Kirk Herbstreit could tell from their handshakes that something was different about this Ohio State team.
In the spring, new coach Ryan Day invited Herbstreit, the ESPN college football analyst and former Buckeyes quarterback, to speak to the team.
“When I got done, I shook everyone’s hands, and I just sensed a serious focus about them,” Herbstreit said on a teleconference Wednesday. “I sensed a maturity, and that's not always the case, not just at Ohio State but everywhere. They just had a different vibe to them.”
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Herbstreit attributed it to doubts about the team after the retirement of Urban Meyer and the departure of quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. to the NFL.
“I think they really came together as a group and are anxious to prove people wrong, and so far they have been able to do that,” Herbstreit said. “But their maturity and focus beyond the X’s and O's is the thing that I think makes this team different and very unique.
“And they seem to keep their foot on the accelerator despite all the accolades and all the people telling them all these wonderful things.”
That is the test now for the Buckeyes, who are No. 1 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. They were off last week and are 43-point favorites Saturday against Maryland and figure to be an even more lopsided favorite next week at Rutgers.
It will not take their best effort to win these two games before the tough closing duo of Penn State and Michigan. But how they handle this stretch will provide a major clue about whether the Buckeyes can achieve their ultimate goals.
“There is that seriousness right now that we're in November, we're relevant, and there's no time for silliness right now,” Day said Thursday. “Someone asked me the other day (about fun). Part of having fun is winning games in November.
“There are a lot of consequences for these games. And I think the guys understand that, and it's cool to see. So what does that mean? We'll find out.”
On paper, Maryland figures to pose little threat to the Buckeyes. Against their toughest Big Ten opponents so far — Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan — the Terrapins have been outscored 149-17.
Then again, Maryland wasn’t expected to give the Buckeyes much of a game last year. They came within a failed two-point conversion attempt of an upset in a 52-51 loss.
This Terps team has playmakers, starting with running back Anthony McFarland, but its lines figure to be overmatched by the Buckeyes.
Still, the memory of last year hasn’t faded completely, and Ohio State knows to be on guard against taking anyone lightly.
“It’s a huge test,” linebacker Justin Hilliard said. “I think a big point of this defense and this team this year has been to treat each game like a championship, and that’s what we’re doing this week.”
That has been Day’s message to his team all season. It’s more pertinent now.
“You say, ‘Hey, listen, here's where we are, here's where we want to go,’” Day said. “You talk about what the stretch run means. You talk about that during the bye week. But once we got back here on Sunday, it was all about Maryland.
“It was all about the day winning the day, making sure we have a great practice, making sure we beat Maryland on Saturday. That's it. That's all that matters.”