Instant Analysis: Ohio State-Michigan State
The Buckeyes played with poise, purpose, and even a little joy as they smothered Sparty in a matchup of two teams with perfect conference records. But underneath the feel-good fun lay an unmistakable amount of anger that was not only justified, but effective, in that it didn't detract from Ohio State's level of play. Anything but, as a matter of fact.
Instead of seeing their execution suffer, the Bucks played the role of executioner, as they quickly killed any hopes of a Big Ten title for Michigan State. Tressel ensured that his former colleague, Mark Dantonio, wouldn't steal his thunder, but while that coaching drama lent a little intrigue to the afternoon's proceedings, the far more relevant result of this game is that it should silence the nattering nabobs of negativism who have hounded the Ohio State program all season long.
This brutally efficient display by the Bucks—who turned out the lights and rolled to a 21-0 lead in the game's first 13 minutes—enabled Ohio State to enter next week's prizefight against Penn State with an unblemished Big Ten mark. You never would have known as much, however, from the way the two-time defending national runner-up has been treated… in the press, on the internet, and even—to a certain extent—within its own community.
Memories have been short, both across the nation and in the Buckeyes' home base of Columbus. The 2002 national championship team, in case anyone needed a reminder, never used style points. Wins such as the previous week's plodding 16-3 victory over Purdue aren't artistic, but they've been a staple of the Tressel era. While looking poor from an aesthetic standpoint, they sure beat upset losses, the surprising kinds of setbacks that have been few and far between in this decade of dominance for the Scarlet and Gray. Ohio State did get manhandled by a pretty good USC team—lots of other clubs would have suffered the same fate against Pete Carroll's crew—but other than that bad night in Los Angeles, a team which has endured a number of injuries (Beanie Wells) and positional changes (especially at quarterback) has managed to avoid an upset loss, inside and outside the Big Ten. While the Clemsons and Auburns of the world embody the meaning of the word "disappointment," the Buckeyes—while lacking those style points—have gotten the job done on a consistent basis.
Because expectations are ridiculously high, however—and because the BCS era culturally and psychologically punishes teams who lose multiple times in the national championship game—this year's Ohio State outfit has had to absorb a massive amount of superabundant criticism. The ugliness of modern-day college football—a cultural world rapidly approaching the cutthroat world of the NFL in terms of its demands on players and coaches—has produced an environment, in the media and among the Buckeye fan base, that has caused some negativity to seep into the OSU camp. The past week in Columbus involved reports of Buckeye players voicing their frustrations about the struggles of the offense, in the kind of venting that a 6-1 team shouldn't have to exhibit. The irritation and unsettledness inside Buckeye Nation over the first seven games of the 2008 season painted the perfect portrait of an out-of-control college football subculture, a classic reason why the sport's emphasis on winning is acquiring unhealthy proportions.
Mindful of these tensions and troubles, the Buckeyes—who have sustained Big Ten supremacy and national excellence on a continuous basis, despite receiving every opponent's best shot each week of every season—played with the faith and fire of a program that knows how good it really is. Intent on showing America a thing or two about their bona fides, the Bucks slaughtered the Spartans so completely that at the end of the first quarter, the eventual outcome could not be obscured by even the smallest speck of doubt. The Spartans, behind backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, offered a brief flurry late in the third quarter, but as soon as a sack-scoop-score spectacular from OSU's defense resulted in a touchdown and a 35-7 OSU lead, the game—with 14:41 remaining in the fourth quarter—saw its competitive phase come to an end. In just over three quarters, Ohio State—with hellaciously hard hitting and dominant play from its maligned offensive front—flashed a furious finishing kick that had been missing in previous games. Just the same, though, the Buckeyes—no more or less than other occasions in 2008—notched the win and moved on to their next contest.
Ohio State has sat atop the college football world—alongside USC—over the past six and a half seasons. Perhaps this authoritative annihilation of the No. 20 team in America will remind their overly shrill and obsessive critics that the Buckeyes can still play a little football now and then. This win, after all, ensures that next week's Penn State game will be the featured contest of the football weekend.
It will be just like "old times" on Oct. 25: A huge game will be played at Ohio Stadium, with the Buckeyes one win away from controlling the Big Ten. Then again, Ohio State's most ruthless detractors need to remember that the "old times" have never really left the program that just continues to excel under the leadership of Mister Sweater Vest himself.
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