Rob Oller | If ever challenged, how will Ohio State respond?

Rob Oller
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) gets sacked by Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Chris Orr (54) during the 1st quarter of their game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on October 26, 2019. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

The taboo topic inside the Ohio State football facility — the subject coaches dance around — is whether the Buckeyes are braced for a shock to the system. When the game is on the line, does OSU have the requisite “it” factor to pull out a close one?

That’s all that remains in judging this team. And the verdict won’t be known for at least another week, because the Buckeyes will breeze past hapless Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, on Saturday. A 70-point win isn’t out of the question.

But what if next week Penn State holds a four-point lead with two minutes in the Horseshoe? As unlikely as it seems, the reality is no one knows how Justin Fields and the offense will respond. And if the Buckeyes would regain the lead with less than a minute remaining, would their defense keep the Nittany Lions out of field goal range?

Definitely? Probably? Maybe? All three are on the table, because to date the toughest opponent Ohio State has faced has been itself. The way coaches tell it, the Buckeyes are not expected to melt under pressure — whether that comes next week, at Michigan or not until a likely the Big Ten championship game or probably College Football Playoff — because they practice “difficult situations” nearly every day.

Fair enough. Fields throwing against cornerback Jeff Okudah, who may be the best defensive back in the nation, is more of a challenge than what he will face at Rutgers. Likewise, there are not a lot of other Chase Youngs out there.

“You try to rep those (pressure situations) in practice as much as you can,” Ohio State quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich said. “If you continually put pressure on (Fields) during practice and make it harder to practice … you’ve drilled it so you’re prepared.”

But let’s not overplay Ohio State’s readiness as it relates to practices vs. games. I mean, we’re talking practice.

Coach Ryan Day also preaches that teams perform on Saturdays like they practice during the week.

“When you’re in that moment, you’ll go back to the way you’ve trained and prepared,” Day said. “If you haven’t done that the right way, you won’t execute the way you’re supposed to.”

Sure, sure, but doesn’t Day wonder how his players will react with the game on the line?

“We’re not worrying about it; just preparing for it,” he said.

Hmm, I asked if he was wondering and he switched it to worrying. Freud might have a field day with that.

Of course, there is a chance the Buckeyes avoid close games all the way to winning a national championship. I look at 1995 Nebraska, often mentioned as the best team in college football history. The Cornhuskers averaged a 38.7-point margin of victory, topping a 12-0 record with a 62-24 win against Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska’s smallest margin of victory was 14 points.

Ohio State averages a 42.4 margin of victory and has won all nine games by at least 24 points. It would not shock if the Buckeyes win by at least two touchdowns against Penn State, the same at Michigan and by even more against what currently would be Minnesota in the conference championship game. After that? I’ve watched LSU. Quarterback Joe Burrow is not losing to anyone by 24 points.

Every season I start off by saying how hard it is to finish undefeated, because even excellent teams either fall prey to that one clunker game or get outplayed by a flawless opponent. I’m sticking with that, but boy these Buckeyes are making me rub my chin.

And yet … check the schedule. Only Cincinnati, Wisconsin and Indiana showed any semblance of ability to put a scare into good teams. (and OSU still beat each by 42, 41 and 31 points, respectively). Wouldn’t Ohio State fans feel more confident knowing their Buckeyes had to dig deep to defeat Wisconsin, rather than waltz to a 38-7 win? Maybe a gutsy fourth-quarter comeback would have helped answer whether OSU has the right mettle?

Or perhaps Dispatch beat writer Joey Kaufman is right that it’s not that the Buckeyes haven’t been tested but that they have aced each test so easily that they’ve turned the SAT into a pop quiz.

Ohio State offensive co-coordinator Kevin Wilson knows an incredible team when he sees it. He ran the offense at Oklahoma in 2003 when the Sooners were being talked up as one of the best teams in college history. OU won its last three regular-season games by a combined 174-28 to improve to 12-0 and cement its spot at No. 1 in the polls, then got drilled by No. 13 Kansas State 35-7 in the Big 12 championship game.

“You’ll never know until those (pressure) situations present themselves,” Wilson said, adding he is confident the Buckeyes will respond when the time comes.

Not if.