Buckeyes survive early troubles, storm to Big Ten title … Fields, Dobbins have standout performances again … Ohio State will be a handful in playoffs.
Columbus – Ohio State had gone 12 games without playing poorly even once on either side of the ball. That’s hard to do. Even the best teams falter on offense or defense at least occasionally. LSU allowed Mississippi to gain 614 yards — 614 yards by a team that fired its coach. But Joe Burrow and his mates racked up 714 in a 58-37 win.
Throughout the first half of the Big Ten title game, though, both units for the Buckeyes were having by far their worst showings of the season. The offense couldn’t rescue the defense — or vice versa — because everyone was out of sync. Their timing couldn’t have been worse.
After never trailing by more than six points all year, they spotted motivated, revenge-minded Wisconsin a 21-7 halftime lead. They looked as if they had no juice, no answers and no hope.
Justin Fields, playing with a bulky knee brace and hurting more than anyone of us knew, was as immobile as an old Joe Namath. He was no real threat to run and couldn’t evade pass rushers.
The Buckeyes crossed midfield all five times they had the ball but scored just once. And while the eighth-ranked Badgers always play inspired defense, Fields and the offense had averaged nearly 50 points a game. Something was clearly amiss.
The defense looked like Ohio State’s 2018 model. The tackling was abysmal. Gash plays were abundant. And the whole outfit just looked worn down, as if the three-week Penn State-Michigan-Wisconsin gauntlet was finally catching up to them.
The Badgers piled up 294 total yards in the first half against a team that was leading the nation at 232.2 per game.
We may have had a hunch the top-ranked Buckeyes had already done enough to earn a playoff berth, but that was no guarantee. And the way they played in the first half, they looked as if they’d finish 12-1 without a league title and would be coming off a blowout loss. They weren’t exactly making it easy on the committee.
But all of that became moot after they snapped out of their funk and put together a glorious second half, scoring 27 unanswered points on the way to a 34-21 victory to reach 13-0 for the first time since 2002 and become the first team in the 123-year history of the Big Ten to win three straight outright league titles.
They scored 10 points in opening 4:15 of the third quarter (with the help of a fumble by the Wisconsin punter) and then, after taking a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, cobbled together a clock-munching, 12-play, 62-yard drive that killed almost six minutes and led to a 24-yard field goal with 4:39 left. Game over.
Fields, who threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns, earned MVP honors. He has 40 TD passes with one interception and has run for 10 more scores.
He climbed past Drew Brees for the second-most TD passes in Big Ten history and now trails only his good buddy, Dwayne Haskins, who had 50 (yes, we’ve already started to forget how good he was).
J.K. Dobbins rushed for 172 yards and one score on 33 attempts (a 5.2 average). He has 1,829 yards and 22 TDs (including two receiving), phenomenal totals when you consider he didn’t have any carries after halftime in four blowouts.
And the defense became that nasty, snarling, unyeilding group we’d grown accustomed to seeing, allowing only 138 yards and zero points in the second half. And 83 of those yards came on the game’s final meaningless possession.
Despite that rousing second-half performance, where they certainly looked the part of a No. 1 team, the playoff committee dropped them to No. 2 on Sunday, giving LSU the top spot.
While the Tigers had a sensational year, I’d like just once to see the committee give the Big Ten and Ohio State the benefit of the doubt. Just once.
In 2017, the 11-2 league champion Buckeyes with three top-16 wins were bypassed for 11-1 Alabama, which didn’t even play for its conference championship and had exactly zero quality victories.
Last year, Ohio State won the league while going 12-1 and was vying for the final spot with Oklahoma, both of which had suspect defenses. Not only did the committee pick the Sooners, but they slipped two-loss Georgia into the fifth spot and dropped the Buckeyes to sixth. Huh? That was enough to prompt Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith to resign from the committee, tired of the continual lack of a respect given to conference champions.
Rob Mullens, the committee chair, said the Tigers were given the nod “by a tick” based in large part for how they looked in routing No. 4 Georgia on Saturday. But didn’t anybody in the room point out LSU played two lightweights before the title game, while Ohio State had three emotion-sapping games in successive weeks? That should count for something.
The Buckeyes were No. 1 going to the final rankings and deserved to stay there after notching another top-10 win — this one over a foe they had to face twice.
They have five top-25 wins to four for LSU.
They also have eight victories over teams with eight-plus wins — Miami, FAU, Cincinnati, Indiana, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin twice. LSU and Notre Dame have the second-most with four each.
Among other playoff teams, Oklahoma has three and Clemson two. Alabama, which somehow was in the playoff hunt until a season-ending loss to Auburn, didn’t beat a single team with eight-plus wins.
Why it was important to be No. 1 was to avoid being pitted against No. 3 Clemson, the defending national champion who the Buckeyes will now see in the semifinals. But no matter, I would have liked their chances regardless of who they faced.
They haven’t just passed every test, they’ve been clobbering teams, at least until having to tangle with the Badgers a second time. They’ve won each game by double-digits and outscored their opponents by 470 points, the widest gap in the nation.
They also have college football’s most potent dual-threat player in Fields, who likely locked up a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist. And he’s got as much heart as talent.
Against Wisconsin, while wearing that contraption on his knee, he was credited with 12 rushes for a mere one yard. That includes five sacks for negative-34 yards. That’s not him.
The playoffs aren’t until Dec. 28, which will give the shifty QB three weeks to heal.
A fully functioning Fields will make the Buckeyes the most complete team in the country again. And that’s a scary proposition for anyone.