On a warm and brilliantly colorful September evening, Ohio State vanquished in-state foe Cincinnati in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a football game at the Horseshoe.
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After a week of banter between Ohio’s two biggest public universities, the Buckeyes made sure the Bearcats — which had not defeated its neighbor to the north since before the turn of the 20th century — remained subservient to the state's flagship school.
In an offensive explosion that would be a harbinger of things to come, Ohio State rolled up 710 yards and 45 first downs on 101 plays. By the end of the season, the Buckeyes featured one of the nation's top offenses. This was the beginning on that journey.
“After Virginia Tech, we were just hungry. We knew we had to come out, we wanted to kick someone’s ass,” said sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott, adding: “I think we added some more momentum with this game.”
But Ohio State's once-maligned pass defense (which doomed in the year before in a postseason unraveling), remained a concern after surrendering 422 yards to the high-flying Cincinnati offense. In particular, quarterback Gunner Kiel tossed three touchdown passes of 60, 83 and 78 yards to wide receiver Chris Moore, which spoiled an otherwise comprehensive triumph.
“Great teams don't do that. I didn't want to take anything away from UC because UC is a legitimate — probably the best throwing team we've faced since we've been here,” head coach Urban Meyer said.
“But we're Ohio State, too. So we better learn how to play pass defense and get that fixed.” And for the Buckeyes, who had little room for error without Braxton Miller and after a loss to Virginia Tech, this was a directive and not a suggestion.
Player of the Game: Ezekiel Elliott
Considering how Ohio State annihilated a bad Cincinnati defense, you could probably argue its entire offense is deserving of Player of the Game honors.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett threw 330 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-36 passes and ran for an additional 83 yards. The offensive line manhandled the Bearcats' front and 10 different players caught at least one pass. You could argue it was as comprehensive of an offensive performance in Meyer's tenure.
But Ezekiel Elliott, the sophomore running back, stood out above all after running for 182 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. He also had 51 yards receiving on five catches.
“Before he leaves here he could be one of the great backs of Ohio State," Meyer said. "A long way to go. I like the way that group works right now.”
For Elliott, who surged into one of the nation's top backs by the end of the season, this was a breakout game of sorts after three average outings against Navy, Virginia Tech and Kent State.
“Tonight was a night I really needed. I really needed some momentum," Elliott said. "I think it’s all downhill from here."
Critical Play of the Game: Joey Bosa Crushes Gunner Kiel, Changes Tide of the Game
While Ohio State led Cincinnati, 14-7, late in the first quarter, the game was an otherwise shaky start for the Buckeyes, which couldn't seem to slow down Kiel and his crew of wide receivers including Moore, Mekale McKay and Shaq Washington.
As the period neared an end, Kiel dropped back before sophomore Joey Bosa, Ohio State's unanimous first-team All-American defensive end, crushed him to the turf and sent the ball tumbling backward.
In order to spare the Bearcats a scoop and score, a Cincinnati offensive lineman slapped the ball out of the end zone for a safety.
On the ensuing drive, Barrett found Devin Smith for a quick touchdown and the Buckeyes went up, 23-7, in a game that was in doubt for the first 14 minutes of play.
Bosa's hit lit Ohio Stadium into a frenzy and changed the tide of the game.
What It Meant
Two weeks removed from an abysmal outing against Virginia Tech, Ohio State's offense showed real and dramatic signs of improvement against Cincinnati and its horrendous defense. Even so, the Buckeyes did what good offenses to do bad defenses.
Cincinnati Game Coverage
The pass and run game were almost flawless and Barrett, a redshirt freshman in his fourth-ever start, started to take command of an offense that had belonged to Braxton Miller the last three seasons.
The defense remained a concern, but outside of big plays, the unit put together a decent performance. Chris Ash, the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach, said he wasn't going to lose sleep over the outing.
“I’m not gonna stay up tonight, I can tell you that. I gotta get up early enough and I’m here late enough as it is, but we’ll address it tomorrow. We just won a game. We’re gonna enjoy victory. I don’t what you guys want, but we’re going to enjoy victory over a team that has a good quarterback, good receivers," he said.
"We were concerned about their pass game going in, you take away three plays — which you can’t — we played the rest of them pretty decent. Now, we gotta get the three that we gave up fixed, we can’t allow that, we’re not gonna allow that, it's not acceptable but we’ll get it addressed tomorrow.”