Flawed win still highlights gap between Buckeyes, rest of Big Ten

Jeremy Birmingham11 months
Aritcle written by:Jeremy BirminghamJeremy Birmingham

Birm

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State
Ohio State wasn't feeling the same sting as Penn State on Saturday. (Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Ohio State is the three-time Big Ten champion and unequivocally the league’s best team.

Penn State is, by most objective measures, the conference’s second-best program.

Two years ago, when the Buckeyes broke the hearts of 110,889 fans inside Beaver Stadium, Franklin was succinct in his postgame press conference.

“We’re a great program,” Franklin said that night. “We lost to an elite program. And we’re that close.”

With apologies to Franklin — and the very good college team he’s built in State College — it’s not that close. Saturday night in Happy Valley was the latest bit of proof that the gap between the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lion is certainly larger than one digit.

The 38-25 final score won’t accurately reflect the difference between Ryan Day’s program and James Franklin’s. But in a must-win game for the Nittany Lions, Ohio State toyed with Penn State from its first offensive play, a 62-yard bolt from Garrett Wilson on a jet sweep that led to a touchdown two plays later. By the end of the first half, it was 21-6 Buckeyes — but easily could have been 30-point or more lead. Whatever Justin Fields wanted to do, he did.

Asked about a perfectly thrown touchdown pass in the second quarter, Fields laughed with reporters.

“Which one?” he asked wryly.

Master Teague-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Master Teague and Ohio State did whatever it wanted against a talented Penn State defense. (Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports)

Every receiver he targeted was wide open. The Buckeyes defensive line left Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford bloodied and dazed, collapsing the pocket at will and suffocating the Nittany Lions running game. Penn State needed shoddy officiating to sniff the scoreboard in the first half.

It was, simply put, thirty minutes of a pretty thorough ass kicking.

“That’s a talented team,” Franklin said this time around. “There’s no doubt about it.”

The second half of the game was different, and Penn State deserves some credit for that. They fought back on Saturday night when lesser teams in the Big Ten would’ve folded under the weight of the Buckeyes onslaught. That resolve turned a game that had blowout potential into a game that Ryan Day and his team use as teach tape in the next few weeks. That’s probably a good thing because November’s schedule could have allowed for some complacency.

“To win this game on the road is a huge step for us,” Ryan Day said after the game. “But there’s a lot to be done. Absolutely, there’s a lot to be done. We’ll just keep going back to work.  I think that’s really encouraging that there’s a lot of work to be done and you still play like this and win like this.”

Justin Fields-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields claimed another win over Penn State. (Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK)

To truly understand the margin between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten, it’s important to view Buckeyes when they’re not playing their best. The final two quarters of the game on Saturday was a textbook example of that. When things got a little uncomfortable, Ohio State flipped the switch and made it more comfortable.

When they needed a play, they’d simply turn to the Big Ten’s best player and let him do what he does. That’s the luxury of Justin Fields, right? That’s the difference in a roster that has more than twice the number of former 5-star prospects on it as the rest of the Big Ten does combined.

“Every time we would get it going on offense, we’d give up something up on defense — then our defense would get a stop and our offense wouldn’t,” Franklin said after the game. “It’s not just Justin, it’s all the pieces around him as well.”

Those pieces were on full display in Beaver Stadium on Saturday, and Ohio State played nothing resembling a complete game. There was an obvious drop in intensity and focus, especially on defense, after the dominance of the first half. That’s something the Buckeyes will have to fix. There were plenty of other things to fix and November should provide those opportunities.

This wasn’t Ohio State’s best performance. It probably couldn’t have won by fewer points on Saturday, yet there were no real moments of fret or doubt against their most consistent Big Ten threat.

That’s where the Buckeyes are right now. The bad news for the rest of the conference is they can only get better.