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Believe it or not, Ohio State's toughest stretch of the football season might be now

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State coach Ryan Day said the way Maryland handled Penn State on the road last week caught his attention.

Even at the start of an unusual college football season like this one, the idea that the toughest stretch of Ohio State’s season would come against Maryland and Indiana would have seemed preposterous.

But in 2020, the bizarre has become normal.

No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) will travel to Maryland on Saturday to face the Terrapins (2-1), who stunned Penn State 35-19 last week in a game that wasn’t as close as the 16-point margin. Next week, the undefeated and No. 10 Hoosiers come to Columbus.

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said Tuesday that he will worry about Indiana next week. His focus is solely on Maryland.

“They're dangerous right now,” Day said. “They just really, really played well against Penn State so we're going to have to do a great job of coming in there with confidence, playing well early, taking care of the football. The recipe hasn't changed. But, yeah, these guys are definitely better than they've been.”

Ohio State hasn’t lost to Maryland since the Terps started Big Ten play in 2014, and only one game has been close. That came two years ago when only an off-target pass by Maryland on a two-point conversation attempt in overtime allowed the Buckeyes to escape 52-51. That was the nadir for Ohio State’s porous defense in 2018.

Maryland was 3-9 last year in coach Mike Locksley's first season and got drilled 44-3 by Northwestern in this year's season opener. The Terrapins then edged Minnesota 45-44 in overtime before the breakthrough against Penn State. 

Maryland has upgraded at quarterback this season with Taulia Tagovailoa, brother of former Alabama Tua Tagovailoa. The sophomore completed 18 of 26 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns without an interception against Penn State. It was only Maryland's third win in 44 games over the Nittany Lions.

"He's got some different guys in there, some transfers," Day said of Locksley. "He's upgraded the talent there. Taulia is playing with a lot of confidence. And he's got some really good receivers there. Coach Locksley is doing a good job putting them in the right position."

Though Ohio State is a 25-point favorite, the Buckeyes remember the close call from two years ago and have been impressed by the Terps' improvement this year.

"We definitely have to be on our 'A' game because they can put points on the board," Ohio State junior cornerback Shaun Wade said. "Even on the offensive side of the ball, we have to be on our 'A' game."

Ohio State's passing game certainly has been this season. Justin Fields has completed an astounding 86.7% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. 

But the Buckeyes' run game hasn't been dominating, and their mostly inexperienced secondary has been exposed at times.

Day doesn't want to lose sight of the fact his team is undefeated, even if the Buckeyes aren’t clicking in all phases.

“Two months ago, if you’d said we’ll be 3-0, I'm going to take it, obviously, with everything that's gone on,” he said. “There's just so much that goes on and there are a lot of things that are distractions right now and different. We need to make sure that we recognize that.

“But to say that we're where we need to be as a team in terms of playing at a high level, no, we're not where we need to be. I don't know if it's going to happen this weekend, or if it's going to happen in two weeks. I don't know. But we have to continue to work at that. And it's only going to happen if we practice better in certain specific areas that you're disappointed with.”

Asked to specify those disappointments, Day demurred.

"I'm not really not disappointed in anything, to be honest with you," he said. "We want perfection here. We want to be the best in the country with what we do, and we're just not there yet."

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Next game

No. 3 Ohio State at Maryland

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)