After a disappointingly slow start to 2015 -- an inevitability, perhaps, given the sky-high expectations the Buckeyes faced heading into their championship-defending season -- Ohio State appears to be firing on all cylinders again. They've dispatched Maryland, Penn State, and Rutgers without much trouble, and finally look a lot like the multi-tooled monsters that took down Alabama and Oregon to close out last year's campaign.
The news from Saturday morning that newly-appointed starter J.T. Barrett faces a suspension stemming from an OVI charge dealt a sizable blow. The Buckeyes appeared to have settled, at long last, the quarterback battle that had mired the team in such a funk for the first few games of the season, but if Cardale Jones at all resembles the playoff hero from last winter against Minnesota next week, expect the gossip of QB controversy to begin anew.
At their best, sports bring us together in a way that few other things can. Teams build allegiances that stretch across borders, across oceans, and these ties that bind so often bind for life. They don't bring us pleasure so much as they do joy: an external, shared triumph rather than an internal moment of gratification. At no point was this more evident than last winter, as we watched a team that no one believed in crush expectations with an iron fist and a smile. The bits of history we remember best are those that we get to watch unfold in real time, and last year's championship run was one of those indelible moments that will forever be a part of the fabric of this team and this school. Saturday's unfortunate news wasn't so much a shattering of illusions as it was a quick blow to the stomach -- a sad but perhaps necessary reminder that the people we watch do battle for us on Saturdays aren't characters in some bizarrely scripted drama, but real people with human fallibility, the capacity to hurt and to be hurt.
But those bruises are part of the story, too, and a part we'd be foolish to forget. The good news -- the salve -- is that this has become a damn fun team to watch play football. Two-thirds into a memorable season, let's look at the men responsible for that joy.
Blue Chip Stocks
Ezekiel Elliott, RB: Watching 2015 Ezekiel Elliott is like watching the child of a Ferrari and a Mack truck run. He is absurdly fast, shifty, and strong, with the odd high jump thrown into the mix. Good as he was last year, Zeke actually crossed the 1,000-yard threshold earlier this season, complaints about his early-season usage be damned.
He's now at the baker's-dozen mark for hundred yard games in a row, which is mind-boggling when considering some of the defenses that the Buckeyes have faced in that stretch. But perhaps his most admirable trait is the one that allows him to blend ridiculous consistency with explosive tendencies. He's not sunk if he can't find the space for a big play -- he'll happily chew up six yards or so per carry without it -- but once or twice a game he does find that space, and he claims every inch of it with a vengeance. He's rushed for touchdowns of 55, 65, and 75 yards already this year, and those big runs are somehow the carries when he looks like he's exerting the least amount of effort.
He's also perhaps the most savage pass-blocker that you could hope for in a running back. He relishes contact, and throws crushing blocks at defenders considerably larger than him. Those extra inches on his jersey have somehow made Zeke both more aerodynamic and more sturdy. This team would be a shell of itself without him.
Raekwon McMillan, MLB: Turns out that you could do worse than coming up under Curtis Grant's tutelage. Ohio State's sophomore linebacker has been the lynchpin of a defense that ranks 11th in the country by S&P+ and ninth in points allowed, bringing a steady hand and a high football IQ to a unit with no shortage of playmakers.
McMillan leads the team in tackles through eight games, racking up 55 so far. He's not out there to get after the quarterback, recording a lone sack in 2015, but his presence is felt in every inch of the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. He's taken over for Joshua Perry (still excellent in his own rite) as the team's Mr. Reliable. The great news: we've got at least another season of Raekwon left.
Vonn Bell, S: I really hate calling this pass defense a "No Fly Zone," mostly because it parrots Michigan State's claim to fame, and if there's one thing the fans of the No. 1 team in the country doesn't need to do, it's act like a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys. Still, it's hard to overstate just how suffocating the Buckeyes have been against the pass. Bell is a huge part of that success. He's broken up eight passes, picked off one pass, and recovered a fumble, all while coming in at third on the team in tackles. Bell is just everywhere, and usually right when he needs to be.
Michael Thomas, WR: The man with the most apt Twitter handle in history has been far and away the best receiving threat the Buckeyes have had this year. He leads the team in targets -- Barrett and Jones throw it his way almost a quarter of the time that the ball goes up -- and he pairs that with a catch rate approaching 75%.
Thomas has racked up quite an explosive highlight reel to go with his 35 catches, 536 yards, and six TDs. Who could forget his one-handed snag against Penn State while he was wearing a defender like a second jersey? Or his stutter-step putting Kendall Fuller, a top-flight corner back, on skates? Can I interest you in Thomas beating three defenders in the open field on the same play to waltz in from 50 yards out? He's a matchup nightmare.
j.T. Barrett, QB: Barrett's big-time screwup over Halloween weekend notwithstanding, he's looked fantastic on the field of late, calling to mind the surgeon who picked defenses apart over and over again last year. He most recently accounted for five touchdowns against Rutgers, a performance that put all notions of a QB controversy moving forward out to pasture (until Saturday). It's hard to see Barrett losing the reins even if Cardale Jones plays well against Minnesota -- he's been too good to keep on the bench once his suspension is over.
Joey Bosa, DE: Bosa's sack numbers aren't eye-popping this year, but believe it or not, that's totally fine. He's made his presence felt, mostly by laying an ungodly number of QB hits and hurries on opposing teams ever since he returned in Week 2. He has 11 tackles for loss -- now it's running backs having nightmares about him, instead of quarterbacks -- and he's still seventh on the team in tackles even with the bagel in the season opener.
Joshua Perry, LB: Perry has worked some kind of devil magic and cloned himself. It's really the only explanation for Raekwon McMillan's absurdly high level of play in 2015. Perry has been right up there with him, coming in at second on the team in tackles and fourth in sacks. He's as consistent as they come, and he's an irreplaceable leader on and off the field.
Cameron Johnston, P: There's a very good, very Australian reason why Ohio State ranks sixth in the country in starting defensive field position. Johnston's punts can flip the field like few others in the country, so opposing offenses have a whole host of problems to deal with every time they start a series.
It's safe to say that you don't make it eight games on an Urban Meyer team if you're lousy game-in and game-out. So perhaps the only thing to put here is the season-long struggle for an offensive identity that has plagued the team. Those problems have been much less real since the start of Big Ten play, with Barrett's versatility and Zeke's world-destroying serving as the template, but with Cardale Jones under center for at least this coming week, that monster might rear its ugly head again.
Buy: Cardale Jones' future. Speaking of Cardale, his issues this season don't mean that he won't still someday be a force of nature at quarterback. He's probably not the right QB for Ohio State, with Meyer's tendency to favor the option and the quick-hitting pass, but NFL scouts could still salivate over his indestructibility, rocket arm, and penchant for shaking off defenders like kindergarteners. His performances this season have largely been uninspired, to say the least, but the fault isn't entirely his. This goes back to the identity issue: Meyer was running J.T. Barrett's offense with Cardale under center, which hardly put the young man in a position to succeed. He'll be fine.
Buy: the Braxton Miller experiment. This one seems to be working out. The Virginia Tech game set the bar absurdly high, but Braxton has looked equal to it since Big Ten play began. He's at his best as a pass-catcher, coming in at third in targets and fourth in catches for the Buckeyes. He has 280 receiving yards and three scores. He's perhaps less effective as a runner, largely due to the fact that it started becoming really obvious what he was going to do when he lined up under center, but even that hasn't stopped him. He's averaging almost seven yards per carry, with 207 yards and a touchdown on the season.