I wondered both before and after the USC game because I saw a team that had gone on to be whipped each time it fell behind an above-average opponent in this and the previous two seasons.
I thought when the Buckeyes rallied at Wisconsin they had replaced that glass jaw with something sturdier, but the Badgers went on to prove they are pretty adept at giving up late leads and jeopardize their status as a quality opponent.
Then came the defeat at the hands of Penn State. That was a hard-fought contest that could have gone either way. The team that got the most movement when the time was most critical deserved to win and did. Penn State pounced on a fumble, opened some holes and broke some tackles.
The Buckeyes had chances to do more in pretty much all those situations, but they could not, so again I had to wonder if they were mentally tough enough to be champions.
Then last Saturday in Champaign, I saw them get punched in the mouth and respond with their own haymakers against a team that one season earlier proved it had enough talent to beat the Buckeyes.
I think most fight referees would agree that one could have been stopped after Ross Homan's sack of Juice Williams late in the third quarter. They played on, though, and the Buckeyes kept pounding with an eight-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that gave them a 30-13 lead, pushing them one step closer to claiming another Big Ten championship belt.
Yes, the Fighting Illini's 455 total yards represent the Ohio State defense's season-high by more than 100 yards, but the Buckeyes allowed 20 points, more than 10 fewer than Illinois averaged in its first 10 games.
Disregarding the caveat that the defense's effort would have looked more respectable on paper if not for a garbage-time touchdown against reserves, Ohio State made big plays of its own when necessary.
They beat up Williams, forcing him into two important turnovers and sacking him at critical times in the second half. The talented Illini quarterback got his shots but the Buckeyes' proved more damaging.
This reminded me of Ohio State's 45-31 win at Minnesota in 2005. In that game, an exceptionally talented and experienced Buckeye defense was gashed for 114 yards in the first half by future first-round NFL draft pick Laurence Maroney, but a group including A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Donte Whitner put the breaks on the Minnesota attack in the second half, holding Maroney to just 13 yards.
Give Illinois credit. Williams has turned into a very dangerous quarterback and he has a lot of talented players on his side.
Some of those big plays were the result of a Fighting Illini ballcarrier just having too much ability to be brought down by an arm tackle or an off-balance defender. That is the price of doing business when good offenses face good defenses.
Anyway, what I am getting at is this: Forget the season numbers. That 2005 OSU defense was the best Ohio State has fielded since the stalwarts from the 2002 national championship team went to the NFL. I say that because it not only consisted of those future first round picks mentioned already but because it was more experienced than either the 2006 or ‘07 squads.
Because the 2008 defense has a similar combination of talent and experience, most expected it to rival that '05 team. Although it took half a season, I believe that has happened. These Buckeyes have found the swagger of Hawk and the playmaking of Whitner. They are not perfect, but in the face of tougher competition than the '06 or '07 teams faced, they have turned in superior performances.
Hiccups will happen along the way, but the key is the response and the scoreboard.
What we can expect to learn this week:You know, I'm not really sure.
Michigan is a bad football team. The Wolverines are not 3-8 because of bad luck. Sure, they could have beaten Purdue or Toledo, but those teams are also both very bad, and even victories in those games would leave Michigan below .500 as it enters Ohio Stadium this Saturday.
As my coworker, Jeff Svoboda, pointed out while he was writing the Michigan preview for the newspaper Sunday, this is a much greater mismatch than were any of the famous upsets in this series. The Michigan teams that famously knocked off Ohio State in 1969, ‘93, '95 and '96 were all better than this one, and the 2001 and '04 Buckeyes both at least went to bowl games.
But I digress...
If we are to learn anything, it could be that Rich Rodriguez's offense can work in the Big Ten. Although its overall performance has been dreadful (at least in part because of injuries), the Michigan spread has had its moments when it looked good. There was the second half against Wisconsin and the first half against Penn State when the Wolverines were able to mount multiple marches down the field. Michigan also had some early success against Illinois before the roof caved in and the defense allowed 45 points.
I'm a traditional power offense guy myself, but I believe the run-based spread of Rodriguez can be pretty effective in all forms of weather. Michigan has some good running backs and if the Wolverines can get teams off balance now they can do some damage. You saw Illinois' Daniel Dufrene breaking off big chunks of yardage against Ohio State last week? Brandon Minor, if he returns from injury, can do the same thing. His line is not as good as Dufrene's, though, and there is no comparison between the quarterbacks of Michigan and Illinois, either, but the spread can sometimes negate talent disparities.
Speaking of lines, I believe we will really find out what the OSU offensive line is all about this week.
The OSU-Michigan game will always be about play in the trenches.
While Terrelle Pryor and Chris Wells will probably be among those who win the game for the Buckeyes on Saturday, their front-line protectors could lose it. Perhaps that's a harsh assessment, but I believe it is simply the truth.
The Buckeye big ugglies opened some impressive holes at Illinois, but the only personnel advantage I see at all for Michigan is its defensive line against the OSU O-line. Tim Jamison, Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson and Brandon Graham form a pretty strong group. OSU should counter with a five-some that can contain them, but I thought that before Ohio State played Penn State, too, and the PSU front overwhelmed the Buckeyes to the point that Wells could never get going and that made the lives of everyone else harder. Too hard, as it turned out.
And so I guess there you have two potential lessons: The future prognosis of the Rodriguez spread offense and a final judgment about the 2008 OSU offensive line.
All-Buckeye Beater Team Nominees: Juice Williams could not duplicate his near-perfect game of one season ago but he was still pretty impressive as he dodged defenders all day and still made himself enough room to run for 48 yards and complete 17 of 26 passes for 192. He threw for two touchdowns but had two critical turnovers. Running back Daniel Dufrene wasn't bad, either, as he checked in with 121 all-purpose yards and had several big gainers.
On the defensive side, cornerback Vontae Davis is the only nominee from a group that has had a disappointing year overall. Davis, a 2006 All-Buckeye Beater, had five tackles, including one for loss, and broke up a pass. Although I enjoyed interviewing him in Chicago last summer and he had 14 tackles against the Buckeyes, Brit Miller is not on the list because he failed to really standout on any of those stops. Donsay Hardeman, with six solo tackles and several crushing hits, might have gained consideration had he not been posterized by Chris Wells on the Buckeye tailback's second hurdle of the season.
DVR Directions: The only reason to need DVR this Saturday is if you are going to the game. The only other game of the day that matters for Ohio State fans is Michigan State at Penn State. That game, which will give the winner at least a share of the Big Ten title, is set for a 3:30 EST kickoff and will be broadcast regionally on ABC as well as on ESPN2 via reverse mirror for those elsewhere.
Looking for something else? This might be stretching it, but depending on how that clash goes in Happy Valley, OSU faithful might also consider setting their machines to record potential Rose Bowl opponent Oregon State. The Beavers travel to Arizona for a Pac-10 contest that will kickoff just after 7 p.m. EST on the Versus Network.
Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll (previous week's ranking in parenthesis)
1 – tie (same) Ohio State
1 – tie (same) Penn State
3. (same) Michigan State
4. (7) Northwestern
5. (4) Iowa
6. (8) Wisconsin
7. (6) Illinois
8. (5) Minnesota
9. (same) Michigan
10. (11) Purdue
11. (10) Indiana
Marcus Hartman is a staff writer for BuckeyeSports.com and Buckeye Sports Bulletin. He can be reached for comment, cursing or questions via email at email@example.com.
For more from Marcus, read his blog at this link.