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Buckeyes reveling in the calm on this trip

By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 31, 2001

TAMPA -- The second time around, Ohio State's trip has resembled a peaceful family vacation. It is nothing like one year ago, when the Buckeyes camp was more deserving of coverage in tabloids than sports pages.

Last season, off-field distractions plagued the team leading up to the New Year's Day game. The team's second-leading receiver, Reggie Germany, was declared academically ineligible. Leading rusher Derek Combs arrived late and lost his starting job. Linebacker Matt Wilhelm publicly criticized receiver Ken-Yon Rambo's leadership, and Tyson Walter sued fellow lineman LeCharles Bentley.

On top of that, rumors surrounded the fate of coach John Cooper, who came to Tampa off another loss to archrival Michigan, his ninth in 12 games.

This year, one of the main stories around Ohio State is that, well, there are hardly any stories.

"We're just having fun," safety Donnie Nickey said. "There's less distraction, there's more focus on football and not the stuff we have no control over. We have control over how the outcome of the game is, not Coach Cooper's job or whatever."

In last season's game, Ohio State was run over by South Carolina 24-7 and Cooper was fired the next day. Jim Tressel took over, and he put his stamp on Outback Bowl preparation by bringing the team down earlier, a move many players appreciate.

"Things are much more relaxed," Walter said.

The All-Big Ten tackle even has coexisted with Bentley on the offensive line, with his $50,000 suit for damages from a February 2000 winter conditioning scuffle pending.

REVENGE FACTOR: Should the Buckeyes avenge their loss, it would complete a season of paybacks. Ohio State lost to Minnesota, Purdue and Michigan last season but beat all three this year.

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