Most pundits already viewed the Buckeyes as the class of the conference entering this weekend. But before Ohio State and Michigan began their Big Ten schedule, there was at least a conversation to be had.
By Saturday's end, there was no longer a question regarding who holds the title of top dog through the first third of the regular season. The Wolverines may be the defending conference champions, but as far as the eye test goes, the Buckeyes appear the team to beat in the Big Ten in 2022.
“I think we've shown what we can do. Now whether we do it every week, now that’s on us,” Ryan Day said after Ohio State’s 31-point blowout win over Wisconsin. “But I think you can see what this team is made of, and I think we've shown that in the first four games; what we can do and what we're capable of. The big challenge, as we all know in college football, is you have to bring it every week, and that's the competitive stamina we've been talking about every single week. You got to bring it.”
Michigan looked impressive in matchups with lesser competition through the first three weeks, outscoring Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn 166-17 combined. Despite the lack of a Power Five opponent in their non-conference schedule, that résumé – on the heels of their College Football Playoff run this past year – was good enough to give the Wolverines the No. 4 spot in the AP Top 25.
A 17-point favorite to handle Mike Locksley and Maryland at home to start its Big Ten slate on Saturday afternoon, things didn’t go quite as smoothly. Michigan held a four-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter and needed a career-high 243-yard day from running back Blake Corum to finish with a 34-27 win over the Terps. Had Maryland not turned the ball over three times on the day, that final result might have flipped in the other direction.
Ohio State, on the other hand, overachieved. The Buckeyes closed as 19-point favorites over Wisconsin but ended up dominating the Badgers well beyond that projected margin. By the end of the first quarter, Ohio State was already up 21-0, outgaining Wisconsin 210-23 in terms of total yardage.
The Buckeyes took a 31-7 lead into halftime and wound up shellacking Paul Chryst and company by a score of 52-21 by game’s end – their ninth-straight win over a Wisconsin program perenially at the forefront of the conference title picture in the Big Ten West Division.
“I think in the first half we distributed the ball pretty well, had some good momentum coming out quick. That's something that we definitely want to do,” C.J. Stroud said after the win. “And I think we built that chemistry with Cade (Stover), Emeka (Egbuka) and Marvin (Harrison Jr.) and really everybody who touched the ball did a great job.”
With its 77-point, 763-yard eruption against Toledo last week, Ohio State soared to the nation’s No. 1 spot in total offense. But success wasn’t supposed to come easily against the Badgers, who hadn’t given up more than 17 points to any opponent and ranked top 20 in most major defensive categories. Against the Buckeyes, though, Wisconsin wasn’t much more of a challenge than Ohio State’s past two opponents.
The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on their first four drives and at least three points on their first five possessions. Ohio State left a slight opening for the Badgers to regain some momentum with a turnover late in the first half but quickly snuffed that out with a pair of Stroud touchdown passes in the third quarter.
Stroud finished with 281 yards, five touchdowns and an interception in another standout effort, which marked his third straight game with at least four scoring passes. Even without Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the Buckeye passing offense looked as dynamic as ever, as three different players caught touchdowns.
"It's One heck of a win for us. I mean, to play like we did tonight, that was a lot of work. And I'm very, very proud of our team.”– Ryan Day
Ohio State was no less impressive on the ground. TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams each dashed for over 100 yards, both of their first times topping the century mark this season, and the Buckeyes averaged six yards per carry by the close of the contest.
“TreVeyon and Miyan both have been excellent. TreVeyon’s energy before the game was off the chart. You could just feel it,” Day said. “I mean, I felt it. In warmups, I felt in the locker room. I felt it coming out of the locker room. And then he ran that way. He just ran hard. He ran physical. He ran with energy. And so did Miyan. Miyan ran hard. So I think we had something good going in that room.”
Perhaps the biggest question about the Buckeyes after their Week 3 performance was whether or not its defense would continue to concede slightly better outings to opponents week-by-week and how injuries to several starters would impact that trend. Ailments continue to be a concern, with all three of Ohio State’s top corners sidelined against Wisconsin. However, Jim Knowles and company still largely managed to dominate – at least until pulling the starters late.
Ryan Day expected Graham Mertz and Braelon Allen to be the best quarterback and running back the Buckeyes had faced this season. In the end, Mertz couldn’t muster 100 yards passing and barely completed half of his passes. Save for a 75-yard touchdown run against the Buckeye backups, part of a 98-yard fourth quarter, Allen would have been bottled up for little effect.
JK Johnson and Jyaire Brown held firm in their first career starts in place of Denzel Burke and Cameron Brown, and Tanner McCalister picked off a first-half Mertz pass that set the Badgers behind the eight-ball before it could find any rhythm. The standout defensive performance of the night belonged to Tommy Eichenberg, who racked up a whopping 14 tackles while Wisconsin struggled to get going for much of the night.
It was a complete effort from the Buckeyes, despite some late points for the Badgers when the game was already out of reach. In fact, Ohio State’s 52 points were the most Wisconsin has given up in a single game since the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, when the Buckeyes beat the Badgers, 59-0.
Aside from Ohio State and Michigan, just two other unbeaten teams remain in the Big Ten after four weeks of action. Penn State is quickly climbing up the rankings with a 4-0 record but has turned in underwhelming efforts along the way. Minnesota has enjoyed surprising success out of the West, putting up monster offensive numbers against New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado before crushing Michigan State in a 34-7 blowout this weekend.
While many of those teams could undoubtedly pose a threat to the Buckeyes on any given week, not to mention the possibility of a trap game against an upcoming opponent not mentioned, they won’t be picked to beat Ohio State. Not if it continues to play like it did on Saturday night, which saw an utter obliteration of one of the better teams in the Big Ten.
“As good as this feels and as much as we want to celebrate this, we can't spend too much time patting ourselves on the back after this thing,” Day said. “Which is hard because it's one heck of a win for us. I mean, to play like we did tonight, that was a lot of work. And I'm very, very proud of our team.”