Ohio State is the moody 13-year-old who sparkles one day and broods the next. When the Buckeyes shine, they’re hard not to like. When sullen, clear the room.

Why the sudden change from one game to the next? What prompts a 52-51 overtime performance against Maryland, followed immediately by a 62-39 pasting of Michigan?

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“We played at the level of our competition. That happens sometimes,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “You’d like to have that not happen, but it does.”

It always has, for every team everywhere. Team A is favored by four touchdowns against Team B, then goes out and plays like Team C-minus, which results in lopsided losses to Purdue and Iowa.

Manic performances are especially prevalent at lower levels, both because of the wider gap between the haves and have-nots and because of lack of maturity. A 35-year-old NFL linebacker has seen enough to know bad things happen to good teams. An 18-year-old college player who signs with Ohio State thinks the Buckeyes are unbeatable, just as he believes he is indestructible.

“There are many challenges in coaching, but inconsistency with young people and injuries and quality of opponent, that is a very difficult thing,” Meyer said.

I offer one more reason: the talent trap. Ever watch a cat toy with a mouse? If not careful, the feline will fail to put the rodent away quickly enough, watching the lesser “player” escape.

Purdue escaped. Maryland nearly did. Nebraska made things interesting in a 36-31 loss, leading 21-16 at the half and trailing by only five with three minutes left. And Minnesota trailed only 20-14 after three quarters before the Buckeyes finished off the Golden Gophers 30-14.

For Ohio State fans, those games were like watching temperamental teens pick at their food during dinner.

Then Michigan happened. The Buckeyes finally found a foe who could hang with them. Or so many of us thought. It turns out the Wolverines only outwardly played the role of popular homecoming king. Internally, they were a mess, and Ohio State exposed the façade.

Next comes Northwestern, the dangerous overachiever. The Wildcats don’t have Ohio State’s talent, but maybe that will work to their advantage Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. We have seen how the Buckeyes behave against the not-so-mighty, and Northwestern seems to fit that category.

Despite winning the Big Ten West, Northwestern is 8-4 and 21st in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Wildcats have won seven of their last eight games, and two of their losses were to Notre Dame and Michigan by a combined 13 points. But no one is mistaking them for a potential playoff pick, a distinction belonging to the 11-1 Buckeyes.

What Northwestern has going for it is the unknown, as in which Ohio State will show up in this hit-or-miss season? Have the No. 6 Buckeyes finally found their groove, and if so will it translate to an impressive enough victory to convince the playoff selection committee to leapfrog them past No. 5 Oklahoma into the fourth playoff spot (if the Sooners defeat Texas and assuming Georgia loses to Alabama)?

Meyer wanted no part of that discussion this week. At the moment, playoff talk is nothing more than irritating background noise (so he says). The first order of business is figuring how to make sure the Buckeyes don’t lay an egg the size of West Lafayette, Indiana.

“Certain areas of our team are, and certain areas are not,” Meyer said, responding to whether the Buckeyes are playoff caliber. “Internally, I’ve said it the last month and a half: enhance our strengths and work on our weaknesses.”

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t see many of the latter. His one-word assessment of Ohio State amounts to “gulp.”

“We’re going to have our hands full,” Fitzgerald said.

Will it be another cat-and-mouse game for the Buckeyes? Impossible to say. Based on what happened against Michigan, I think Ohio State puts a hurtin’ on Northwestern. Something in the neighborhood of a 30-point win. But this team is a fooler. Just when you think the Buckeyes will roll, it appears they take their superior talent for granted and play down to the level of their competition.

Meyer and Fitzgerald strongly rejected the notion that anyone would play down to Northwestern.

“We’ve taken everybody’s best shot,” Fitzgerald said.

But Ohio State’s athletes don’t consider themselves everybody. They are the elite. The question is whether they show it Saturday.

“When you have talented players and good people, it’s kind of a challenge you enjoy,” Meyer said of getting superior talent to play like it. “When you have the opposite, when you experience defiance and quit, it’s awful. It’s miserable. We have very good people.”

No argument there. It comes down to whether the good play great against not-so-exceptional Northwestern.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD