where you are in the season, and whether you'd like to make it out to be a national championship game or not, it's September and there's a lot of football to be played after September," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
But no matter how you spin it, this is a big game. And this isn't spin: Wells and the Buckeyes' ground game are the key to Ohio State having any chance to beat the Trojans, the first time the Buckeyes will play a No. 1 team since beating Miami in the 2003 BCS title game.
Conquer USC, and Ohio State at least partly will exorcise some of the big-game demons that have tormented Brutus in the aftermath of the past two BCS title games. A victory could vault the Buckeyes to the top of the polls and position them for a third consecutive BCS title game. Peeking ahead, the Buckeyes' most difficult remaining games are at Wisconsin on Oct. 4 and at Illinois on Nov. 15.
A short list
In the past 75 games, only nine players have rushed for 100 yards against USC:
But will Wells even play? The question has buzzed around Columbus for more than a week, since he took a third-quarter handoff, slipped awkwardly, fumbled and gripped his right foot during a season-opening win over Youngstown State on Aug. 30. X-rays were negative, but Wells was diagnosed with some type of toe injury.
He sat out last Saturday's game against Ohio, convalescing and watching his teammates sleep-walk to a 26-14 victory. It was all about getting healthy and getting ready for USC. But the questions persisted: How's Beanie?
Tressel said Thursday it is doubtful Wells will even play.
The Buckeyes coach said there was lingering soreness for Wells in his right foot after he worked out Wednesday night. Wells didn't practice with the team Thursday morning before it departed for Los Angeles.
"We were hoping he'd wake up this morning and feel even better than yesterday," Tressel said shortly before boarding the team bus to the airport. "But it didn't happen. We'll see from here."
Tressel didn't rule out the possibility of the junior seeing action, but didn't sound optimistic.
"Beanie practiced about 20 carries yesterday, and maybe 20 percent of the practice," Tressel said. "We didn't have him work today. He had more soreness this morning than we had hoped for. A late afternoon practice followed by a morning practice, we're hoping that's a little bit of the reason why. So we'll just have to play it by ear."
"Doubtful doesn't mean he's not playing," Carroll said after practice. "We're still going to prepare like everybody's playing. We're just going about our business. We're planning on him playing."
Even if he's not 100 percent, the Ohio State coaches know Wells will gut it out. At this time last year, though, they weren't so sure about his toughness. Tressel didn't think Wells had it in him during a game against Kent State on Oct. 13. Wells was playing on a bad ankle and seemed uninterested, so coaches sent a message by sending Wells to the bench. His final line: four carries for 17 yards.
Fight through injury. Be tough. Message received.
Wells responded to the Kent State benching over the final five regular-season games of 2007, carrying 136 times for 825 yards and eight touchdowns to finish with 1,609 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns – all on a bad left ankle and with what later was revealed to be a wrist injury.
"Oh, yeah, Chris Wells loves to play the game," Tressel said. "When you're a big back like he is, you're going to get whacked around a lot and your wheels have a big load on them."
Wells also is a leader, piping up with some choice words to motivate teammates in the hotel before the Michigan game. He went out and ran into Ohio State lore with a 222-yard effort in a 14-3 win at Michigan – the Buckeyes' sixth in the past seven meetings with the Wolverines. It was the most yards rushing ever for a Buckeye against Michigan, cementing his legacy and guaranteeing he'll never have to buy another meal in Columbus again.
Wells did his part in the title-game loss to LSU, running 20 times for 146 yards. But after LSU won 38-24, some opined that Wells should have had more carries. Ohio State coaches won't make that same mistake against USC because questions remain about quarterback Todd Boeckman's ability to carry a big load in big games.
Count on USC stuffing the box to stop Wells and the Ohio State ground game. That would put the game in Boeckman's lap. Can he deliver vs. a USC defense that may be the best in the nation? Doubtful.
Any success Ohio State will have loops back to "Beanie," a nickname given to Wells by a brother who said his head looked like a bean when he was born. Ohio State is 8-1 when Wells rushes for 100 yards. The only loss? The BCS title game to LSU. But when it comes to yielding 100-yard rushers, USC is a miser. In the Trojans' past 75 games, only nine players have eclipsed the 100-yard barrier.
If Wells isn't able to go, Ohio State will have to lean on Maurice Wells, Brandon Saine and Dan Herron. That trio looked dubious in the lethargic win over Ohio that saw the Bobcats nursing a 14-12 lead entering the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes' offense sputtered all day, netting just 272 yards. Boeckman was 16 of 26 passing for 110 yards, but was sacked three times. Herron had 50 yards on 12 carries, Maurice Wells 48 on nine and Saine 15 on five.
"I would call it more by committee," Tressel said. "Now if someone starts really feeling it, no matter who that is, you would (play them). But we're pleased with all those guys."
Tressel said team doctors, trainers and the coaching staff would monitor Wells' condition and then consult with him before ruling on whether he will play in the game at the Coliseum.
He said the Buckeyes' playbook would not be severely hampered by Wells' absence. But he did say that it still might come as a shock to Wells' teammates if he cannot play in a game of this magnitude.
"Our guys have seen that we've practiced for quite some time without him," Tressel said. "I suppose maybe when you get to the realization that, OK, maybe he won't play, then perhaps there's a 'Man!' type of thing. But we've got to go (on)."