There have certainly been prettier football games. After (slowly) mounting a three-touchdown lead, Ohio State had to withstand a furious fourth quarter rally by the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday night. On Cardale Jones' first night back as a starter, with recently-crowned No. 1 J.T. Barrett suspended, the Buckeye offense served up a buffet of dazzling plays, total head-scratchers, and dust-kicking runs that would have made Jim Tressel proud.
Vonn Bell got the party started in the second quarter, taking an errant Mitch Leidner pass to the house on a play that initially saw Joshua Perry ejected for targeting (later correctly reversed). From there, the offense had a little room to work, with Ezekiel Elliott finding pay dirt four minutes later to put Ohio State up two scores before halftime. Jones then found Michael Thomas for a stellar TD to notch the third quarter's only points. But the fourth quarter saw Gophers QB Mitch Leidner show up, leading touchdown drives of 77 and 78 yards to pull Minnesota back within a score of the Buckeyes. It took a powerful Jones run up the middle for 38 yards to put things away and keep Ohio State's slate clean.
In the end, it was enough. And while the week's water cooler talk revolved heavily around the offensive side of things -- Cardale's return, Zeke's streak, Braxton's shoulder -- it was the defense that once again showed out to keep the Buckeyes undefeated. That's not to take anything away from the offense, who made some key plays of their own, but it's hard to watch Ohio State's front seven take on opponents and not be floored. That said, let's take a closer look at who's responsible for the team's unblemished record:
Blue Chip Stocks
Tyquan Lewis, DE: Lewis got his hits in early and often, recording four tackles on the Gophers' first seven offensive plays. A stupid late hit notwithstanding (for which momentum was at least partly to blame), Lewis had an absolutely outstanding performance for the Buckeye defense. He was a huge contributor in both the pass rush and in the run game, one of the major reasons why Minnesota finished with just 33 yards on the ground on 26 carries. On a defense loaded with future high draft picks, it can be hard to stand out, but Lewis did just that on Saturday.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB: How many more column inches can possibly be used to keep saying the same things over and over again? This guy is unbelievable. Saturday night marked his fourteenth straight game of 100 yards or more on the ground. On a day that proved even Heisman frontrunner Leonard Fournette to be mortal, Zeke kept his impressive streak alive, and he did it in fits and starts in between ferocious pass-blocking outbursts. The one thing missing was his seemingly inevitable 50+ yard scamper, but 114 yards and a touchdown (shouts out to Curtis Samuel for that block, by the way) are certainly nothing to complain about.
(Did we mention he just moved into fourth all-time on Ohio State's rushing leaderboard? Not bad.)
Raekwon McMillan, LB: We'd be remiss not to mention McMillan here, the only Buckeye to record more tackles than Lewis on the evening. McMillan has played at an absurdly high level all season, and there was so sign -- save for a brief stint on the sideline after getting banged up -- of slowing him down on Saturday. He's absolutely everywhere, game after game, leading the charge on gang tackles and blowing up plays before they can get off the ground. It's like having two of Joshua Perry out there on every single play.
Joey Bosa, DE: Stop us if you've heard this one before: Bosa's stat line wasn't astounding, but he was one of the most impactful players in the game from start to finish. No. 97 laid some huge hits down on Mitch Leidner, refusing to make things easy for the Gophers' QB, and on more than one occasion got past his man so easily that it looked like Minnesota wasn't even trying to block him. He added a handful of tackles (and TFLs) to his season total, and even dropped into coverage late to break up consecutive Leidner passes -- harassing the quarterback even when he wasn't trying to tackle him. One gets the feeling, watching Bosa, that the ball might actually pop one of these days when he puts a hit on someone carrying it.
Vonn Bell, S: Ohio State's pass defense looked a little lackluster in the fourth quarter, making Mitch Leidner look positively competent out there, but none of the defensive backs looked better than Bell from start to finish. His second quarter pick-six seemed to put some life into the Buckeyes, and he made several excellent plays in coverage to keep the ball out of the Gophers' receivers' hands. Bell even showed off some wheels, chasing down K.J. Maye and making a textbook tackle on a broken play that might otherwise have gone for six, after two Buckeye defenders collided and took themselves out of the hunt.
Michael Thomas, WR: Thomas is slowly working his way into the Ezekiel Elliott "What can't he do?" zone. His route running and hands are irreproachable. His body control is absurd. And his ability to make plays no matter who lines up under center should have NFL scouts salivating. He finished Saturday with just four catches, but they went for 39 yards and a score. The touchdown grab he made was somehow both textbook and balletic, following a crisp route, a quick turn, and a high leap over his defender. It's hard not to love what this guy does on the field.
Slow, slow starts: It's perhaps unsurprising how stagnant the Buckeyes looked in the game's opening minutes, given the umpteenth quarterback change and the statistically stingy Minnesota defense, but that didn't make the first quarter -- or much of the game, really -- any more palatable. It feels like this team has failed time and time again in 2015 (Rutgers notwithstanding) to come out swinging, to punch an opponent in the mouth and then go Achilles-vs.-Hector on them. They won't have that luxury against teams like Michigan State and Michigan, and they definitely won't have it against (Lord willing) a team like Alabama in the playoff. If there's anything we learned from tonight's other high-profile showdowns, it's that the country's best teams can find that next gear and choke the life out of quality opponents. Let's hope Ohio State finds that side soon.
Buy: Airing it out a time or two with Cardale. There were some dicey moments in this one on Cardale Jones' long balls, but there were also some of those jaw-dropping moments that make you remember the kind of athletes that Ohio State has at wide receiver. Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller each won a footrace to a deep ball that put the Buckeyes well into scoring range, taking advantage of their insane speed and Jones' rocket arm to befuddle a talented Gophers secondary. And hey, give Cardale credit! He wasn't perfect, but he was good enough to exploit the defense over the top and right up the gut on some crucial plays.
Sell: Ohio State's watchability rating. Look, we all know we're going to keep watching, because be it self-flagellation or glorious triumph, we're all on board for every minute of Ohio State football. That still doesn't make Buckeye games appointment viewing for anyone else. The highlight reel still somehow found plenty of filling, but man, there have been some tough games to watch this season, including most of this one. Maybe they're saving all the good stuff for Illinois?