Ohio State looked nothing like a national championship contender on Saturday, stopping a two-point conversion with 32 seconds left to win at hated Michigan, 42-41, despite a porous and troubling defensive effort.
The Buckeyes' season so far has been one long game of Seek and Hyde: It is seeking a BCS National Championship on the strength of running back Carlos Hyde.
To this point, that has worked out just fine. The Buckeyes are 12-0, and in their two toughest games, at Northwestern and Michigan, Hyde has been by far the best player on the field, rushing for a combined 394 yards on 53 carries (7.4 YPC).
The 226 yards he totaled in Saturday's win were the most a Buckeye has ever rushed for against Michigan, according to Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch:
Hyde has 226 yards rushing, a record for an #OSU runner against Michigan.— Bill Rabinowitz (@brdispatch) November 30, 2013
But every single one of those 226 yards—and especially his sole touchdown, which proved to be the game-winning score—was imperative, and therein lies the problem with this team, its makeup and its bid for a national title.
The defense was softer than a melted bowl of ice cream, puddled into a tepid mass of soup after being left on the table overnight. The coverage holes were so vast and gaping that you could hear each footstep echo. The unit ceded 603 yards to Michigan, which couldn't muster 176 in three of its previous four games.
Things need to get better—much better. And fast. Otherwise, if this team gets shut out of the BCS National Championship Game, despite the potential 13-0 record, it will have absolutely no case for complaint.
After Saturday's performance, Ohio State's defense has allowed 5.01 yards per play this season. Here's a look at the past four teams to make the BCS title game:
|Team||Yards Per Play||Yards Per Game||Points Per Game|
|2012 Notre Dame||4.78||305.5||12.8|
|2013 Ohio State||5.01||355.8||20.3|
Auburn won the national title in 2010 with a defense that compared, on paper, with Ohio State's, but the Tigers played a much tougher SEC schedule. That might at first seem like a straw man argument, but it isn't. Ohio State is allowing over five yards per play against opponents that pose little threat.
That's not to say things can't get better. With future NFL players like Ryan Shazier, Noah Spence and Bradley Roby—despite how the latter played on Saturday—there is enough talent on this unit to improve.
It just has to happen now.
Michigan won't be the opponent next weekend, when OSU travels to Lucas Oil Stadium. Instead, the Wolverines' bigger, badder, faster, stronger, better in-state rival, the 11-1 Michigan State Spartans, will be standing across the line. The margin for error will evaporate.
Sparty's offense leaves a lot to be desired, but it has steadily improved all season. After seeing the way Al Borges—AL BORGES!—outmaneuvered the Buckeyes on Saturday, there's no reason to think Michigan State won't be able to move the ball in spots.
If it does, that could be a very big problem. The Spartans have allowed six points or less in five of their last six games—just 3.6 points per game in that quintet. Even Hyde won't be able to bully this defense physically. Even Hyde won't be able to make each red-zone trip a touchdown.
Even Hyde won't be able to bail the Buckeyes out.
Who Will Win the Big Ten Championship?
"If there's a better back in the country [than Hyde], I haven't seen him," said head coach Urban Meyer in his post-game interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe. He might very well be right, but another thing Meyer hasn't seen is a defense like Michigan State's. Forty-plus points will not be scored again next Saturday.
The Ohio State team that took the field in the Big House was good enough to finish the season 12-0, albeit by the hair on its chinny chin chin. But it would not and will not be good enough to finish the season 13-0 after the Big Ten championship game.
This offense is worthy of a national title, but the defense is better suited for the Outback Bowl. This offense is Beyonce, but the defense is those other two members of Destiny's Child. When a chain consists of only three links—offense, defense and special teams—the weakest gets magnified in importance.
Ohio State's defense needs to get better overnight, or at least get better at faking it.
Otherwise, even if it does make the national title game, this season will not end the way it hopes.