Ohio State's last best opponent

Patrick Smith

After a statement road win at Penn State, the Buckeyes have just three games left on the slate. But they face four opponents.

9-0. In my wildest dreams about this season, yes, I saw both numbers in their correct places as far as Ohio State's 2012 record was concerned. The realist in me saw a loss at Michigan State and some difficult outs against Nebraska and at Penn State. But I didn't rationally think that this Buckeye team would actually get through three quarters of their season without a mark in the loss column.

But here we are, on the precipice of November, and Ohio State is undefeated. They are clearly the class of the Big Ten, and after beating a Penn State team on a huge upswing, they are a team a chance to go for win number 10 (not to mention wins 11 and 12), as Coach Meyer would say. Life is good in Buckeye land.

Can anything stop this team from doing that? This weekend's opponent is Illinois, who has gone from being the pre-season dark horse by more than a few people on this site (me!) to being more of a doormat than anyone would have imagined back in August. Sure, Illinois has been dangerous to the Buckeyes in recent years, winning six-of-eleven in Columbus since 1990*, but this is a different Illinois team and, more importantly, a much different Ohio State team. Even with the 3:30pm kick, and the remnants of HurriTropicaSuperStorm Sandy moving through the area this week, on paper Ohio State should easily cover the 24 points by which Vegas sees them winning. Heading into the bye week, with an always tough roadie against a pissed off Bielema and Co., followed by the Redemption Song over Thanksgiving weekend, an easy win is exactly what the doctor ordered for this squad.

*Maybe, in the early days of the prestigious Illibuck** trophy, I would have believed a sub-500 run for Ohio State at home would have been possible, but thinking about the amount of true talent that Ohio State has had over the last 20 years, and the dearth of it across the sidelines, this stat is almost impossible to believe. But it's true.

**Completely off topic, but while we're on the subject of turtles, might I recommend that, in this election season, we set aside our partisan blinders and help Build a Turtle Fence?

Illinois isn't Ohio State's last best opponent. Neither is Wisconsin, and Michigan isn't within a mile of that competition. With the presumed win on Saturday and a bye week upcoming, the most dangerous opponent left on Ohio State's schedule is complacency.

I'm not saying Illinois is going to beat Ohio State. Sure, on any given Saturday, etc., etc., etc., things like that can happen. But the likelihood is that Ohio State goes into the bye week at 10-0 with two games left for perfection and a chance at an AP National Championship (Illinois winning is probably more likely, natch). This Ohio State team is certainly good enough to handle the looming dumpster fire that is the Fighting Illini. Hell, they just went in to State College and beat the tar out of a Penn State team on a five-game winning streak with all the confidence of the Nittany Lions teams of old.

And Braxton Miller, finally getting the Heisman nod from his coach, is the spark plug that can win games by himself. His leaping, one yard, video game of a dive into the end zone on Saturday night showed how Reid Fragel can get away with an obvious hold Miller can do things that no one else in the country can, given the opportunity. And if he can't, Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith have looked great on the ground as well, pounding the ball inside and opening up the outside for Miller. And while the passing game has been so-so this year, the slowly-but-surely gelling receiver corps have shown they have the skills to take over when necessary. Like, say, putting the icing on the cake with a 72-yard TD grab (we see you, Jake Stoneburner).

And even if Ohio State's offense struggles, it seems the defense has finally come back to the party. For all the guff that Luke Fickell has taken this year, a great deal of it both earned and due to big injury concerns, the Silver Bullets were firing on all cylinders on Saturday night. Matt McGloin had been susceptible to sacks all year, and the coaching staff turned the defensive line pressure up to 11, putting him on the ground four times, and making his night a living hell for the better part of four quarters. That was the difference in the game, pressuring McGloin, but a more than honorable mention goes out to Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, who quite simply played like All-Americans on a huge stage.

This wasn't the "real buckeye" team we saw against Michigan State, or the unstoppable offensive machine we saw against Nebraska. This was the best of both worlds, an offense that can score effortlessly, and a defense that will bend a little bit, fail to break, and then punch you squarely in the jaw. I'm saying it, the pollsters are saying it, and in a year where SEC teams are beating themselves out of the top-5, college football is saying it.

Which is why the worst enemy of this team is what lies ahead.

12-0 this season isn't, in truth, all that important. Most fans would have been satisfied with a re-building effort, a 9-3 record and a win over Michigan at season's end. But this team cannot be just satisfied; they've earned more than that. This team has struggled, from the first quarter against Miami through the slugfest against Purdue, and has only looked positively great on a few occasions. Saturday was one such occasion. And it was something to build off of.

For all we know, the Buckeyes might waltz into The 'Shoe on Saturday and run the Illinois back to Champaign. And for all we know, Saturday might be another nail-biter, a la Cal or Purdue, where the final outcome takes far too long to decide. For a team (and a coaching staff) obsessed with #Juice and #Swagger and #BuckeyeNationProblems, one of those problems can't be acting too smug to remember what got them there, and how to move forward. Saturday showed the best of what this Ohio State team is. That best must show up three more times.

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