FOOTBALL

Analysis: Buckeyes make statement to rest of Big Ten with blowout of Wisconsin

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

In less than 17 minutes Saturday night, Ohio State sent a statement to the rest of the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes are the clear favorites to re-ascend to the conference throne.

A little more than one quarter in their Big Ten opener was all Ohio State needed to jump to a 28-0 lead on Wisconsin, outgaining the Badgers 241-23 to that point.

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That rendered the rest of the game a formality. With its aversion to the passing game, Wisconsin is not built for comebacks. The final was 52-21. It wasn’t that close.

Get used to it.

It’s not just because of Ohio State’s dominance Saturday night even without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and starting cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Cam Brown. The other conference games reinforced the reality that the Buckeyes are the clear team to beat.

Take Michigan. The fourth-ranked Wolverines were taken to the limit by visiting Maryland, 34-27. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy showed his youth against the Terrapins. Maryland might have pulled the upset if not for a couple of boneheaded plays,

Jim Harbaugh picked J.J. McCarthy over the now-injured Cade McNamara to be Michigan’s quarterback because of McCarthy’s superior potential. McCarthy showed his youth against the Terrapins. Maryland might have pulled the upset if not for a couple of boneheaded plays, including a fumble on the opening kickoff to set up a quick Michigan touchdown.

The Wolverines escaped, but it was a sobering victory. Turns out that playing cotton balls such as Colorado State, Hawaii and Connecticut might not be adequate preparation for league play.

The Buckeyes don’t play Michigan for two more months. The Wolverines have time to fix their issues. They will be formidable.

Until then, though, the Buckeyes are unlikely to face many serious tests. Penn State should be one on Oct. 29. The undefeated Nittany Lions usually play Ohio State tough, and a game in Happy Valley is seldom easy.

But Penn State was tied at 14-14 with Central Michigan late in the first half Saturday before pulling away. Is quarterback Sean Clifford good enough to lead the Nittany Lions over Ohio State?

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Other than Penn State and Michigan, it’s hard to see the Buckeyes being seriously challenged by anyone else.

Next week’s opponent is Rutgers, which has never given Ohio State a game since joining the conference.

The Buckeyes then go on the road for the first time against Michigan State. At the beginning of the year, that had upset potential.

But the Spartans are reeling. A loss at Washington last week was followed by an ugly 34-7 rout at home by Minnesota.

Michigan State’s secondary is among the team’s many weaknesses, and that’s not a deficiency you want to have against Ohio State.

Side note: Golden Gophers fans might want to book a room in Indianapolis for the first weekend of December. Undefeated Minnesota looks like the class of the West Division, and the Gophers don’t play Ohio State or Michigan.

After Michigan State, Ohio State plays visiting Iowa. The Hawkeyes have a stout, opportunistic defense. But they haven’t played anyone resembling Ohio State, and Iowa’s offense is, well, putrid.

Games against Northwestern and Indiana figure to be blowouts. Maryland could be interesting, especially coming on the road a week before Michigan. But the Terps have never beaten Ohio State and came close only in 2018 when the Buckeyes’ defense was a mess.

A constant theme from Ohio State coach Ryan Day this year has been the need for “competitive stamina.” That’s rooted in the Buckeyes’ failures in last year’s losses to Oregon and Michigan and the knowledge that one upset loss can ruin their season.

“I think we’ve shown what we can do,” Day said. “Now whether we do it every week, that’s on us. But I think you can see what this team is made of. The big challenge, as we all know, in college football is that you have to bring it every week.”

If the Buckeyes do, a lot of Big Ten teams will feel like Wisconsin did Saturday night. Helpless.

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