What we learned last week: Old narratives are made to rewritten. They died hard, but often their passing is swift when it comes.
Ohio State earned every bit of the respect it gained in 60 minutes of rock 'em, sock 'em, old-school football fun in New Orleans last Thursday night against Alabama. The Buckeyes have accomplished something that can't be taken away regardless of what happens Monday night, and that is put the program back on equal footing with the game's elite.
We were working on nearly a decade since that could inarguably be said, and the last team to prove it belonged to me really could have been the 2005 squad, which beat a handful of ranked teams but lost a pair of top five matchups. The 2006 team had a better record, but it was far less tested. After that began the Big Ten's decline and more bowl losses than wins. Even the big victories came against a good but far from great Arkansas team and an Oregon team that was more in the Rose Bowl to be exposed than to prove any opponent was elite. The Ducks hadn't done that themselves at that point (but more on them later).
I've been wary of the effect of mistakes on this Ohio State team since the close call at Penn State. After nearly beating themselves in Happy Valley, I've thought the Buckeyes could find themselves in a hole from which they can't emerge, especially against Michigan State and Wisconsin. That could well happen against Oregon, but it we'll have to wait and see.
As it stands, the miscues against Alabama simply served to provide a platform for Ohio State to prove just how much maturing talent Urban Meyer really has and how mentally strong it has become.
As far as narratives go, it really worked out better this way. The Buckeyes had to dig deep and make some outstanding plays to get back to even -- then they took control and surged ahead. Since even when they were trailing the Buckeyes were really dominating scrimmage play -- Nick Saban said as much after the game -- it should not have come as a huge surprise they went ahead and won the game.
And so that's the takeaway here. Ohio State not only beat Alabama but asserted itself as the better team. The Buckeyes were not only just as strong and athletic, they were tougher. They were faster, too, but that should not have been a big surprise to people who actually watch the games with a discerning eye. If either team was built more for speed, it was Ohio State, but speed alone doesn't determine which team is better.
The funny thing about the matchup is it really had dueling narratives. Were we supposed to think Ohio State would lose because the Buckeyes weren't as fast as their opponent from the South, or was it that Meyer's teams can't withstand Saban's brand of manball? Can't really be both, can it? I rolled my eyes more than once at bizarre questions hinting at one or the other leading up to the game, but if there was any effect on the Buckeyes, it was probably positive. By now we know they play better with a chip on their shoulders.
Make no mistake: Ohio State obliterated all assumptions with this win. The Buckeyes were faster when they needed to be and more physical when they needed to be. Look no farther than their last scoring drive of the game for proof of this. Two plays, in particular tell the tale. First came a key third down when Ohio State went to the old well on short yardage -- a designed run by the quarterback. Landon Collins, the star safety for Alabama, knew this was coming as well as Michigan State did earlier this season, and he came as close as anyone to stopping it. Cardale Jones made him pay for coming up to make a hit, though, as the 250-pounder powered through the 222-pound Collins to reach the line to gain. The collision left Collins shaken up, forcing him out of the game. On the next play Ohio State went with outside zone, winning at the point of attack to get Ezekiel Elliott to the second level, where he had no problems because Evan Spencer -- a wide receiver -- had taken out the linebacker and the safety was nowhere to be found.
From there it was all speed, and Elliott left no doubt. It was as cathartic a moment as you will see for the folks dressed in scarlet while the ones in crimson were not so much seeing red as feeling resigned to their fate. The torch had been passed even if the Buckeyes still had to guard it for a few minutes before it was officially theirs.
What we can expect to learn this week: Just how good Oregon is.
Yes, for all the progress that program has made, the Ducks might still need to prove themselves against a power program. Ohio State exposed Oregon once five years ago, and now the Buckeyes can deny them a program-affirming win again.
As I said before, we know Ohio State has a lot of guys who can run. We also know the Buckeyes can be physical at the point of attack on both sides of the ball.
Big speed is always better than just speed, even if you have the latter in excess. Nothing beats big speed -- it's the hardest thing to find.
I shook my head often when Oregon was such a big favorite the last time these teams played because speed has never really been a problem for Ohio State in the past 20 years. Those losses to Florida and LSU in national title games were not about speed. The tougher team won those games. Ohio State got dominated at the line of scrimmage in both of those games just like the Buckeyes controlled the trenches against Oregon in the 2010 Rose Bowl and held their own against Alabama last week.
This Oregon team is certainly better than that one, though, and so is Ohio State. What has another five years of recruiting like a major program wrought? Perhaps the ascendancy is at hand, but Ohio State will have something to say about that.
The matchup is fascinating for all different reasons than the Sugar Bowl was. There's another set of narratives to rewrite. Who will grab the pen?
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