EVANSTON, Ill. — Saturday was the kind of day that makes all those cliches about Big Ten football in November relevant.
What if there’s a blizzard? (Most Big Ten football games aren’t played in a blizzard.)
What if they replace the football with a medicine ball? Or a large rock?
What if they make the quarterbacks play in parkas and mittens?
That’s why you must be able to run the ball. Fear of rocks and mittens and snow. And maybe wind.
For two weeks, as Ohio State struggled to run the ball against Iowa and Penn State, I figured the Buckeyes would always pass their way to victory and they did. My solution to the run game was to stop trying it. Against the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions, Ohio State gained 227 rushing yards on 64 carries. That was a 3.5 yard average. They gained 599 yards on 68 pass attempts. That was an 8.8 yard average. When the going got tough, the thing the Buckeyes did best was there. They threw to win.
So keep doing that.
But what if the wind is blowing at about 25 to 30 miles per hour and gusting up to 40 miles per hour and it’s raining for a bit? What if the weather throws off C.J. Stroud and leads Ohio State to drop as many passes in one game as the Buckeyes had dropped in the first eight games combined? Well, in that case, with a run game that still wasn’t there, Ohio State almost lost to a team that has yet to win on North American soil this season.
Northwestern, bullied by teams like Duke and Wisconsin, winless in two months, ranked 109th in the nation in most rushing yards allowed per game, gave the Buckeyes a 60-minute game Saturday as a five-touchdown underdog. The wind blew, and Ohio State fell over.
The Buckeyes prevailed 21-7, but for most of the second half, they left themselves one slip by a defender and a two-point conversion away from one of the greatest upsets in program history. And if the Buckeyes had been playing Michigan in those conditions Saturday, they would have lost.
If they do play Michigan in conditions like that in three weeks, you have to assume they’ll lose.
Now, what you can’t assume in that game is a wind that blows throws off target for most of an afternoon. And if the Buckeyes get past Michigan, the Big Ten Championship is indoors and their playoff road to a title would run through Arizona (almost certainly) and then Los Angeles.
Saturday’s weather isn’t likely to follow this team. But the knowledge that they struggled so much because of conditions may follow them. The Buckeyes have welcomed a toughness discussion all season since losing because of the run game against Oregon and Michigan last season. It’s the Buckeyes who have talked about how big passing stats are meaningless, that wins are all that matters. It’s the Buckeyes who crowed about the way they put away the opener with Notre Dame on the ground.
Then nine games in, the run game wasn’t there at critical moments.
The Buckeyes knew what the weather would be all week, and they opened the game with five punts and a fourth-down stop on their first six possessions. Northwestern reverted to direct snaps to running backs as their primary offense. Ohio State was saved on another typical run play when Miyan Williams broke multiple tackles on his own and raced in for a 27-yard touchdown in the middle of the third quarter.
The Buckeyes never really solved anything, they just managed to win anyway. Against an opponent better able to run the ball, and even more equipped to stop the Buckeyes on the ground, they might have been pounded into the ground.
This was a Michigan test. Ohio State failed.
To be fair, a year ago, Michigan faced an Ohio State test in a playoff semifinal against Georgia and also failed. The only way to beat the Bulldogs last year was to throw over them, and the run-heavy Michigan attack wasn’t capable of that. Michigan had to pass it like the Buckeyes to win, and the Wolverines scored their only touchdown of that game in the final five minutes and lost 34-11. In those conditions, Michigan wasn’t up to it.
So in the right conditions on Nov. 26, we will get a showdown of two terrific and disparate offenses. It will be the Buckeyes and their passing attack against the Wolverines and their rushing attack. To wish that one offense was more like the other is futile. They do what they do, and they do it well.
Ohio State must hope to avoid rain and parkas and wind. Or the Buckeyes might be in trouble.
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