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Gap between Buckeyes and rest of Big Ten looks as big as ever after win over Penn State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defenders, from left, Jonathon Cooper, Pete Werner and Tuf Borland combine for a sack of Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford in the first quarter. OSU finished with five sacks and limited Penn State to 67 yards rushing.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — After Saturday night, the gulf between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten looks bigger than ever.

The Buckeyes were not flawless in their 38-25 victory over Penn State. The defense gave up three second-half touchdown catches by Jahan Dotson to keep the game semi-close. The running game was better, but neither Master Teague III nor Trey Sermon has anyone forgetting about J.K. Dobbins just yet.

But Ohio State certainly showed progress from its spotty 52-17 season-opening victory over Nebraska. Its passing game with quarterback Justin Fields and receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson looks unstoppable when the offensive line protects well, which is most of the time.

The bigger jump was the play of its defensive line. The Buckeyes' linemen wanted to prove they could still dominate without Chase Young around. On Saturday, they did. Jonathon Cooper was a beast, nose tackle Tommy Togiai had three sacks and Haskell Garrett followed his impressive performance against Nebraska with another one.

The Buckeyes sacked Sean Clifford five times. They limited the Nittany Lions to 67 rushing yards on 22 carries, excluding the sacks.

“I would say it was a big step forward,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “To win this game on the road is a huge step for us. But there's a lot to be done, absolutely. And we'll just keep going back to work. But I think that's really encouraging, that there's a lot of work to be done if you still play like this and win like this.”

The victory puts Ohio State on an apparent glide path toward an unprecedented fourth straight outright Big Ten championship. That may sound grossly prematurely two games into the season, and no one will catch the Buckeyes agreeing.

But it is reality.

Penn State, which lost to Indiana in its opener, is now 0-2. Its hopes of catching Ohio State are slim and none, and slim flew out of Happy Valley late Saturday night. Yet even depleted by injury and the opt-out of star linebacker Micah Parsons, the Nittany Lions probably have the most talent of anyone else in the league other than Ohio State.

After routing Minnesota last week, Michigan looked like it might be formidable. Minnesota's loss to Maryland on Friday took the heft from that win. Then the Wolverines were stunned by 24-point underdog Michigan State on Saturday.

Instead of facing the annual question about whether this is finally the year Jim Harbaugh beats Ohio State, Harbaugh is facing the even harsher question about whether he's the right coach to lead the Wolverines beyond this season.

The recruiting and development gap between Michigan and Ohio State is immense. Remember the wall around Ohio that generations of Buckeye coaches couldn't stop the Wolverines from piercing? Michigan generally doesn't even try to recruit the same elite prospects Ohio State does anymore, or at least not successfully.

Who else is there to at least give the Buckeyes a scare in the Big Ten East and even the conference overall? Not Michigan State, which lost to Rutgers in the season opener.

Seriously, it could be Indiana. Tom Allen has done a terrific job in Bloomington, and the Hoosiers finally got a signature win in their opener with a dramatic win over Penn State.

But Indiana hasn't beaten Ohio State since 1988. IU has thrown some scares into the Buckeyes recently, but the talent gap between the programs is significant.

As for the Big Ten West, that's also a mess. Wisconsin looked terrific in its opener and certainly would be a challenge for the Buckeyes. But the Badgers are sidelined by a COVID-19 outbreak and might not be play enough games to be eligible for the conference title. Minnesota's boat has rowed into the rocks. Iowa blew a 17-0 lead and lost to Northwestern.

When Northwestern, Purdue and Indiana are the only other 2-0 teams in the Big Ten, that says about all you need to know. Luke Fickell's Cincinnati Bearcats would be the second-best team in the Big Ten if they were in the conference.

This all should be a comfort as well as a worry to the Buckeyes. They can continue to hone their game without serious threat of losing. If COVID doesn't wreck the season, the Buckeyes probably have the easiest path to the College Football Playoff of any team in the nation.

But once they get there, they likely won't have faced serious opposition. More than ever, complacency might be the biggest opponent the Buckeyes face until then.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch