NEW ORLEANS (AP) -It's been a year now and Alex Boone still remembers how alone he felt as the Ohio State team bus pulled away from the airport in the middle of a cold January night and slowly headed back to a sleeping campus.
The Buckeyes, No. 1 all season, had been humiliated 41-14 by Florida before a nationwide audience in the national championship game in Glendale, Ariz. Boone and the rest of the offensive line had been awful, watching helplessly as the Gators thundered past them time and time again to dump Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith on his backside.
As bad as the game was, the worst moment came later.
``You're coming back and you're hoping to see all those fans, and nobody's there, nobody wants to talk to you, nobody wants to be your friend,'' the massive offensive tackle said.
On the bus ride, however, it was Boone who took it upon himself to take the blame and put the Buckeyes back on the road to recovery.
``I just stood up and said, 'Hey, look. We're done. This is it. You've got one week to heal up and then we're all coming back,''' Boone said.
Ever since the night of that disaster in the desert, the Buckeyes have craved a chance to prove they're better than they looked, that they truly belonged in the national championship game that night - and that they belong in it again this year. They take on LSU on Monday night in the Bowl Championship Series national title game at the Louisiana Superdome.
``Thankfully we were able to get some help,'' said Kirk Barton, the Buckeyes' offensive tackle on the other side from Boone. ``We got back to where we really want to be. We want to be in the national championship game every year, but especially after what happened last year we wanted another shot.''
It took some minor miracles along the way. Ohio State (11-1) was seventh in the BCS rankings with just one game left on its schedule, yet the six teams in front all fell by the wayside down the stretch to give the Buckeyes - and particularly the blockers up front - their shot.
For 12 months Boone and Barton have been tortured by how badly they got burned by Florida. Most offensive linemen live in anonymity but they became relatively well known because of what went wrong.
Close to home, Buckeyes fans blamed them. Boone said he got calls from friends who told him how embarrassed they were by the way he played.
``I feel very sad sometimes for those two guys,'' said Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. ``They're two pretty good players and that's the only game anyone remembers. I feel very sad for our team, that everyone remembers that one game.''
Smith went into that game a year ago averaging 209 yards passing. He finished with 35. He had been sacked about once a game to that point, but was dumped five times by Florida for 51 yards in losses.
An Ohio State offense that had been putting up 36 points and 409 yards a game mustered just 14 points and 91 yards.
There are no stats for how many times Smith got leveled by a barely touched defender. Suffice it to say that he got a close-up look at the turf at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
LSU has taken note. The Tigers have taken a close-up look of their own at how their fellow Southeastern Conference member applied so much heat to the Buckeyes.
``We've done our homework,'' said LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who played for Ohio State from 1987-90. ``That was a different team, a different place, a different offense. But some of the aspects will be in our game plan.''
The Tigers will do all they can to put heavy pressure on Todd Boeckman, Smith's replacement at quarterback, who is coming off two consecutive subpar games.
``We've been practicing the entire time on rushing the passer and getting really quick off the ball,'' LSU defensive end Kirston Pittman said.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have been working on giving Boeckman time to pass. A recurring theme for the linemen is to hold their blocks for an additional second.
Unlike a year ago when eight Buckeyes were taken in the NFL draft and Smith and linebacker James Laurinaitis (who is back) won national awards, Ohio State has few household names this year.
Doubters from the Pacific to the Atlantic don't think the Buckeyes have earned their spot in the championship because of their weak schedule.
No one knows better than Boone that few get a chance to erase their worst memories.
``Now it's sort of like, we have nobody. We're a bunch of nobodies and we don't amount to anything,'' Boone said. ``You hear that for a while and you start to want to play so bad. This year, I can't wait for this game. This is going to be THE game.''
For some it's more than that ... it's a second chance.

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