When Devin Smith catches a touchdown pass, looks down at the player he beat and then flips the ball to the referee, that’s swagger.
When Michael Thomas soars over the best defensive back on the other team and grabs a highlight-reel catch then gets both feet in bounds, that’s swagger.
And when you put up 66, 50 and 52 points up in a row, that’s swagger.
To hear members of the Ohio State offense tell it, that swagger was born when the Buckeyes lost a 35-21 game to Virginia Tech in the second game of the season. The Buckeyes – inexperienced and young in many key spots, including quarterback – looked uncertain in the loss, but ending up on the wrong side of the ledger meant the team’s shoulder was officially chipped.
“That Virginia Tech game, I still have a bad taste in my mouth and I’m sure a lot of the other guys do too because we didn’t play well,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “I think we’re going to have a chip on our shoulder all year about that because that’s one we can’t get back. Even as far away as we’ve been from that, it’s still going to motivate us. People saying we can’t do this, we can’t do that, it’s just going to be motivation.”
Some of the numbers over the past three games are somewhat heady. Ohio State has averaged 623.7 yards per game, while quarterback J.T. Barrett has thrown for 303.0 yards per game and 14 touchdowns in that span to set him off at a school-record pace. The rushing game, spearheaded by Ezekiel Elliott and his back-to-back 100-yard games, has averaged 314.3 yards per game as well.
The obvious counter is that the Buckeyes haven’t faced a murderer’s row of defenses, but the Maryland contest was a step up in the difficult department. The Terps entered with one of the best passing efficiency defenses in the nation and had just shut down Indiana’s high-powered attack, but Ohio State jumped all over the home team early, scoring on four of its first five possessions.
The next step will be showing what they can do against a standout defense, something the Buckeyes might not face until the heavily anticipated November showdown in East Lansing. But in the meantime, the record-setting offensive performances have served notice that Ohio State’s offense is still there – and still lethal.
“We’re showing the world that we’re still here,” Smith said. “Obviously last year we didn’t end the way we wanted, and the goal right now is to keep on winning every single game that we have coming up. A lot of people say we’re overrated and say we’re not good, but we come out here and just focus on ourself and try to win every game that we play.”
There have been a couple of constants in the recent Ohio State attack. One is that the offensive line has rounded into form since a spotty performance against Virginia Tech that included six sacks in the final quarter as OSU tried to make up a one-score deficit.
Meanwhile, Barrett has become more and more impressive in his command of the offense, putting the Buckeyes in the right plays and directing the attack with confidence beyond his years. That in turn had filtered back to the coaching staff, which has shown it believes the Buckeyes can run the full gamut of the offense.
“We have a lot of confidence in our quarterback right now and skill positions,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “I’m very involved in the play calling myself with Tom Herman, and there’s a lot of opportunity to make plays because we’re confident. We weren’t that way the first game because we didn't show in it practices. Now they're starting to practice that way."
Another sign of that is how Ohio State has used tempo to keep teams off-balance. Herman was brought in to work with Meyer because of his experience running a no-huddle offense, and the Buckeyes – who tied a school record with more than 100 plays against UC – are finally at a place where they have the personnel, conditioning and competence to pull it off.
“One of the biggest positives of being a no-huddle, up-tempo offense is that when you’re in a rhythm it seems like things seem to snowball downhill pretty quickly,” Herman said. “It’s really fun to be up there and call plays and understand your guys are executing and are in a rhythm.”
Fun. Confidence. Swagger. No matter how you put it, it’s all coming together for the Ohio State offense right now.