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Ohio State's Offense Is Hitting High Gear Just in Time for a Critical Stretch

After thrashing Nebraska, the Buckeyes will take the Big Ten's most explosive offense into their next game against the defending conference champs.

When Ohio State took a 35–0 lead into halftime of its eventual 56–14 win over Nebraska, it marked the third consecutive Big Ten game in which the Buckeyes led by more than 30 points through two quarters. By the time they were done racking up 633 yards of total offense—their fourth consecutive game of more than 50 points and 580 yards—they seemed to leave little doubt as to who the most explosive team in the Big Ten is.

Under the direction of new coordinator Kevin Wilson, the Buckeyes’ offense seems like a completely different unit from a year ago—even from a month ago, when the growing pains proved too much to overcome in Week 2’s 31–16 loss to Oklahoma—and it may be an X-factor unit in what is set up to be a tight Big Ten stretch run.

This time last year, Ohio State was undefeated, and it’s offense looked just fine, putting up big-time points against Rutgers and Bowling Green and turning in sufficiently productive performances against Indiana, Oklahoma, Tulsa and Wisconsin. Everything changed in Week 8, when the Buckeyes lost to Penn State, 24–21; then over their final three games of the year, they averaged just 285 yards of total offense against Michigan State, Michigan and Clemson. The passing game was especially lacking; quarterback J.T. Barrett averaged just 192.6 yards per game from Week 8 onward, and the low point of his season came when he finished with just 86 yards against a bad Spartans team on Nov. 19. Although the Buckeyes finished the regular season with just one loss, their College Football Playoff semifinal shutout at the hands of Clemson exposed major problems and sparked offseason changes

Saturday’s romp in Lincoln—Ohio State’s final game before Penn State’s return visit to Columbus in two weeks, which will have major Big Ten East implications—solidified the fact that those issues have been erased. Going into the game, Ohio State led the Big Ten in rushing yards, passing yards, yards per play and yards per game, and those rankings will hold heading into the bye week. Barrett was relieved in the fourth quarter against the Cornhuskers, but not before he threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns, completing 81.8% of his passes. It may be the best game by a quarterback this season, in fact; only Barrett and UCLA’s Josh Rosen have posted games in which they’ve completed more than 80% of their passes and thrown for five touchdowns. And since finishing with 183 yards and an interception in the loss to Oklahoma, Barrett has thrown 18 touchdown passes in the Buckeyes’ four-game winning streak without a single turnover.

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He will need to continue that efficiency against Penn State in two weeks, when Ohio State will likely be playing for the division. Apart from Oklahoma, the first half of the Buckeyes’ schedule didn’t feature many quality opponents, and down the stretch they’ll face Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan (and Illinois, although it seems appropriate to include the Illini as merely a parenthetical) after the showdown with the Nittany Lions. This is when Ohio State’s season will be decided, and the timing couldn’t be working out better with Wilson’s system taking hold. Sure, it might have been optimal to play Oklahoma now rather than in Week 2, but in the end, a loss to a nonconference playoff contender will ultimately play only a small factor in the playoff committee’s decision should the Buckeyes run the table. And with an offense like this one, it’s entirely possible Ohio State will leave that committee with a decision to make.