Unless you’ve been off the grid all weekend, you already know that Ohio State played its best game of the season on Saturday against Michigan.
The Buckeyes pulled out all the stops in their annual rivalry game on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, defeating the Wolverines 62-39 despite entering the game as a four-point underdog, and won the Big Ten East title in the process, earning themselves a berth in this week’s Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern.
Now, the question is whether the Buckeyes can play just as well against the Wildcats to earn another win and their second consecutive conference title.
Unlike last week, Ohio State will be the favorite – by 14 points – on Saturday. Northwestern went just 8-4 in the regular season, never winning a game by more than 14 points, so the Big Ten West champions don’t appear to pose nearly as tough of a threat to the Buckeyes as the Wolverines did this past week.
Ohio State, however, can’t afford to think that way.
While Urban Meyer’s philosophy for his team is to celebrate and appreciate every win, he acknowledged during Sunday’s Big Ten Championship Game coaches’ teleconference that there was a different mood in the locker room after Saturday’s win because of the team the Buckeyes had just beat and the manner in which they did so.
“I think more that the whole mantra last week was this is a different week. We went about things a little bit different, because it is a rivalry,” Meyer said. “So I did feel a little bit of difference in the locker room and a lot of confidence, because they had so much respect for the team they were playing.”
If the Buckeyes use that confidence as fuel and work just as hard this week, they could ride the wave of momentum to another impressive win on Saturday. However, if they allow that confidence to get into their heads and expect to walk over Northwestern, Saturday’s game could end up looking more like their previous game against Maryland – where they needed overtime to beat a far less talented team – or in a worst-case scenario, like their 49-20 loss to Purdue in October.
How does Meyer plan to make sure his team channels its confidence in the right way?
“I’m going to visit with the leaders on the team, and I’ve already kind of addressed that with our staff,” Meyer said. “I’m going to be very hard on everybody this week, and we cannot see anything other than the same effort we did last week.”
There were a lot of positives for Meyer and the Buckeyes to draw from their performance against Michigan. Their offense put up 62 points and 567 yards against what was the nation’s top-ranked defense in yards allowed per game, their defense made the plays it needed to make to keep Ohio State ahead on the scoreboard all day and they were strong on special teams, including a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.
Still, the Buckeyes have aspirations of accomplishing more this season, and if the Buckeyes are to have a chance to compete for a national championship this year, Meyer knows they must continue to get better.
“I think certain areas of our team are, certain areas are not,” Meyer said when asked whether Ohio State is good enough to compete with any team in the country. “And that’s just an evaluation on the professional level that most people can see. Yeah, there’s certain areas we’re not performing at a high level.”
Meyer said he was not going to specify which areas he believes those are, though he did say that he was “very disappointed” that Ohio State was flagged for five pass interference penalties on Saturday.
The Buckeyes’ national championship hopes, of course, also lie in the hands of the College Football Playoff committee, which will decide next Sunday which four teams will compete for the title this year. Meyer said he is not worrying about that this week, but is simply focused on the task that Ohio State must complete this week to garner any playoff consideration: beating Northwestern.
“When you start using terms like national championship and playoffs, that’s very rare air,” Meyer said. “And that’s why we have a job to do, and that’s get ready for a Tuesday practice and go win the Big Ten championship, and worry about that down the road.”
“I’m going to be very hard on everybody this week, and we cannot see anything other than the same effort we did last week.”– Urban Meyer on Ohio State's preparation for Northwestern
Meyer says he isn’t worried, either, about the playoff conversation being a distraction for his team in its preparation to play Northwestern. After all, the Buckeyes were in a similar position entering the Big Ten Championship Game in both 2014 and 2017 – where it was uncertain whether a win would get them into the playoff – and they won both of those games (though they were left out of the playoff last year).
“We’ve been involved every year in the conversation, and I really don’t believe that has any impact at all on this week of practice,” Meyer said. “I think it’s a pretty intense Sunday when you’re sitting there watching. I’ve done that for five years or whatever it’s been. But I won’t talk about that today. I don’t believe other than kids staring at their phone, there will be a lot of conversation about it, because you get a ring when you win this championship, and that’s the conversation always around here.”
Meyer is planning to push his team hard this week, though, to make sure that everyone stays focused on the task at hand.
“When you win and you win the way you did, now that’s the time to cut it loose and be very, over-the-top demanding of them,” Meyer said. “And make it so if they’re staring at their phone, they should be staring about what they just went through at practice. So that’s kind of how we approach it.”