Anyway, it was nice to have a belief validated Saturday night in Bloomington as the Ohio State whipped a pretty decent Indiana squad that nonetheless I suspect will finish the season with a losing record. That is a testament to the improvement of the league, in my estimation. While it looks like Purdue is very bad and Northwestern and Illinois are not as good as they looked like they might be, Wisconsin and Iowa are better, and so is Michigan, although just how much better remains a big question mark at this point. The jury remains very much out on Penn State and Michigan State, both of whom have suffered some disappointments already this season but nonetheless are just a game off the pace early in the conference race anyway.
But back to the topic at hand. These Buckeyes are deep.
Saturday night for a decent chunk of time, they were without a starting safety who will deserve All-America consideration when the season is over and a starting defensive tackle who is a major reason this defensive line is among the best in the country. For a few plays, they were without another starting safety as well while Jermale Hines dealt with a minor injury, but few beats were missed.
Todd Denlinger stepped in for Dexter Larimore at defensive tackle and promptly made a heady play dropping into coverage for an interception. He also continued to be disruptive up front, as was true freshman John Simon against an Indiana squad that really wanted to run the ball downhill but never could get started.
On the back end, Anderson Russell stepped up in Kurt Coleman's absence and played one of the better games of his career, while Nate Oliver stuck his nose into the action while Hines was briefly sidelined. And Orhian Johnson acquitted himself well at deep safety as the team's fifth defensive back all night, so there wasn't much not to like.
Denlinger and Russell are both fifth-year seniors who have had success in the past but were passed on the depth chart earlier this year by underclassmen. What does that say about depth? It's not a knock on the older guys but an example of how much competition there really is when you start stacking top 10 recruiting classes on top of each other rather than just bringing them in every few years.
What we can expect to learn this week: If there is any doubt, we'll find out just how good this defensive line is this week. The Buckeyes passed their first test of the season by whipping a highly regarded USC offensive line in September, but there is little doubt this is a whole new test coming this Saturday.
Ohio State coaches praised the athleticism of the Trojans up front, but the Badgers are back to their power running ways, and they bring in another huge offensive line, one that has three players back who helped put a beating on basically the same Ohio State defensive line last year in Madison.
In the offseason, more than one Buckeye cited the trip to Madison as a turning point for the Ohio State defense last season. After surrendering 179 rushing yards to the Wisconsin and getting pushed around most of the night, the Buckeye defensive line took a look in the mirror and upped its play. The result was a stellar finish to the season for the stop unit as a whole.
The challenge is greater without Larimore, but Denlinger has at times in his career looked like the best interior defensive lineman on the team, and Simon seems more than ready to answer the bell again. Redshirt freshman Garrett Goebel is also coming off a productive offseason and could help if needed.
Also this week it bears watching what type of base defensive front the Buckeyes use. They surprised USC with an alteration to their usual 4-3 that more resembled a 5-2 with Larimore or Denlinger or Simon playing nose guard, two other 'tweener tackle/ends such as Doug Worthington, Cameron Heyward, Lawrence Wilson and Robert Rose with their hands in the dirt and Thaddeus Gibson and Austin Spitler standing as linebacker-types on the outside. The new look is designed to force the Buckeyes to take the fight to the opposing offense a little more aggressively than in the past when the approach was more reactive, and by all accounts, it is working so far.
The onus will be on those fellows to control things up front without a lot of extra help because Wisconsin has better than average ability to hurt teams with the pass. First-year starting quarterback Scott Tolzein has thus far exceeded expectations, and his contributions are critical to making the Badger offense the highest scoring in the league so far at 35.0 points per game. Tolzein was just a two-star recruit coming out of high school three years ago, but he has done an excellent job of distributing the ball to teammates such as receivers Nick Toon and Isaac Anderson and tight ends Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks.
Wisconsin's defense has lagged behind so far, having allowed at least 20 points to every Division I-A team it has faced. The Badgers are eighth in the league in passing yards allowed (235.0 per game) and seventh against the run (128.0) despite a good pass rush keyed by budding star end O'Brien Schofield, who figures to test the Buckeyes' young offensive tackles this week.
All-Buckeye Beater Nominees
Indiana receiver Tandon Doss proved to be a handful for and Ohio State secondary that has played well all season. The sophomore caught six passes for 96 yards and showed the power to break tackles on his first-half touchdown catch, so he will get some end of season consideration when we go back to see who gave the Buckeyes the toughest looks this season.
The Hoosiers' next-best weapon was kick returner Ray Fisher of Cleveland Glenville, who averaged 32.25 yards per return, including a 43-yarder. Doss also had a 29-yard kickoff return.
The Buckeyes and Badgers will square off on ABC in Big Ten country (and ESPN or ESPN2 everywhere else in the country) at 3:30 ET. Get warmed up with a look at next week's opponent, Purdue. The Boilermakers travel to Minnesota for a noon contest on ESPN2. While the Buckeyes play, the best game to record and watch later figures to be No. 3 Alabama at No. 20 Mississippi, and in the evening another game with national championship implications occurs in Baton Rouge where No. 4 LSU plays host to No. 1 Florida. DVR that one and watch Michigan travel to No. 12 Iowa or vice versa. The evening Big Ten tilt figures to tell us a lot about the Wolverines and Hawkeyes, Ohio State's last two opponents of the regular season. The SEC contests will knock two teams down a notch, possibly helping the Buckeyes crawl back into the championship debate.
Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll (Previous week ranking)
1. (same) Ohio State
2. (same) Iowa
3. (same) Wisconsin
4. (same) Penn State
5. (8) Michigan State
6. (5) Michigan
7. (6) Minnesota
8. (7) Indiana
9. (same) Illinois
10. (same) Northwestern
11. (same) Purdue
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 mhartman[at]buckeyesports[dot]com
For more from this author, read his blog about Ohio State football and whatever else crosses his mind .