After finishing off a 56-21 victory over Rutgers on Saturday, the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes (10-0, 7-0) could finally fix attention on the two games which seemed certain to define their season.
First up is No. 9 Penn State (9-1, 6-1) at noon Saturday in Columbus, which remained relevant in the Big Ten East Division race by beating Indiana, 34-27.. After that comes the big Nov. 30 trip to No. 15 Michigan (8-2, 5-2), which clobbered Michigan State 44-10.
Ohio State has played at a championship level from the beginning of the season. It has not, however, won any championships yet. Expect that fact, along with the intensity of the coming rivalry games, to focus the Buckeyes as the regular season closes.
The 52.5-point betting spread at kickoff suggested a competitive travesty might unfold Saturday at SHI Stadium. After Buckeyes slot cornerback Shaun Wade forced takeaways on the first two Rutgers possessions, both of which led to touchdowns, an historic rout seemed in the cards.
The Buckeyes instead settled for a garden-variety beatdown, thanks in part to some big moments for the Scarlet Knights.
Ohio State led 21-0 when freshman Garrett Wilson muffed a punt return and Rutgers recovered at the OSU 34. Isaih Pacheco scored on a 26-yard run three plays later. It was the first first-quarter touchdown the Buckeyes allowed this season.
Rutgers’ biggest defensive moment came midway through the second quarter. Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins carried four straight times on a possession that began at the Scarlet Knights’ 7. He was stopped twice at the 1, then knocked for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1.
For the most part, however, this was another day where Ohio State’s superior talent could not be subdued.
Justin Fields threw for a career-high 305 yards on 15-of-19 passing and four touchdowns, including two to Ben Victor. Chris Olave set a career high with 139 yards on four receptions, hauling in a pair of deep balls that set up other touchdowns.
Dobbins rushed for 89 yards and a pair of touchdowns, yielding to Master Teague III to begin the second half. Dobbins has carried the ball only 42 times in the second half this season, one of many ways individual statistical accumulation has been hampered by Ohio State’s team-wide dominance.
The Buckeyes tinkered with their starting defense, with sophomore Sevyn Banks playing in place of starting quarterback Damon Arnette. K’Vaughn Pope piled up 10 tackles off the bench and intercepted his second pass in as many games. Ohio State started youngster Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Friday — two New Jersey natives — while rotating defensive ends in the absence of Chase Young (suspension) and Jonathon Cooper (injury).
Young returns to active status this week, and while Ohio State did not need him the past two weeks, it could not imagine going forward without him. He will likely be the best player on the field the next two weeks as the Buckeyes attempt to sew up their third consecutive trip to the Big Ten championship game and an end to their two-year absence from the College Football Playoff.
The quest began 12 weeks ago, but the intensity ramped up as soon as Saturday’s game ended.
What it means
Ohio State can clinch the Big Ten East championship Saturday against Penn State.
As for tangible benefits of even playing Saturday’s game, those are more difficult to see. If Ohio State needs any of its young reserves in the season’s final weeks, they will have recently played an abundance of real game reps.
Ohio State’s Big Ten aspirations and College Football Playoff standing now come down to two huge rivalry games. Penn State comes to Ohio Stadium on Saturday in the final home game for the senior class and, almost certainly, stars such as Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and possibly others. Then the Buckeyes travel to face Michigan, which has won three straight since its loss to Penn State.
Young’s return will create the biggest headlines. Ohio State also hopes defensive end Jonathon Cooper, linebacker Baron Browning, receiver Austin Mack, offensive tackle Joshua Alabi mend well enough to contribute in the closing stretch.