Rob Oller | Ohio State is cream of a failing Big Ten East crop

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

And just like that the Big Ten regular season is one-third completed. Some said it wouldn’t make it this far. Some said it shouldn’t make it this far. Some are saying Jim Harbaugh won’t make it much farther. 

Three themes and one big unknown have emerged through three Big Ten games. One, using Dennis Green's voice: “The Buckeyes are who we thought they were;” two, the Big Ten, especially the East Division, is not what we thought it was; and three, Harbaugh is not even close to being what we thought he would be when he arrived at Michigan in 2015.

The unknown remains COVID-19, which has wiped out two games — Wisconsin vs. Nebraska and Wisconsin vs. Purdue — and threatens to submerge the Badgers’ season. And maybe take more scheduled opponents down with them. Stay tuned.

Let’s tackle Ohio State first, since we know the Buckeyes are one of the few sure things in a season of uncertainty. You only needed to watch Saturday’s 49-27 win against Rutgers — not the “Massacre Among the Cutouts” that was predicted, but impressive enough — to note the degree of separation between OSU and the rest of the conference.

Northwestern and Indiana are 3-0. Purdue is 2-0. When two basketball schools and “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” are winning Best in Show it is time to put the dog down.

The Buckeyes, though, took it to Rutgers despite coach Greg Schiano having the Scarlet Knights competing better than they have since their first Big Ten season of 2014 — at least in the category of trick-play execution. If you can’t beat ’em, hoodwink ’em, I guess.

Schiano: “Men, today we want to practice the seldom-seen reverse-onside-throwback-lateral-dipsy-doodle-hidden ball trick.” 

The best sleight of hand from Ohio State is how in three wins quarterback Justin Fields has thrown for as many touchdowns (11) as incompletions. One must marvel at the height of the junior’s talent ceiling. Not just in college, but in the NFL.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (1) has a  pair of great receivers in Chris Olave (2) and Garrett Wilson, but the junior QB is the player who lifts the Buckeyes above the rest of the Big Ten.

Not even the best pure throwers in school history — Joe Germaine, Art Schlichter and Dwayne Haskins, who previously topped my list — could thread it like this guy. Fields is as comfortable firing darts as he is lofting perfect arcs into the corners of end zones.

“Down the field he’s as good as I’ve been around,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of Fields, who finished 24 of 28 passing for 314 yards and five touchdowns. “That last throw to (Chris) Olave had gas. It was in the hole.”

It helps Fields tremendously to have a pair of elite receivers in Olave (five catches, two touchdowns) and Garrett Wilson (six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown), but the QB is the difference-maker.

Ohio State’s defense is not of the same supreme stock as last season, when Chase Young and Jeffrey Okudah gave it an NFL-ready 1-2 punch on the line and in the secondary. But the 2020 version is still good enough, trick-play prevention notwithstanding.

At least it is sturdy enough to get the Buckeyes through their regular-season schedule unscathed, especially in a conference where the other traditional powers are either non-traditionally passive (Michigan and Penn State) or vexed by the virus (Wisconsin).

This is where Big Ten apologists will point out that maybe Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue — toss 2-1 Maryland in there as well — are just that good. Uh, no. The Hoosiers, Wildcats and Boilermakers may be better than usual, but let’s not get carried away.

Indiana’s three wins are against Rutgers, Michigan and Penn State, and the Scarlet Knights might be the best of the three, which is like praising a new 1977 Chevy Chevette for rusting through in only five months compared to three months for a ’72 Chevy Vega. Hooray.

Michigan is disintegrating, having lost to Indiana for the first time since 1987. Penn State was embarrassed at home by Maryland. Harbaugh is hemorrhaging bad vibes in Ann Arbor. But James Franklin isn’t exactly wowing PSU fans who have little tolerance for being 0-3 after a 35-19 loss to the Terrapins. Such shenanigans in Franklin’s seventh season do not bode well for the coaching salesman lasting a full decade in Happy Valley.

Back to Harbaugh. Step forward if you thought the former Michigan quarterback, who returned to UM after four successful seasons coaching in the NFL with San Francisco, would knock it out of the park with the Wolverines? I better see a lot of steps forward, because most assumed Harbaugh would fix a program that had fallen into disrepair. 

It hasn’t worked out that way. It’s one thing to lose to Ohio State and other ranked teams — Harbaugh’s road record against ranked opponents is 2-7 — but Captain Comeback is looking more like Sergeant Schultz, with a 1-6 record at the Big House in rivalry games against OSU and Michigan State.

Is his job in jeopardy? I’ll take “Coaches on their way out” for $1,000, Alex. Consider these comments from someone with generational knowledge of the Michigan program.

“I wouldn’t say Michigan can never come back, but I don’t think Jim Harbaugh is,” the Michigan Man said. “Unless he pulls a rabbit out of his hat, this (38-21 loss to Indiana) looks like the beginning of the end, and UM will be searching again in December.”

An indictment of Michigan’s inability to develop players: per 247Sports, the Wolverines have had four five-star recruits and 54 four-stars over the past four classes. Indiana has had zero and four.

But before Buckeye Nation gets too sanctimonious, recall that Ohio State is not immune from falling on its face. The Buckeyes tripped against unranked Iowa in 2017 and unranked Purdue in 2018. Still, the occasional slip-up is not the wholesale meltdown now happening in Ann Arbor and State College.

Going out on a limb, albeit a waist-thick oak branch, I predict no team left on OSU’s Big Ten schedule will come within two touchdowns of the Buckeyes. Only COVID-19 can catch them now. Masks on.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD