Saturday, October 27, 2012
Ohio State has the look of perfection
By Brian Bennett
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- This was supposed to be Penn State's return to the big time.
Nearly a year to the day from Joe Paterno's last game, the Nittany Lions geared up to show the world that they were back from 12 months of turmoil. A soldout Beaver Stadium roared on its red-hot team, just like the old days.
But Ohio State ruined the celebration. The Buckeyes, in fact, might just be the nation's most unwanted party crasher.
After their 35-23 victory in the Ineligi-Bowl, it's time to start planning for the inevitable. This team is now on a collision course with a 12-0 season after acing its toughest road challenge of the year.
You can quibble with the Buckeyes' schedule -- which includes no wins over current Top 25 teams -- or their various shortcomings. You can't argue with the record.
"Let's focus on the positive," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after the game, objecting to a question about his team's flawed performances. "We're 9-0. It's good to be 9-0. Maybe you can help me, but how many other teams are 9-0?"
The answer is none. Which might also be the answer to the question: Who can beat this team the rest of the way?
The Buckeyes play 2-6 Illinois next week in a virtual bye week, then get a real week off to heal up. Then comes a trip to Wisconsin, which just lost at home to Michigan State and lost its starting quarterback. They end the year, of course, with the showdown against Michigan. That game, as you probably know, is in Columbus. Perfection could be on the line.
Ohio State receiver Jake Stoneburner scored a 72-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.
And then what? Though the Buckeyes are not eligible for the postseason or the BCS standings, Associated Press voters are free to put them as high as their hearts desire.
"We think we're definitely a top team in the country," receiver/tight end Jake Stoneburner said. "People underestimate us. But there's something about this team."
Ohio State has had some shaky wins, like last week's overtime great escape against Purdue. But every time it needs to make a play, that play gets made.
"It was the same thing with the  national championship team," defensive end Nathan Williams said. "They seemed to [find a] way to win the game at the very end, whether it be the last play or the last drive. I think we have a great chemistry as a team going on right now, and we're just going to continue to feed off it."
Nobody, not even Williams, is suggesting that this Ohio State club is as good as that 2002 team. But it does have a similar knack for winning.
On Saturday that winning effort started, surprisingly, on defense. A unit that had been battered and bruised most of the season held Penn State without an offensive touchdown until the final 10 minutes and allowed only 32 rushing yards. The game plan called for more blitzing than the Buckeyes normally do in order to fluster Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin. Ohio State sacked him four times.
In maybe the key sequence of the game, linebacker Ryan Shazier dashed through the middle untouched to tackle McGloin early in the third quarter. Then he picked McGloin off for a 17-yard interception return touchdown on the very next play.
Shazier has struggled with missed tackles most of the year, but played inspired on Saturday while wearing a new jersey number, 48, in honor of his deceased high school friend Gary Curtis.
"It almost felt like a dream," Shazier said. "I was thinking about him the whole game. I felt like he was playing there with me."
Quarterback Braxton Miller was lying in a hospital room last Saturday after suffering a neck injury against Purdue. Early in the game, in the words of Stoneburner, Miller looked "a little bit jittery." Miller completed just six of his first 18 passes and overthrew a sure touchdown to Corey Brown.
But as he has done so often, Miller turned up his game when it mattered most. He threaded a perfect pass to Stoneburner on third down for a 72-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, after Penn State had cut the lead to 28-16. And even though Miller used more caution while running in deference to his body, he still managed to control the game with 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The Nittany Lions' defense was visibly gassed trying to chase Miller in the second half after Ohio State went to its hurry-up offense. And Miller turned in maybe the prettiest 1-yard run in history for his first touchdown run, avoiding two tacklers and somehow adjusting his body mid-leap to slide past safety Malcolm Willis into the end zone.
"We have a drill where you make seven people miss," Meyer joked. "I was on the sideline, so I didn't really see it. But the conversation on the headset was, 'Oh, my god.'"
The Buckeyes are probably making a lot of people say that these days. Just wait until they win three more games.