LINCOLN, Neb. — The case was made in the first five minutes of Saturday night’s game when the five-star pass rusher applied the pressure that enabled the interception by the five-star cornerback, creating the turnover that put the five-star quarterback in position to lead the first of eight scoring drives.
But the case previously was made on National Signing Day in 2017, when the Ohio State Buckeyes signed the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, landing 11 top-100 national recruits, eight of whom made major contributions in Memorial Stadium.
The case was questioned, at least by some (hand raised), when the legendary coach left the program in the hands of a first-time head coach, and that new coach looked at the options in Columbus and brought in a new quarterback to run a new system as a first-year starter. And the case was questioned by the struggles of a defense a year ago that returned nearly all the same players this year and would be fixed, maybe, by new coaches with a new scheme.
No more questions. No more caveats. The Ohio State Buckeyes aren’t who we thought they were. They’re more. With a 48-7 victory at Nebraska, the No. 5 Buckeyes moved to 5-0 and made a thorough and convincing case as the best team in college football.
Chase Young, the pass rusher; Jeff Okudah, the cornerback; and Justin Fields, the transfer quarterback; were among the top-10 high school recruits in the nation when they arrived in Columbus, and they’re playing just like that. Led by the three of them, and unleashed by new head coach Ryan Day and a new defensive coaching staff led by Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, Ohio State applies unrelenting pressure that cracked the Nebraska Cornhuskers the way it cracked the first four teams on the schedule.
Two weeks ago, I wrote after their win over Indiana that the Buckeyes’ flashed an upside that proved they could hang with Clemson and Alabama. After Saturday, I’m not sure that’s their upside … I think that’s just their nearly every-down talent and precision.
And hang with the Tigers and the Tide? After Saturday, I don’t think there’s any doubt the Buckeyes can do that. After Clemson was forced to halt a faulty North Carolina two-point try in the final two minutes to beat the Tar Heels 21-20, and after Alabama trailed Ole Miss after the first quarter before pulling away, there’s no question that the Buckeyes are playing at the level of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country.
The only question is whether Ohio State might be better.
That doesn’t guarantee an undefeated season or a playoff spot or a national title. But it’s where we stand five weeks in. We can’t attribute this to some belief that the Buckeyes haven’t played anyone. The Cornhuskers, though flawed, took the field before the 371st straight sellout crowd in school history with a quarterback with dynamic ability, some offensive playmakers and a defense with enough speed that might have given the Cornhuskers a chance to keep up.
There was no chance. Ohio State made Nebraska look like a bad team because Ohio State is a great team. Running, passing and defending, they are more talented than the teams of 2016, 2017 and 2018, which went 36-5. They are better coached than the 2015 team that was overflowing with NFL talent but held back by a change in offensive coordinators following Tom Herman’s departure after 2014.
So we’re back to the 2014 team, and the Ezekiel Elliott-Joey Bosa Buckeyes. Here’s a fact. This quarterback is more dangerous.
Fields completed 15 of 21 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns and ran it 12 times for 72 yards and a score, and somehow it feels like those stats don’t convey the way he held the game in his hands. The loose way Nebraska sophomore Adrian Martinez played Saturday — missing open receivers, turning the ball over, flashing obvious skill that wasn’t matched by the same level of composure — is some of what I expected from Fields this season after arriving in Columbus in January.
Instead, he’s been on point. He’s often throwing the ball near the level Dwayne Haskins threw it a year ago. When the Buckeyes and Fields make the judicious decisions to run him, he’s a first down waiting to happen. The first touchdown on that opening drive occurred after Nebraska locked up the Buckeyes with good coverage, and Fields took the open middle of the field with ease on a 15-yard run for a score.
We’re wrong all the time in sports, especially in sports played by teenagers and 20-somethings. There’s no guarantee of the future. All we can assess is what the present is trying to tell us. In August, I thought it was telling me that the Buckeyes would go 9-3.
Right now, it’s telling me this.
Ohio State for the 2019 season has entered the assumption of excellence zone previously occupied only by Clemson and Alabama. Every September, the college football world assumes the Tigers and the Tide are headed for the playoff and likely undefeated regular seasons. Alabama has reached the playoff in each of its five years. Clemson has reached the last four.
Ohio State is playing in a way that should make us assume the playoff in the same way — in a Big Ten conference where it’s hard to see a team that can play with the Buckeyes. Think Clemson and Alabama always have two of the four playoff spots spoken for? Well, assume three are taken this season then.
The Buckeyes made their case for that on Saturday.
Get Buckeyes Insider texts in your phone from Doug Lesmerises: Cut through the clutter of social media and communicate directly with the award-winning OSU football reporter, just like you would with your friends. Sign up for insight on the Buckeyes in your phone for $3.99 per month.