Can Ohio State win the Big Ten?
A couple of wins can make a world of difference.
Just over two weeks ago, Ohio State entered its matchup at Illinois winless in the Big Ten and a mediocre 3-3 overall. The Buckeyes had suffered an ugly loss against an underwhelming Miami team in which they managed just 6 points, 209 total yards and 4 completions by quarterbacks Joe Bauserman and Braxton Miller. They then began the month of October with back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Nebraska.
Against the Spartans in Columbus, OSU netted just 178 total yards, including just 35 yards on 39 rushing attempts, and was sacked nine times. The following week in Lincoln against the Cornhuskers, the Buckeyes bottomed out, blowing a 21-point second-half lead to fall 34-27 in the Huskers' first Big Ten game at Memorial Stadium.
But a funny thing happened that night in Lincoln.
The Buckeyes found their quarterback of the present — and the future.
ICONBraxton Miller is improving each week during his true freshman campaign.
After head coach Luke Fickell essentially opened the quarterback competition up to include third- and fourth-stringers Kenny Guiton and Taylor Graham, Miller broke out against the Cornhuskers before leaving the game with a sprained right ankle in the third quarter. That's exactly when the Buckeyes' offense went dormant. Before the injury Miller ran for 91 yards and went 5 of 8 passing for 95 yards.
The next week against the Illini, sparked by the return of tailback Dan Herron, who rushed 23 times for 114 yards and the game-winning score while making his season debut after serving a pair of NCAA suspensions, the Buckeyes notched their first league win. And they did it by completing just one pass — a 17-yard scoring toss by Miller to tight end Jake Stoneburner in the fourth quarter.
On Saturday, fresh off of a bye week, the Buckeyes put together their most successful offensive game plan of the season against Wisconsin. Miller ran for 99 yards on 19 carries and scored twice, and he completed 7 of 12 passes for 89 yards and another score — the 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 20 seconds left to hand the Badgers their second straight shocking defeat. Herron rushed for 160 yards on 33 carries, and OSU actually resembled the team that had dominated Big Ten play under Jim Tressel's leadership the last decade.
But can that solid play last?
If their offense plays like it did on Saturday night in Columbus, there's no reason why Fickell's squad can't sneak into the inuagural Big Ten championship game.
One constant throughout the season for the Buckeyes has been the play of their defense, led by defensive tackle John Simon. Wisconsin was averaging 252 yards per game on the ground and 5.8 yards per carry entering Saturday night. But the Buckeyes held them to a meager 89 yards and a 3.1 average, essentially taking away the strength of coordinator Paul Chryst's unit. OSU boasts a defense that is giving up just 17.9 points per game, good for 16th in the nation. Despite its youth in some areas, it's physical and fast, which is a tough combination for Big Ten offenses to overcome.
In order to win the Leaders division and earn a berth to the title game in Indy on Dec. 3, the Buckeyes (5-3, 2-2) do need to take care of business the rest of the way, which includes beating Penn State at the Horseshoe. The Nittany Lions are undefeated in the Big Ten, so the Nittany Lions would also need to lose one other time besides against the Buckeyes. But with Penn State's offensive woes and its brutal remaining schedule, which includes a home date against Nebraska and a road test at Wisconsin, it's definitely possible for OSU to claim the division crown.
Ohio State has Indiana and Penn State at home, with Purdue and Michigan remaining on the road. Certainly tripping up isn't out of the question, especially in Ann Arbor. But anything can happen in a rivalry game. A scenario where the Buckeyes win out and Penn State loses another game besides the one to OSU would put the Buckeyes in a three-team tie with PSU and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes would win the division in that scenario because of their 2-0 mark against those teams. A third Big Ten loss would make it extremely difficult for the Buckeyes to win the division. But the way they are playing, a loss may not be in their future.
An Ohio State team once left for dead back on top of the Big Ten?
Sometimes things never change.
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