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 COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -One slippery-handed minute almost cast a dark shadow over the rest of Ohio State's season.
In the span of almost 60 ticks of the game clock, the top-ranked Buckeyes threw an interception that was returned for a score, watched a fumble come back for another TD and then bobbled the ball again.
Still, the Buckeyes held off Michigan State on Saturday, 24-17.
But it certainly didn't silence all the doubters who say that the Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) are No. 1 more because everyone else has lost than because of who they've beaten.
At least one person says the Buckeyes have earned their status.
``We've been tested all year,'' coach Jim Tressel said. ``Everybody we play plays the best they can, so that's a test in itself.''
Then again, Tressel presided over a 2002 season in which the Buckeyes went 7-0 in games decided by seven or fewer points. All those squeakers added up to the school's first national championship in 34 years.
Despite the latest close call, there was little chance that the Buckeyes could drop in the rankings - a fact that was backed up by The Associated Press media poll on Sunday. After all, almost everybody else has already spit the bit and lost at least once.
``They can't penalize us if we don't lose,'' offensive tackle Kirk Barton said. ``And so far we're 8-0.''
There's no doubting that, but the Buckeyes sure put that unblemished mark in jeopardy.
Ohio State dominated for almost three full quarters, grabbing a 24-0 lead while its quick and deep defense shackled what had been an extremely productive Michigan State attack.
The Buckeyes' Todd Boeckman, who had earlier thrown two touchdown passes, flipped a pass under pressure that safety Otis Wiley picked off and returned 54 yards to put the Spartans on the board.
Three plays after the kickoff, Boeckman was sacked by Jonal Saint-Dic and fumbled, with linebacker SirDarean Adams scooping up the ball and running 25 yards to make it 24-14.
On the next snap after the ensuing kickoff, Chris Wells - who rushed for a career-high 221 yards (36 more than Michigan State's team) - fumbled when hit by Jeremiah Antonio. Wiley and end Ervin Baldwin each had a clear shot at falling on the ball but failed to grab it before Wells plopped on it as his own 13.
``I just wished we had fallen on it,'' said Spartans defensive tackle Justin Kershaw, who grew up in a Columbus suburb. ``There's no telling what would have happened.''
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Spartans picked up a field goal to draw within a touchdown. But Wells played keepaway for the final few minutes to salt away the win.
``It was the opportunity of a lifetime,'' Wiley said of the chance to shock Ohio State.
The Buckeyes realize they were fortunate to survive, particularly when so many other elite teams have fallen this year because of turnovers.
``I think we may have got a little overconfident,'' Boeckman said. ``We had a good first half, but we can't have those little breakdowns like we did in the third quarter.''
Chalk it up as a lesson learned.
``That was the first time we felt a sense of urgency,'' defensive end Vernon Gholston said. ``That shows that every play is critical, that you can't ever lose focus and relax.''
By squirming out of trouble, the Buckeyes need only to win their final four games to clinch a third consecutive Big Ten title and a spot in their second straight Bowl Championship Series national championship game.
Of course, the Buckeyes and their detractors also have vivid memories of last year's title game, when they got shellacked 41-14 by Florida.
``I wear a Big Ten (championship) ring,'' said Barton. ``But it reminds me of failure. I want the big one.''
To maintain a chance at erasing that shortcoming, the Buckeyes must tiptoe through four teams that are every bit as dangerous as Michigan State. They play at Penn State (6-2) on Saturday night, then host Wisconsin and Illinois before playing the annual grudge match at Michigan.
``We know there are some big tests coming up, but the tests we've taken so far we've passed,'' Tressel said. ``We've got a big one coming up this week.
``We'll see how we can make it out of that one.''

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