Urban Meyer, who is 77–9 since becoming Ohio State’s head coach in 2012, isn’t used to defeat. But recently his Buckeyes teams have adopted an unbecoming trend: When they do lose, it’s in blowout fashion.
Start with the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson at the end of the 2016 season, when the Tigers pounded the Buckeyes, 31–0. Then last year, a Baker Mayfield-led Oklahoma team visited Columbus and found another gear in the fourth quarter to beat Ohio State 31–16, the future No. 1 NFL draft pick putting an exclamation mark on the win by planting an OU flag at midfield. Several weeks later, after regaining control of its season and closing in on a Big Ten title, Ohio State went to Kinnick Stadium and was clobbered by unranked Iowa, 55–24, a result that loomed large when Alabama edged out the Buckeyes in the eyes of the selection committee.
This season Ohio State seemed poised for a painless path to the playoff—even after suspending Meyer for the first three games of the season for his handling of domestic violence allegations involving former receivers coach Zach Smith. The Buckeyes outgunned a dangerous TCU offense in Arlington and then survived a last-second thriller at Penn State, seemingly clearing the path for an all-or-nothing game against Michigan for the division crown at season's end. Then Purdue walloped Ohio State in primetime on Saturday 49–20, pulling off undoubtedly the biggest upset of the year.
Meyer said he was surprised by his team’s performance and that the “glaring shortcomings we have were exposed.” He and his players told reporters that they’d seen flaws in previous games, but there was nothing in the week leading up to this game that would indicate they’d lose by four touchdowns. Players said they’d had their best week of practice.
The disparity in quarterback play at the heart of the Clemson, Oklahoma and Iowa humiliations isn’t the reason the Buckeyes were humiliated by Purdue. Against Clemson in the playoff two years ago, Ohio State converted just 3 of 14 third downs and finished with just 215 yards of total offense, with quarterback J.T. Barrett throwing two interceptions. Deshaun Watson would lead the Tigers to a national title a few days later. The next year against Oklahoma, Mayfield diced up the Ohio State defense for nearly 400 yards passing with three touchdowns and kept plays alive with his legs, while Barrett threw a critical fourth-quarter interception. And then against Iowa, Barrett threw four interceptions.
That was not the central issue in West Lafayette. Boilermakers QB David Blough finished 25 of 43 for 378 yards and three touchdowns, but Dwayne Haskins had an eye-popping night in response, attempting a whopping 73 passes and completing 49 of them for 470 yards (setting the school record in all three categories) with two touchdowns and an interception. Eleven different receivers caught balls. But those numbers point to a one-dimensional Ohio State offense that struggled to get the running game going. J.K. Dobbins, Mike Weber and Haskins combined to run for 76 yards on 25 carries—that’s just over three yards per rush. The Buckeyes' longest run was for 11 yards.
Meyer listed out reasons for the lopsided outcome.
“Number one, off the top, is our red zone offense,” Meyer said. “We go down there a few times, two field goals and one missed field goal. We’ve never had this issue. We’re going to get a real thorough evaluation of that. And then the big plays on defense.”
Ohio State gave up five plays of 20 yards or more on Saturday, including touchdown runs of 42 and 40 yards and a 43-yard touchdown reception, those scores part of Purdue's 28-point fourth quarter. The Buckeyes also committed 10 penalties for 86 yards—but that isn’t even the most they’ve had all year. Ohio State is one of the most penalized teams in the country, ranking 119 out of 130 FBS teams through eight weeks with 8.3 per game.
Outside of Alabama, Ohio State appeared to enter the season with the deepest roster in the country. Even with potential No. 1 draft pick Nick Bosa leaving school early to focus on the NFL, this team seemed more talented than any opponent it would face in the regular season. So what gives? It’s not like the Buckeyes are losing games by last-second field goals. Why is this team prone to unprepared, undisciplined football, to the point where ESPN analyst and former OSU quarterback Kirk Herbstreit dressed Ohio State down for its shortcomings as its fourth-quarter implosion hit rock bottom on Saturday? It’s a question that Meyer must figure out before his team plays Michigan State and Michigan, and potentially Alabama or Clemson after that.
Because yes, Ohio State still has a chance to make the playoff. Three Power 5 conferences—the Pac 12, the Big 12 and now the Big Ten—are guaranteed to have a champion with at least one loss on its record. And with five weeks remaining, there’s plenty of time for upsets to potentially affect the ACC and SEC races or Notre Dame’s candidacy. The Purdue loss will be a mark on Ohio State’s record, but if it wins out and claims the Big Ten title, the four-team field will be back within reach.
If the Buckeyes do play their way back into the playoff conversation, it will only make it more confounding why they showed so little resolve in West Lafayette.