Late turnovers keep Spartans close in nervy Buckeye win

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- No. 1 Ohio State hung on -- something it wasn't able to do with the football.

The Buckeyes built a comfortable lead and then gave up two touchdowns off turnovers late in the third quarter -- and almost lost another fumble deep in their own territory on the next play -- but slipped past Michigan State 24-17 on Saturday.

"When your foot is on that jugular, you have to kill that fool," offensive tackle Kirk Barton said. "You don't just back off, let him stand up and punch you a couple of times and then knock him back down."

All week, both sides had talked about what happened in the 1998 meeting. The unbeaten and top-ranked Buckeyes were 26 1/2-point favorites and had a 24-9 lead in the third quarter yet unraveled as the Spartans pulled off a 28-24 shocker.

Michigan State (5-3, 1-3 Big Ten) almost did it again.

The Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0) rolled for most of the first three quarters, building their big lead on two touchdown passes by Todd Boeckman, the running of Chris Wells and a bruising defense that thoroughly shut down Michigan State.

It was as if they were on autopilot, looking ahead to next week's test at Penn State.

"We needed some proof early in the game to catch us on fire and we never really got that," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who was Ohio State's defensive coordinator when it won the 2002 national championship. "We were always one step late or one gap short."

But in the span of four plays, it was 24-14 and Michigan State blew a chance to recover another Ohio State turnover on the very next play when two defenders got their hands on a loose ball before the Buckeyes secured it.

"It's disappointing when you're going along and your defense is pitching a shutout and you give up 14 points," coach Jim Tressel said. "I'm not happy that those 14 points count against our defense, the way it looks."

The comeback started when Boeckman flipped a pass under pressure that Otis Wiley picked off and returned 54 yards to put the Spartans on the board.

After a short run and two penalties gave the Buckeyes a first down at their own 15, Boeckman was sacked by Jonal Saint-Dic and fumbled, with linebacker SirDarean Adams swooping in to scoop up the ball and run 25 yards to make it 24-14.

Suddenly, a crowd of 105,287 was so silent you could hear a national championship trophy drop.

After the next kickoff, the Buckeyes took over at their own 22. On first down, Chris Wells fumbled when hit by Jeremiah Antonio and the ball bounced loose. Wiley and end Ervin Baldwin each had a clear shot at falling on the ball but failed to grab it.

"I should have fallen on it," a stricken Wiley said. "The outcome of the game could have been different."

Boeckman, who completed his first 10 passes in the game and tied a school-record with 12 straight completions, now had trouble even getting time to pass, much less complete one.

After an Ohio State punt midway through the fourth quarter, Brett Swenson kicked a 43-yard field goal to tighten it to 24-17 with just 3:42 left.

It got so bad that on the kickoff that followed, Tressel instructed returner Brandon Saine to take a knee to avoid turning the ball over with another fumble.

The Buckeyes took no more chances. Wells carried on the final seven plays, gaining 36 yards as Ohio State stayed perfect.

"It's hard ... after a game like this, when you're outclassing a team and all of a sudden they come back because you give them a couple of bunnies," Barton said.

Wells, so close to being a goat, ended up a hero as he finished with 221 yards on 31 carries including a 5-yard touchdown.

"I felt so strong I could've run the ball 20 more times," he said.

Boeckman struggled in the second half, finishing 15-of-23 for 193 yards and touchdowns of 14 yards to Jake Ballard and 50 yards to Brian Robiskie.

The Spartans mustered just nine first downs and 185 yards of total offense against an Ohio State defense which came in No. 1 in the nation in points (6.57 per game) and yards allowed (212 per game).

"You can't turn it over and give them 14 points and have it look like those statistics tell the tale," Tressel said.

Hoyer, who finished 12-of-23 passing for 126 yards with the one interception, didn't complete his second pass until the Spartans' fourth possession. Javon Ringer, averaging 178 yards in Big Ten games, ran for 49 yards on 18 attempts.

All those numbers were almost dwarfed by one slipshod minute of play by the Buckeyes.

"Well, they're not all pretty like you want them to be," Ohio State fullback Dionte Johnson said.