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’ 52-3 beatdown of Northwestern on Friday night.
Kaufman: These teams really met in the Big Ten championship game 10 months ago? The Buckeyes overran Northwestern just like they have everyone else on their schedule this season. Some of the stats are mind-boggling at this point. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ohio State is the first Big Ten team since 1973 to start a season with seven consecutive wins by 20 or more points. And it’s outscored the seven opponents 348-56, with an average margin of victory of almost 42 points.
Rabinowitz: And here we thought the Buckeyes would finally face another dominant team this week when Wisconsin comes to town. So, of course, the Badgers blow a late lead and lose to Illinois. Illinois! One disastrous game doesn't mean Wisconsin isn't a legitimate threat to the Buckeyes. But it will lessen the hype for this game. The upset makes you appreciate just how impressive Ohio State has been this year: No team has even made it close against the Buckeyes. Northwestern had a good defense, and once the Buckeyes got their running game going, they just rolled.
Kaufman: The Badgers’ loss is a reminder of just how difficult it can be to navigate the waters of a college football season. Letdowns happen. Was Wisconsin looking ahead to Ohio State? Perhaps. By most measurements, it’s a pretty good team. Before stumbling at Illinois, it was ranked in the top five by several prominent analytics metrics, including as high as No. 3 in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. The setback stings, but there’s reason to think they should still give the Buckeyes a game.
Rabinowitz: I agree, but you wonder what effect the Illinois game will have on the Badgers. Will it galvanize them or deflate them? But let's get back to the OSU game. The Buckeyes struggled early both running and stopping the run. But the one constant was the continued superb play by quarterback Justin Fields. He made a couple of clutch throws to keep early touchdown drives alive. Each week, it seems he shows something new that reinforces the reality that he is a special talent.
Kaufman: Wisconsin will need to follow the blueprint used by Northwestern, which did have some success running. The Wildcats finished with seven runs of 10 or more yards. Over the first six games, Ohio State had given up 17 such runs. It ultimately mattered little because Northwestern offered no threat of a passing game to complement its rushing attack. Quarterback Aidan Smith completed 6 of 20 passes with only one longer than 10 yards (a 13-yard completion). So the ground game is a good starting spot, especially if a team wants to keep Fields off the field, but it needs to be somewhat dynamic too.
Rabinowitz: The question is whether any team in the Big Ten can match Ohio State's diversified offense. Fields' legs can render a sound defense ineffective, and he can make every throw. J.K. Dobbins, behind that powerful offensive line, is running like a man possessed. The Buckeyes have plenty of talented receivers. And then there's the defense, which often is smothering. Let's also credit the coaches. Opponents have sometimes found something to exploit, but OSU quickly makes the adjustment and that's the end of that. Proof? Ohio State has outscored opponents 158-20 in the second quarter.
Kaufman: There isn’t a team on the schedule in the regular season that is going to match them. But look at the end of the slate. The final two games come against Penn State and Michigan, then a possible Big Ten championship game. Those are three tough games in three weeks, and bruising games can impact depth. For the most part, Ohio State has stayed relatively healthy this season. It’s also challenging to win week in and week out against ranked teams. To this point, the Buckeyes’ schedule has featured some buffers, be it an off week or a lower-tier nonconference opponent, that have helped them keep humming.
Rabinowitz: Yes, the schedule has set up perfectly for the Buckeyes. Now it is essentially a three-game regular season. It's hard to envision Maryland hanging with Ohio State — and no, I haven't forgotten last year — and the Rutgers game might feature the biggest point spread in Power Five history. That leaves Wisconsin and then the back-to-back of Penn State and Michigan. But Penn State is less imposing when it's the road team. As for Michigan, who knows whether the Wolverines will have tanked or rebounded by then. The game is in Ann Arbor, where the Buckeyes seldom have romped, but has Michigan really shown it has the offense to match OSU's? Truth is, if the Buckeyes play their best, no one in the Big Ten can beat them. But as Wisconsin showed, it's hard to play your best every week. So far, the Buckeyes have come pretty darn close.
Kaufman: My guess is Michigan will be the toughest of those remaining five regular-season games. It’ll be the week after facing Penn State, on Thanksgiving weekend, but more than that, it’s the big rivalry game on the road with the Wolverines in a possible position to play spoiler.
Rabinowitz: I’ll go with Penn State, which I believe is the only team in the league that can approach the Buckeyes’ overall talent. Michigan just seems to be too dysfunctional at this point, though Saturday night’s game against the Nittany Lions will show how true that is. But I wouldn’t overlook Wisconsin. As I said, it’s possible that the upset to Illinois could cause the Badgers to come to Columbus with new resolve. Whether they can match OSU’s talent is another question.