COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Dwayne Haskins Jr. knows the deal. He plays a game built on advertised strength, where men wear toughness like tattoo sleeves, flaunting their ferocity for all to see.

Toughness is how you gain respect from teammates and coaches. Toughness is how you silence defenses. Toughness is how you fit into a locker room where ice covers bumps and bruises.

Haskins knows the deal. And against Maryland on Saturday, the Ohio State quarterback finally showed the deal. Criticized much of the season for too willingly avoiding contact, Haskins lowered his pads against the Terrapins and provided the physical push the Buckeyes needed to avoid the upset.

The 52-51 overtime win was no thing of beauty, more just a thing — I’m still not sure if this is the best average OSU team I have seen or the worst good one — but what Haskins did helped negate how poorly the Buckeyes played defensively. It was Bad, with a capital B that rhymes with P that stands for Pathetic. Maryland running back Anthony “Biakabutuka” McFarland torched Ohio State for 298 yards rushing, including touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards.

Only the most optimistic among Ohio State fans consider this defense good enough to keep Michigan from putting mega-points on the board Saturday at Ohio Stadium. But almost as important as the defense needing to step up is Haskins needing to step forward. Otherwise, an immobile Haskins might has well hang a pork chop around his neck and beg Michigan’s defensive attack dogs to come and get it.

The best way Ohio State can contend with a Wolverines defense ranked No. 1 in the nation is for Haskins to give more than lip service to his legs. If Michigan is able to pressure Haskins without worrying that he might burn them by scrambling, the odds of a UM win improve exponentially.

Haskins must keep Michigan honest by operating in some capacity as a run threat. And he showed against Maryland that he has both the ability — and want-to — to do so. He ran 15 times, four more than in the previous three games combined, for 59 yards and three touchdowns, including the 5-yard winner in overtime.

Haskins, who originally committed to Maryland before switching to Ohio State, had extra motivation to show the Terrapins he was not just a finesse quarterback.

“Being competitive, being back home, having those guys talk a little bit of smack to me,” he said of what triggered his tenacity. “I can run. I guess today I just wanted to show it more. … I didn’t think (three TDs) was going to happen, but running is fun, actually, so I might do a little bit more.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer would be all for it. He has been waiting for Haskins to stop tiptoeing and begin bulling for yards.

“He (did) run harder, and he needed to take that step,” Meyer said. “The point was made that he was missing the toughness element, and he had to pull the ball down and go get yards and he did that today.”

Haskins did that and more, passing for 405 yards to pass Joe Germaine as OSU’s season passing leader with 3,685 yards. His three touchdown passes gave him 36, breaking J.T. Barrett’s record of 35 passing TDs in a season.

Still, Haskins knows the deal. Michigan is coming and the Wolverines won’t let him stand in the pocket and pick them apart.

“I watch Michigan every week,” he said. “They always look pretty good.”

The question becomes whether the Buckeyes can outscore the Wolverines? Smart money says Ohio State needs to shore up its defense or get shipped out by Michigan. But a two-dimensional Haskins gives OSU a fighting chance.

roller@dispatch.com

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