Ohio State football: What a difference a month makes
A month ago, everybody had circled Penn State-Ohio State on their calendars. But not necessarily for the same reasons they’ll be watching on Saturday. Ohio State will be responsible for making sure the next month doesn’t flip the script again.
Penn State was the flavor of the month at the end of September. The Nittany Lions were 4-0, ranked No. 4 in the nation in the AP Poll, proud possessors of early wins over Wisconsin and Auburn. Ohio State — well, the Buckeyes had just fallen out of the AP’s top 10 for the first time since 2018. They had lost to Oregon, they had switched defensive play-callers, and they had just played a game without starting QB CJ Stroud, which made observers wonder about the quarterback situation.
Fast forward to the final week of October. Penn State has lost back-to-back games in the conference. The loss to Iowa was disappointing but understandable. But losing at home to Illinois, that’s different. Suffice it to say that those Penn State-to-the-CFP dreams slipped down past life support and coded out completely sometime Saturday afternoon. The Nittany Lions fell to 20th in the AP poll. Meanwhile, Ohio State not only hasn’t lost again, the Buckeyes haven’t been challenged. The Buckeyes have scored 52, 66 and 54 points in blasting conference opponents. They’ve given up a total of 37 points in those 3 games. The defense has solidified. CJ Stroud not only hasn’t missed more time, but he’s played his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Ohio State has climbed from No. 11 to No. 5 in the polls, and looks to be an inevitable Oklahoma loss away from a CFP spot. The Buckeyes are a 17.5-point favorite on Saturday over Penn State.
And there are a couple of stories here. One is that pundits a month ago were way too ready to package a story that Penn State had overtaken Ohio State. The B1G is Ohio State’s conference and it will be until somebody proves that it isn’t. As Mike Tyson famously noted, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. And Ohio State is still out there throwing haymakers. Only once has OSU failed to score 41 points in a game this year. Since Week 2 and the change in defensive play-callers, the Buckeyes haven’t given up more than 20 points in a game. Yes, the B1G title isn’t a fait accompli, but at this point, it’s highly likely that it comes down to the Buckeyes and the pair of Michigan schools in the last 2 games of the regular season.
But the second story is that Penn State, in part, fell victim to what Nick Saban long ago termed rat poison. Don’t believe the press clippings. Don’t accept your allegedly massive triumphs (like Penn State’s wins over Wisconsin and Auburn) to be master statements. Don’t count your CFP bids until they hatch. And acknowledge that college football in 2021 is still a week-to-week universe. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised so much changed between PSU and OSU in a month — maybe we should be surprised it didn’t all change in a week.
Because it all CAN change in a week.
Ohio State reaches the end of October where they want to be. Sure, the loss to Oregon was disappointing. But it has virtually no impact on the OSU season. They’re the best team in their conference, and will play as a prohibitive favorite on Saturday with every reason to expect to be 9-1 going into the final 2 games of the regular season. But State has to hold serve for the next month. Which is exactly what Penn State didn’t do, which is why this is a game between a national contender in OSU and a woulda-shoulda-coulda team in PSU.
In 2016, OSU was ranked 2nd in the nation and was a 19-point favorite at an unranked Penn State squad. Penn State won 24-21, and OSU was fortunate for a November B1G shakeup that got them back in the title hunt. In 2017 and 2018, Ohio State beat Penn State by a single point. Ohio State won by 11 and 13 points the last 2 years. But it’s a competitive series against a desperate team that’s watching its season slide into mayhem.
After a month to forget, Ohio State has had a month to remember. Making sure the FINAL (most critical) month goes their way starts with taking care of business on Saturday. A month ago, this game was perceived as a toss-up. Now it’s not. Which might make it even more dangerous for the Buckeyes.