COLUMBUS: How good is this Ohio State football team? We’ll probably never know, and maybe that’s the way it should be.
The Buckeyes are sixth in the Associated Press poll and could move up to fifth. But because they have been disciplined by the NCAA, they do not exist as far as the USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll, the Harris poll and the BCS rankings are concerned.
They finally beat up on a bad team Saturday, dismissing Illinois 52-22 at Ohio Stadium. For a change, Ohio State didn’t have to apologize for giving up a touchdown on a kickoff return or committing a defensive breakdown that led to a long-yardage score by the opponent.
The offense sputtered slightly in the opening quarter, but the Buckeyes actually led 7-6 when the second quarter began. Is that supposed to be a major accomplishment for a 10-0 team playing a 2-6 underdog that has yet to win in five Big Ten games?
Let’s just say leading early hasn’t been the norm for OSU, which trailed Miami of Ohio 3-0, the University of Alabama-Birmingham 6-0, Nebraska 14-7, Purdue 13-7 and battled Penn State to a 0-0 tie after the first quarter.
But the Buckeyes beat all five of these teams; they are undefeated heading into their final two games, against Wisconsin and Michigan, after this week’s bye.
What if they continue to win? What if they win all 12? Will Ohio State have been denied a chance to play for the national championship because former coach Jim Tressel lied to the NCAA?
As first-year coach Urban Meyer repeatedly has reminded us, this is not a “great” team. We already knew that, Urban. But is it good enough to go undefeated in a year when the Big Ten is filled with underachievers? Is the quality there to play for the BCS championship?
When Meyer is asked to critique his team, he doesn’t often hold back.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a couple of top five teams,” he said. “This one probably has more holes in it.”
Some OSU diehards might believe the Buckeyes should have a chance to play in a BCS title game if they win out. After all, the 2002 Ohio State team that beat Miami University for the national championship did not possess a dominating offense, but the defense was a towering force. Just ask the Hurricanes, who seemed shocked when they discovered they could not move the ball at will.
This year, the attack, the defense and special teams do not meet that kind of eye (or numbers) test. The offense is the closest thing to a one-man show since Archie Griffin terrorized defenses in the mid-1970s. Or maybe you have to go all the way back to Howard “Hopalong” Cassady in the ‘50s to find an Ohio State player who has impacted the offense the way Braxton Miller has.
For the season, he has accounted for 66 percent of OSU’s total rushing and passing yardage and 54 percent of the team’s rushing and passing touchdowns.
Miller performed his usual magic act against the Illini. He dodged, darted, swiveled and dashed for 74 net yards (96 without the sacks) and threw for 226 more.
Meyer’s use of the pass Saturday was not unlike a mother who tells her kid he has to eat all of his Brussels sprouts before he can wolf down dessert.
In the first half, when the Illini could still dream of keeping pace, Miller threw only 10 passes, completing five. Miller didn’t throw his first pass until only 5:15 remained in the first quarter, the 24-yarder to Jake Stoneburner setting up a touchdown.
That was followed by a 31-yard pass to Nick Vannett, the prelude to a field goal, and a 32-yard toss to Corey Brown to put the Buckeyes on the Illinois 5 and set up another touchdown.
And the touchdown that established the Buckeyes’ clear dominance carried 51 yards for a touchdown to Rod Smith five minutes before halftime.
So saving room for dessert was worth it for Miller. Not that Meyer was satisfied with Miller, the conventional quarterback.
“We’ve worked so hard at trying to develop a passing game, and I can’t say we did it successfully,” Meyer said. “We are not efficient enough on drop-back passes. While he’s not a drop back passer — you have to be.
“Our play-action game is pretty solid, but in our drop back throws, we’re just not there yet. Those are pretty strong statements. He’s a sophomore in college; we’re still trying to figure it out, and he’s still trying to figure it out. But I loved his effort, and he played well.”
Ohio State was one of only six teams that entered the weekend without a loss, but maybe it’s a good thing for the Buckeyes that Meyer doesn’t have a vote in the AP poll, though he did concede, “This performance felt like [we are] a top-five team.”
If Meyer’s assessment of the team is correct — and it probably is — Ohio State is better off not exposing its “holes” to one of the teams ahead of it in the polls: Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State, Notre Dame, LSU.
Instead, Buckeye nation can debate the worthiness of this team for the next couple of decades. All the better, if OSU finishes the season undefeated.