COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the first time this season, the Ohio State postgame locker room wasn’t in a celebratory mood.
Yes, the Buckeyes won — their fifth victory in five tries this season — but in the moments following their uneven 38-17 outing against Indiana, Ohio State’s shortcomings seemed like too much to ignore.
“The locker room was kind of dead,” said Buckeyes running back Mike Weber. “At the end of the day, a win is a win.”
It’s still a win, even if it started with a fumble on the third play of the game, which put the Hoosiers in position to take an early 3-0 lead.
It’s still a win, even if quarterback J.T. Barrett’s stat line included just nine completions on 21 attempts for a paltry 93 yards, a potentially costly fourth-quarter interception and just one touchdown pass, which came with the game’s outcome finally out of question.
It’s still a win, even if coach Urban Meyer admitted after the game that he needs to “fix” his team’s play-calling.
With all that working against them, the Buckeyes still somehow managed to beat by 21 points one of the better teams they’ve faced to this point in the season. Perhaps it wasn’t Ohio State’s prettiest victory, but to this point, it very well might be its most meaningful.
“We gotta make sure we win by three scores against a team we have a lot of respect for, so I feel lousy (for not being more excited),” Meyer said afterward. “We have to pick it up, go again and get guys healthy, and we’re getting ready for a stretch run.”
That stretch run starts next week, when Ohio State will head to Madison, Wis., to face the highest-ranked team it will have played this season in a primetime matchup with Wisconsin. If you’re a Buckeyes fan, the dread for a date at Camp Randall Stadium may have just increased, but consider this: Ohio State just played its ugliest game of the season and still won by 21 points.
In fact, one could argue that the Buckeyes win over the Hoosiers was both their most and least impressive outing of the 2016 campaign.
For the first time this season, Ohio State found itself facing true adversity against a team capable of capitalizing on it, be it Barrett’s opening-drive fumble, the inconsistent passing attack or the potency of Indiana’s own offense. There would be no backups playing in the fourth quarter, as has become customary in Columbus in the last month. Ohio State’s starters and regular rotation players were needed for a full 60 minutes for the first time in 2016.
The Buckeyes not only responded — they managed to keep the Hoosiers at an arm’s length. After Indiana and Ohio State traded touchdowns to open the second half, the Hoosiers never cut the Buckeyes’ lead to less than two scores.
“It’s like basketball — you’re going to have a night when the 3s don’t go in,” said Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. “But if you’re rebounding and playing good defense, you’ve got a shot. Well, they played the defense and they ran the ball.”
Leave it to the Hoosiers coach to use a metaphor from the hardwood.
But Wilson’s point holds up. The Buckeyes didn’t play their best ball — far from it. For the first time this season, Barrett didn’t look like a Heisman Trophy candidate and H-back Curtis Samuel was hardly involved enough in the passing game, and of the four Ohio State players to catch passes against Indiana, just one was a true wide receiver.
Yet there the Buckeyes were, dominant defense intact, one questionable chop block call on a Malik Hooker interception return for a would-be touchdown away from leaving Saturday with a 28-point victory.
The tone in the postgame interview room, however, would have told you otherwise, as most questions — and answers, for that matter — focused on the negatives of Ohio State’s sluggish showing.
“That goes to show how high of a standard we hold ourselves to,” said Weber. “We’ve gotta get back to the drawing board and get better next week.”
Meyer didn’t disagree. The fifth-year Buckeyes coach specifically noted Barrett’s 26 carries and Samuel’s lack of touches as issues in his offense. Ohio State may have survived Saturday, but as the season continues, the competition will continue to increase, as will the adversity the Buckeyes will face.
As of Saturday, Ohio State appears equipped to handle it.
Even at their worst, the Buckeyes might still be the best.
“We won by 21. It’s much easier to fix if you win than if you lose,” Meyer said. “Let’s take that one, move on and get ready for Wisconsin.”