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After Sluggish Beginning, Ohio State's Real Season Starts Now

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterNovember 14, 2015

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 14:  Ezekiel Elliott #15 of the Ohio State Buckeyes is tripped up by Taylor Barton #3 of the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Champaign, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In many ways, Ohio State's 28-3 win over Illinois on Saturday served as the epitome of the third-ranked Buckeyes' first 10 games of the 2015 season.

Sure, there was J.T. Barrett's 24-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas in the first quarter, star defensive end Joey Bosa's usual dominance and running back Ezekiel Elliott closing out the game late. But by and large, highlights for Ohio State were few and far between on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

The same could be said about the first three months of the Buckeyes' national championship defense, which has seen Ohio State grind its way to a 10-0 record against a bevy of uninspiring challengers.

Starting next week—and continuing through the remainder of the 2015 campaign—however, that sentiment's about to change.

Because while the Buckeyes' resume may be short on high marks based on a strength of schedule that ranked 56th in the country heading into this weekend, per TeamRankings.com, the next two—or potentially, three—weeks are the ones that will ultimately define Ohio State's season.

It starts next week when the Buckeyes welcome No. 13 Michigan State to Columbus and continues with a regular-season finale on the road at No. 14. Michigan.

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If Ohio State can emerge victorious against its pair of opponents from the Great Lakes State, it will clinch a third consecutive trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, where the Buckeyes will likely meet fifth-ranked Iowa.

"We know what's coming down the road," OSU head coach Urban Meyer said in his postgame press conference Saturday.

After not facing a ranked opponent through its first 10 weeks, Ohio State finds itself potentially staring at three consecutive games against ranked contenders, all with plenty left to play for, including hopes of crashing the College Football Playoff.

For the Buckeyes, that will be a change of pace from their first two months of the season and could make for a heck of an exclamation point heading into what could be a second appearance in the CFP.

Bradley Leeb/Associated Press

With the way Ohio State has played, however, accomplishing just that could be easier said than done—especially on the offensive side of the ball, where inconsistencies have plagued the Buckeyes offense, despite the unit returning eight starters from last year's national title team.

Meyer's quarterback carousel of Barrett and Cardale Jones has finally settled on the former, but that's not the only position to blame for Ohio State's instability.

In particular, the Buckeyes offensive line has failed to meet expectations after returning four starters from a season ago on what was one of the best units in college football by season's end.

But Ohio State's fifth starter, right tackle Chase Farris, has seen struggles throughout his first campaign in the Buckeyes' starting lineup. That continued with an especially poor performance in pass protection against the Fighting Illini, as shown here:

With Elliott (181 yards, two touchdowns) carrying the load on the ground, the OSU offensive line's issues showed up predominately in the passing game Saturday. Already playing with a receiver corps that's been depleted by injuries, Barrett completed 15 of his 23 pass attempts for 150 yards, one touchdown and an interception in his first game back since serving a one-game suspension for an OVI citation during the Buckeyes' bye week.

"We have to be more balanced," Meyer said of his offense. "With what's coming down the road, if I can't trust the offensive line right now, then we've got a major problem."

When the Buckeyes take on a defense as talented as Michigan State's, an offensive effort similar to Ohio State's on Saturday likely won't be enough for the Buckeyes to continue what is now a 23-game winning streak over the course of the past two seasons.

"We have to be better," Barrett said in his postgame press conference. "Michigan State's one of the top teams in our conference, as well. We definitely have to be better."

While some question marks may linger when it comes to what the Ohio State offense is capable of against a top opponent, little doubt exists when it comes to the Buckeyes defense. Entering Saturday ranked as the nation's No. 13 defense, Ohio State limited the Fighting Illini to 261 total yards, including just 20 on the ground.

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 14:  Cameron Tucker #26 of the Illinois Fighting Illini is tackled for a loss by Joshua Perry #37 of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Champaign, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

"Our defense is playing lights out," Meyer said. "That's obvious."

The Buckeyes defense may not be able to continue to provide performances like the one it did Saturday with what's coming in the next three weeks. It is, however, worth noting that neither the Spartans, Wolverines nor Hawkeyes features the type of mobile quarterback that has proven to be the Ohio State defense's one true weakness this season.

But regardless of how the Buckeyes fare when it comes to defending a nicked up Connor Cook, Jim Harbaugh's first offense at Michigan or potentially Iowa's balanced attack of quarterback C.J. Beathard and running back Jordan Canzeri, they are going to need their offense to rise to the occasion. Barrett is confident his unit will do just that, as the most important—and intriguing—portion of the Buckeyes' schedule approaches.

"We've got time to prepare and game-plan," Barrett said. "We'll be better come Saturday."

The fate of Ohio State's national title defense is depending on it.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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