COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some final notes, quotes and observations from Ohio State’s 24-20 victory over Northwestern on Saturday:
The ‘Blah’ Buckeyes?
For the fourth time in as many weeks, it was tough to figure out what to make of this Ohio State outing.
As the Buckeyes learned the two previous weeks, they’ll take a win any way they can get it, but Saturday’s showing was hardly the bounce-back performance they were hoping for following last week’s loss to Penn State. Tied with Northwestern in the fourth quarter and fighting the Wildcats off in the final minutes? What happened to the dominant Buckeyes? What happened to the team that played nearly perfectly in their first four games of the season?
For one, I think the competition has stepped up, but that’s not something that’s going to change any time soon. Two of Ohio State’s final four opponents will be ranked. It starts Saturday with Nebraska, which is an overtime loss away from being undefeated and ends with a Michigan team that’s been as impressive as any not named Alabama this season. Even at 2-6, Michigan State has shown the ability to scheme up with Urban Meyer as well as anybody in the Big Ten. Simply put, there’s not a homecoming game left on the Buckeyes’ slate to help them cleanse their pallets.
After four straight weeks of mediocre showings — including last week’s loss — it may just be time to admit that this is who this Ohio State team is, until further notice.
Statistically, the numbers were there for J.T. Barrett, but for the fourth consecutive week, something just didn’t seem right about the Buckeyes’ passing attack. Of Barrett’s 21 completions, only one went for more 20 yards — a crucial 34-yard pass to K.J. Hill to set up what would be the game-deciding score.
Barrett played well and the offensive line did a much better job against the Wildcats than it did in the loss to Penn State a week ago. As has been a constant, these struggles appeared to be on the Ohio State wide receiving corps, which remains without a consistent playmaker eight games into the 2016 campaign.
“It’s a combination and we’re not hitting it,” Meyer said aftward. “I don’t know if we’re separating. I see the same thing as everyone else that watches us.”
What Meyer sees is opponents playing off of his team’s wideouts, preventing them from getting deep and clogging up the field for the rest of the OSU offense. That’s been a big part of why the big play for the Buckeyes has gone missing — it’s simply not there, with teams sitting in the middle of the field daring Ohio State to keep them honest.
As a result, underneath routes are readily available and Barrett is more than willing to take advantage. But sooner rather than later, the Buckeyes are going to need to find a way to beat a team deep.
It would be easy to say this was the Ohio State defense’s least impressive performance of the season and that may very well be true. The Buckeyes gave up more than 400 yards and allowed the Wildcats to trail in time of possession by fewer than five whole minutes. If there was a game where the “Silver Bullets” didn’t hold their own, this was it.
But at the same time, give credit to Northwestern, which is hardly the same team that lost to Western Michigan and Illinois State earlier this season. As it turns out, the Wildcats may actually be pretty good — or at least not as bad as some of us may have once thought.
“A hard-fought W against a good team that had a lot of momentum,” Meyer said. “I thought our guys nutted up when they had to.”
Austin Carr (eight catches, 158 yards) is as good as any wide receiver in the Big Ten and Justin Jackson isn’t far behind Saquon Barkley in terms of the league’s best running backs. But perhaps the most impressive part of the Northwestern offense on Saturday was the play of sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, who looked like an NFL quarterback at times agains the Buckeyes.
Completing 22 of his 42 attempts for 256 yards, one touchdown and one interception, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Thorson showed a strong ability to extend plays with his legs, although he wound up rushing for only 44 yards. Ohio State is still light years ahead of Northwestern in terms of overall roster, but when a team has a talented quarterback, sometimes that can be the great equalizer.
The Buckeyes have three games standing between now and then, but the Nov. 26 date with Michigan gets closer with each passing week. As of now, Ohio State doesn’t seem like a team — or at least an offense — capable of competing on the same field as the Wolverines. But a lot can change in the next four weeks.
Maybe it doesn’t even need to. Perhaps the Buckeyes can continue to squeak by lesser opponents and still put it all together in Round 2 of the Urban Meyer-Jim Harbaugh rivalry. Ohio State will still have the better overall roster — at least from a recruiting standpoint — the more experienced quarterback and homefield advantage. If the two teams were to play tomorrow, the Buckeyes would still be the favorites.
Or maybe Ohio State is playing with fire and is destined to get burnt between now and the final game on its regular season slate. Just like last year, the Buckeyes’ poor performances are being masked by the intoxicating aroma that comes with winning, but as they learned against Michigan State, sooner or later, your shortcomings get exposed.
We have four weeks to figure out what this Buckeyes team is really made of and next week’s matchup with Nebraska will be one of the more interesting tasks. The Cornhuskers will be ranked in the top-15 and are coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss at Wisconsin. Much like Ohio State, they also seem to be playing worse than their record indicates.
Will the Buckeyes rise to the occasion for what would seem like the first time in more than a month? We’ll find out. Already, expectations seem to have been lowered. No longer is this the same team that once seemed to talented enough to compete with the Crimson Tide.
For now, winning instead of style points will have to suffice.
“Nothing was perfect,” Meyer admitted Saturday. “But we’re going to enjoy that win and go.”