When No. 3 Oklahoma fell to Colorado Sept. 29, they did so after carrying a 24-7 lead during the third quarter. A week later, the second-ranked USC Trojans led Stanford 23-14 in the fourth quarter before suffering the loss. Finally, on Oct. 13, No. 1 LSU led Kentucky 27-14 during the third quarter only to watch the Wildcats come back to post a wild, three-overtime win.
Nearly joining that group of fallen powers was Ohio State a weekend ago. The top-ranked Buckeyes led Michigan State 24-0 before two touchdowns in the span of a minute let the Spartans back into the game. Though Michigan State never held the ball with a chance to tie the game or take a lead during the final quarter, the 24-17 final was a little too close for comfort.
The moral of the story? When a team, especially a top one, has its opposition on the ropes, it must complete the job or face the consequences.
"You look at your film and you have to realize, we almost gave it away," fullback Tyler Whaley said. "If we want to be the team we want to be this year, we can't make mistakes like that."
Finishing games will be just as important during OSU's final stretch of four games against opposition that has been ranked at one point in the season, starting with Saturday night's trip to Happy Valley to take on No. 24 Penn State.
While letting Michigan State back into the game was accelerated by the two turnovers that led directly to touchdowns, the game would not have been a game had Ohio State pulled away thanks to 40 minutes of domination. The Buckeyes had outgained MSU 241-74 through one half and controlled just about every category on the stat sheet through 40 minutes, but the margin was only 24 points, close enough to let MSU back into the game with a couple of mistakes.
"It doesn't matter how you start, it's how you finish," offensive tackle Kirk Barton said after the game. "Thankfully we were able to come back at the end after we had a huge lead, but that game should have been over in the third quarter to be honest."
The game bore a striking resemblance to OSU's 23-7 win at Purdue. Before a last-ditch 88-yard touchdown drive during garbage time by Purdue, the Buckeyes had outgained Purdue 381-184. The difference? Three second-half interceptions by Todd Boeckman on deep balls served more as punts than threats and the defense did not allow Purdue to cut into the Buckeye lead.
Still, in the aftermath of the Michigan State game, not putting Purdue away looks like the beginning of a trend.
"I felt the exact same way against Purdue," wide receiver Brian Hartline said after Saturday's win. "I felt a little more threatened just because there was more of a momentum swing with those big plays, but yeah, we felt like we were dominating the game and the scoreboard didn't show it both at Purdue and here. We have to start closing out these games early."
When pressed for an explanation, Hartline came up empty.
"I really don't know what it is," he said. "I don't know. I don't know if it's relaxation. I know that I'm not relaxing, but I really don't know the answer to that to be quite honest."
Quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels indicated the problems aren't so much a lack of a killer instinct than mistakes made by a growing but still young offense.
"Usually when you sit back and watch it on Sunday, the reasons why come to light," Daniels said. "When you watch the tape and you're able to analyze it, you figure out what happened."
Whatever the reasons, Barton would be happy to start putting teams away when OSU has the chance.
"You have to finish teams," he said. "You got your foot on the jugular, man, you have to stomp on them. They play that ‘Sopranos' song for a reason. One of those last episodes, Tony Soprano curb-stomped that dude. That's what you have to do when you're trying to finish that guy."