One day after each Ohio State football game, beat reporters Joey Kaufman and Bill Rabinowitz discuss the lasting storylines and other key developments. Their latest back-and-forth follows the Buckeyes’ 48-7 rout of Nebraska in Lincoln, an impressive showing on national television.
Kaufman: It was only a few days before kickoff when Ohio State coach Ryan Day fielded questions from reporters about the likelihood of his team playing its first 60-minute game. The implication was that he wouldn’t be prompted to replace his starters for the fourth quarter. The game was to be much tighter. Then it wasn’t. The Buckeyes were ahead 38-0 late in the second quarter, building their second-largest halftime lead in any game this season. The Huskers are an improved team after they went 4-8 last season, but they didn’t fare any better than Cincinnati or Indiana. Much of it is probably owed to Ohio State. As Nebraska coach Scott Frost put it, the Buckeyes are “a lot better football team than they were a year ago.”
Rabinowitz: I don't think there's any doubt about that. It's hard to find any significant flaws in the Buckeyes right now. Justin Fields has 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions — incredibly impressive for a guy who just arrived on campus in January. J.K. Dobbins is running like a man on a mission, and, man, the offensive line is just crushing guys. Some of those holes were just gaping. The defense is just as dominating. Those guys are playing with speed and confidence. Jeff Okudah had two terrific interceptions, and the run defense is suffocating. You can tell that these guys are having a blast, especially after the repeated lapses last year.
Kaufman: That was a very thorough bullet-by-bullet rundown of everything that happened in Lincoln. Let’s focus on the biggest storyline in my eyes. While Ohio State was always going to put up points versus an overmatched defense, its defense swarmed a pretty good offense led by Adrian Martinez, who is arguably the second-best quarterback in the Big Ten behind Fields. Yet Martinez completed only 8 of 17 passes for 47 yards and three interceptions with 81 rushing yards. The Cornhuskers, who averaged 486 total yards during their 3-1 start, were held to 231 yards, their second-lowest output in Frost’s two seasons at the helm. Of course, the Buckeyes entered as the favorite, but few expected them to almost pitch a shutout.
Rabinowitz: What stands out to me as I think about the game is really just how many defensive players I can recall making plays that just jumped out to me. Chase Young was constantly in the backfield, starting with the pressure on Okudah's first interception. Okudah had the two picks and another big hit. Baron Browning did a great job spying Martinez on one third down when the quarterback was looking for a crease. Pete Werner almost decapitated — deHusked? — a poor Nebraska ballcarrier. Jordan Fuller made a potential touchdown-saving tackle (and also had an interception). Malik Harrison was all over the field. It is amazing that this is mostly the same unit that looked so lost last year.
Kaufman: A feature of this win, too, was really the exposure. With ESPN’s famed “College GameDay” program in town and ABC putting the game in its prime slot, a larger audience watched Ohio State. And coupled with Clemson looking ho-hum at North Carolina in a one-point victory, there is real curiosity whether the Buckeyes are the best team in the country, even though they only moved up a spot to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll and No. 5 in the coaches’ poll. It’s a conversation worth having with the September schedule in the rearview mirror. In the initial weeks, most observers wondered if Day could take the baton from Urban Meyer, incorporate a new quarterback and oversee a staff remake of a defense that struggled. Those questions were largely answered. But I’m now curious how close the Buckeyes are as far as closing ground on Alabama and Clemson in the upper crust of college football. In most analytics rankings, the Buckeyes are there — No. 1 in Sagarin and Massey and No. 2 in ESPN's Football Power Index and SP+ ratings behind Alabama. They lack signature wins like Georgia, which beat Notre Dame, and LSU, which won at Texas, but the Buckeyes have beaten a string of solid teams as convincingly as possible.
Rabinowitz: The polls are a curiosity, but what really matters is how the Buckeyes are playing. Obviously, Buckeyes fans want validation, but it's not really needed. What is needed is for the Buckeyes to continue this level of play. The scary thing is, I think every player and coach I talked to after the game Saturday said that Ohio State can get better. Sure, there are plays in which players make mistakes or get beaten. In a game in which every snap involves 22 players, that's going to happen plenty. But at this point, it's really nitpicking. The offense gets chunks of yards whenever it wants, and the defense makes offenses labor to get much of anything. I almost feel bad for Drue Chrisman, who didn't punt until the fourth quarter. At least he gets to hold on extra points and field goals.
Kaufman: This team seems pretty cognizant of its recent history, the slip-ups that kept it out of the College Football Playoff the past two seasons. It’s cliche to say they’re taking it game-by-game or week-by-week, but players brought up the previous stumbles as reason for taking that mindset. As Dobbins said after the win in Lincoln, “I’ve been on the other side where you look ahead and lose to Iowa or Purdue.”
Rabinowitz: It won’t be hard to focus on next week’s opponent. Michigan State has been the biggest thorn of all to Ohio State this decade, thwarting their national title hopes in both 2013 and 2015. The Spartans have long relied on their defense and hoped their offense would provide something. What’s strange is that MSU’s defense has faltered some — Indiana sliced through it on Saturday — but the offense behind quarterback Brian Lewerke has come alive. Ohio State is a 17-point favorite, but Buckeyes fans will be wary of this one. Then again, if Ohio State continues to play the way it has, it could be another cakewalk.