The Buckeyes’ officially sidestepped that land mine with Friday night’s 52-3 thrashing of Northwestern at Ryan Field.
A certain segment of the Buckeye fan base — perhaps even a large one — looked at the 28-point spread and win-loss differential of Friday’s matchup with trepidation. After Iowa in 2017, after Purdue in 2018, some were conditioned to expect some unexpected jolt of misery to ruin an otherwise brilliant season.
The players felt it too, though they likely processed those memories differently. The Buckeyes arrived in Evanston determined not to repeat the failures of the past. Whatever slim upset hopes Northwestern possessed evaporated around the moment J.K. Dobbins stepped out of a potential tackle and broke loose for a 68-yard run five minutes into the second quarter.
Dobbins scored on a 5-yard touchdown run later, pushing the Buckeyes’ lead to 21-3. The Wildcats’ feeble offense had no chance to close that gap.
Ohio State’s remaining schedule consists of three nationally ranked opponents — Wisconsin and Penn State at home, Michigan on the road — free-falling Maryland and long-since-cratered Rutgers.
At a glance, if you squinted, Friday’s matchup shared some similarities with those road pitfalls of the past two seasons.
Top-notch opposing coach? Ryan Day called Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald one of the best in the country this week. Underachieving opponent? The Wildcats were 1-4 despite returning the core of a defense that reached the Big Ten championship game last season. Curious conditions or X-factor? Perhaps the unusual week of prep leading to a Friday night kickoff could have created some sort of problem.
However, Northwestern was devoid of one important element which both Iowa and Purdue possessed when cutting the Buckeyes’ hearts out. Those teams had NFL talent at skill positions with which to exploit particular deficiencies in the defense.
Not only do these Wildcats fall short of the NFL standard, this Buckeye defense has hinted at no apparent weakness. While Northwestern managed some success running the ball up the gut in the first half, quarterback Aidan Smith completed only three of 12 passes for 22 yards. Ohio State nearly tripled the Wildcats in yardage 265-90 in the first half while building a 31-3 lead.
The Buckeyes’ 2019 will now be defined largely by what happens against those three remaining top-tier opponents. The test begin Saturday when No. 6 Wisconsin visits Ohio Stadium. The Badgers began the season with even more national skepticism than the Buckeyes, but have similarly thrust themselves back into the playoff conversation with their weekly dominance.
The one opponent Wisconsin could not crush was Northwestern, which held the Badgers to 243 yards in Madison on Sept. 28. Wisconsin won 24-15, scoring two defensive touchdowns in order to seal the victory.
Dobbins totaled 151 yards of offense and scored a pair of touchdowns. Field threw four touchdown passes and on a couple of occasions squirmed out of trouble to keep drives alive with his feet or arm. He resumed his connection with Chris Olave, who totaled 60 yards and two touchdowns on five first-half receptions.
In other words, Ohio State left no doubt about its talent disparity with the Wildcats.
What it means
Ohio State continues to demonstrate the gulf between its talent level and that of the common Big Ten Conference program. It has outscored road opponents Indiana, Nebraska and Northwestern 151-20.
The Buckeyes were apparently not able to get as healthy as they had hoped during the bye week, with contributors such as Baron Browning and Joshua Alabi sidelined. However, it appeared they also did not suffer any significant setbacks with bigger tests coming up fast.
Only what might be the biggest game of the Big Ten’s regular season. Assuming Wisconsin takes care of business on Saturday at Illinois, the Badgers will come to Ohio Stadium a week later with an undefeated record, a top-10 ranking, a Heisman Trophy contender in Jonathan Taylor and a defense that is shutting out everybody.