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Ohio State announces itself a playoff favorite with rout of Oklahoma

It was thought 2016 might be a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes, but it’s clear after their blowout of Oklahoma that they’ve simply reloaded instead.

NORMAN, Okla. — J.T. Barrett’s pass spiraled toward the back corner of the south end zone at Owen Field as the final seconds ticked away in the first half on Saturday night. Barrett spotted sophomore receiver Noah Brown in tight one-on-one coverage with Michiah Quick and lobbed a 21-yard jump ball in their direction.

Brown leapt in the air and reached his arms around Quick to essentially hug him. Quick never turned around and leapt with him, which forced Brown to reach both his arms around Quick and pin the ball on his back. They both landed in the end zone and tumbled out of bounds, a touchdown hug of extraordinary concentration and coordination that will live for decades in the highlights.

• WATCH: Ohio State’s Brown comes up with catch of the year against Oklahoma

Brown’s miraculous catch—part suction-cup hands, part contortionist and part ballerina—provided a frozen moment for No. 3 Ohio State’s 45–24 blowout of No. 14 Oklahoma on Saturday night.

If there’s a football version of basketball’s “poster dunk,” Brown executed it on Saturday night.

You’ll likely be able to buy a poster of Brown’s catch in the Ohio State bookstore for years to come. But for now, it will serve as a symbol of Ohio State’s dominance on a night it went to Oklahoma and ran Bob Stoops’s Oklahoma team as if it was another MAC tomato can. Here’s what we learned about Ohio State and Oklahoma from this statement victory for the Buckeyes:

1. Ohio State has definitively reloaded in 2016

When looking at the direction of the Ohio State program, this game offered a fitting litmus test. Considering all the talent that left campus, it wasn’t unreasonable to look at the team and point to next year as a reasonable timetable to again contend for the national title.

The Buckeyes came to Norman with 16 players in their first season as starters and a roster that features 42 freshmen out of the 85 available scholarships. Ohio State also lost nine players to early entry of the NFL draft, had 12 players selected and there are 14 NFL rookie Buckeyes. (Jalin Marshall and Tyvis Powell didn’t get drafted but made their teams.)

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But the Buckeyes have simply reloaded, announcing themselves as a favorite for the College Football Playoff a year before most had envisioned. “This was the coming of age game,” Meyer said after the game. He added later: “They’re no longer inexperienced.”

This OSU victory offered a resplendent display of the new generation of Buckeye talent. The redshirt sophomore Brown entered the game with five career catches and caught four touchdowns. (He finished with five receptions for 72 yards). Junior tailback Curtis Samuel showed flashes of why he earned comparisons to Percy Harvin, rushing for 98 yards on 11 carries, including an untouched 36-yard burst on fourth-and-1 for Ohio State’s first touchdown.

Redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett improved to 18–2 as a starter, as he put forth a virtuoso performance of efficiency, passing for 152 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 74 yards.

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The Buckeye defense entered the season as the biggest question. And Ohio State answered by not allowing a defensive touchdown for the season’s first 145 minutes. The definitive trait of this Buckeye D is team speed, as it’s difficult to quantify the manner in which Ohio State streaks to the ball and closes up ground in pass coverage.

Ohio State lost defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle for the season, and starting corner Gareon Conley left the game Saturday for what was termed “an upper body injury.” (After the game, Meyer said Conley had a stinger and that his understanding is Conley’s “going to be fine.”) But so far, there’s no reason to believe this Ohio State unit can’t be one of the country’s best defensive units.

“This one was alarming to me,” Meyer said. “I had swallowed hard a little bit thinking about who was getting on that plane coming out here, a bunch of guys who’d never played on the road.”

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2. Oklahoma is already out of playoff contention, and it could get worse

The game was delayed 90 minutes for a lightning storm that brought torrential rains and a Wizard of Oz vibe to Owen Field for a few hours. Looking back, Oklahoma fans should relish that delay for the extra time the Sooners were in contention for the College Football Playoff. One year after winning the Big 12 and reaching football’s final four, the Sooners have been eliminated with a distinct thud.

And there are issues in Norman, especially considering a 1–4 start is a realistic possibility with a game at TCU on Oct. 1 and the Red River Shootout against rival Texas on Oct. 8. Oklahoma’s pass defense is a hot mess, as Houston picked it apart on the perimeter and had no problem taking deep shots on the Sooners’ corners. We’d imagine there’ll be some uncomfortable silence between the Stoops brothers (Mike Stoops is the team’s defensive coordinator) as they perform the autopsy on this debacle, as Ohio State racked up 443 total yards.

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This 1–2 start should also serve as a wake-up call to Baker Mayfield to stop playing so much of the high-risk sandlot football that made him one of the most entertaining players in college football last year. Mayfield finished the game 17 of 32 with two interceptions. The game’s biggest play wasn’t the interception that Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker returned 68 yards for a touchdown. It came when Mayfield scrambled and made a horrible decision to throw a ball downfield that Marshon Lattimore intercepted in the second quarter. Mayfield had open receivers in the flat, but he instead went for a home-run play.

Ohio State made the Sooners pay immediately, as Barrett lobbed a 37-yard touchdown to Brown on the next play. From there, the rout was on. Among the inglorious lowlights from this game was Oklahoma allowing 35 first-half points, the most ever it’s allowed in the first half at Owen Field.

“We got our asses kicked,” Mayfield said.

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3. Buckeye D can now turn you over with the best of them

When Greg Schiano joined Ohio State as the co-defensive coordinator this winter, he realized he was inheriting a defense with elite talent. The Buckeyes finished No. 2 nationally in scoring defense last year, a statistic fitting a group with high-end talent on every level: lineman Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and cornerback Eli Apple. 

But Schiano noticed pedestrian production in forcing turnovers, as Ohio State wasn’t in the top 45 nationally in either fumbles recovered or interceptions. Something, clearly, has changed. Schiano and Luke Fickell’s defense has transformed into an elite ball-hawking unit.

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“[Schiano] brought that up to me before the season,” Meyer said. “We did so many great things on defense. But we want to be the best defense in the country. What’s missing? And we’re seeing it.” Said Schiano: “We all work at it every practice. We really talk about not only taking the ball away, but scoring with it. It’s exciting to see what they’re doing.”

The defense has forced 11 turnovers already through three games this year, four of which have been returned for touchdowns. Ohio State forced 21 turnovers in 13 games last season. The Buckeyes already have nine interceptions, only three fewer than they had all of last year.

What’s most impressive about that number is the Buckeyes have three new starters in the secondary, which appears to have forged an identity as faster and more aggressive than last year. 

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Earlier this week, Oklahoma backup quarterback Austin Kendall sparked a minor controversy when he said the Ohio State defense was “really basic.” On Saturday night, after the Buckeyes’ blowout was over, defensive end Jalyn Holmes and linebacker Raekwon McMillan trotted a homemade sign onto the field. On the bottom was Ohio State’s logo. On top, it read: “BASIC” DEFENSE.

“You are fastest when you are also confident,” Fickell said. “We’re not basic, but we’re simpler in what we do, which allows us to play really fast.”

And these young Buckeyes have emerged quicker than anyone could have expected.