Ohio State's 40-20 victory over Buffalo to open the season Saturday looked for about 15 minutes like it was going to be the blowout that was predicted. Braxton Miller was the sharper passer people hoped he would be. Dontre Wilson was the open-field dynamo as was foretold. Jordan Hall lived up to the hype that has been building seemingly since last spring, and veteran receivers Devin Smith and Chris Fields got in on the act, too, hinting Miller should have more help this season.
The young defense allowed the Bulls to move with some consistency by attacking the edges in the passing game, but they had no points and only 63 total yards to show for their six first downs when the first quarter came to an end.
Then a funny thing happen – warts began to show on the Buckeyes. The offense turned the ball over twice in the second quarter, and Buffalo turned both into touchdowns to make it a game. The defense forced two punts after the Bulls scored, but then the Silver Bullets allowed a pair of long drives to start the third quarter. The offensive line expected to be a strength sprung a couple of leaks, and Wilson put the ball on the turf while trying to make a move near midfield.
Of course the more talented Buckeyes prevailed comfortably when all was said and done, but we were still left to wonder what had happened to let them lose their grip on the game. (It's football, so we necessarily get a week to overthink things. It's part of the experience!) Well, a few things. First of all, the Buffalo defender who was in the middle of much of the havoc that threw the Buckeyes off their rhythm happens to be a very good player. A known quantity coming into the game, Khalil Mack had nine tackles, including 2.5 sacks, and seems to come from the mold of MAC defensive playmakers that also includes James Harrison and Jason Taylor. Physical and fast, he is tough and relentless as well. Miller and head coach Urban Meyer were among those to tip their caps to him when it was over, and that was well-deserved.
I suppose it also comes as no surprise the 6-3, 248-pounder did a lot of his damage against the new starter on the offensive line. Taylor Decker, a 6-7, 315-pound sophomore of whom much is expected, had a rough afternoon dealing with Mack, who both went through him and around him on separate occasions. But Mack was an equal opportunity block-beater, eluding a cut attempt by left tackle Jack Mewhort to free himself to intercept a screen pass and jamming left guard Andrew Norwell (a big, powerful young man) into the backfield on another play that looked (Mack was called for illegal use of the hands on that play, of course, for getting too high on Norwell, but I don't think that took much away from how impressive the play was.) like it could be another turnover.
Talented youngsters like Decker and Wilson (who later redeemed himself with an electrifying kickoff return that set up a touchdown run by Hall) will have better days, it seems certain, but their miscues serve as a reminder of how fragile college football games can be.
What we can expect to learn this week: All in all, getting the hair tousled a big might not turn out to be such a bad thing. No one was noticeably down about the outcome in the post-game interview room, nor should they be. It remains to be seen how good Buffalo will be – not much is expected – but that doesn't matter a whole lot.
This week's upcoming opponent, San Diego State, is coming off a nine-win season and is expected to have another solid campaign, but the Aztecs were humbled at home 40-19 by Eastern Illinois, a member of the FCS.
SDSU led 19-16 at the half but was outscored 21-3 in the second half. EIU gained 533 total yards against a veteran defense that is expected to be good this season, which goes to show every Saturday can have a surprise in store when it comes to college football.
Ohio State might end up being better served to have seen some struggles in the first game. This season figures to have as many mental hurdles as it does physical ones, and I could easily see the first one rising when the first three touchdowns of the season came so easily last Saturday.
Young and confident is a good thing to be, but there is a fine line between that and getting dangerously cocky. There are days only hard work will do the job, and that can only be learned by experience. Many high-flying teams crumble at the first sign of adversity, but Ohio State found a way to keep moving the ball offensively even if it wasn't pretty or quite consistent.
Considering seven of Buffalo's points came on Mack's interception return for a touchdown, the OSU defense ended up with pretty solid numbers. Allowing 14 points and 258 yards every week will win a lot of football games, and that was with the team's best cornerback suspended and its top linebacker slowed by cramps.
So, all in all, the first game of the 2013 season goes down as a positive learning experience that included enough of a point cushion to prevent much scrutiny from the outside yet small enough to work as a motivational tool for coaches bent on providing the type of perfection fans so fervently demand.
On to the next one…
Big Ten thoughts: Michigan got off to a nice start, but we'll learn more about the Wolverines this week against Notre Dame (and more about the Fighting Irish, for that matter)… Michigan State's offense had a very discouraging showing, but I am still bullish on them. The defense remained sharp… Nebraska picks up right where it left off on both sides of the ball, eh? The evolution of the Cornhusker defense and/or the Michigan State offense are two crucial elements of this season if the Big Ten wants to gain back some national respect… For Indiana I think it was important not only to win but win big, especially considering it was a lesser opponent that has given the Hoosiers problems in recent years. Confidence figures to be a big factor for them if they want to make a bowl, which I believe is possible… I saw more than one person say, "Minnesota won, but they didn't look good." You realize it's Minnesota, right? I guess I missed where the Golden Gophers received all that love in the preseason polls. A win is a win – especially by more than two touchdowns… Wisconsin thumped a patsy in September. Ho hum… Good win for Northwestern, especially with a big weapon sidelined in Kain Colter. I'm not entirely sure how big the rebuilding process is for Sonny Dykes at Cal, but the Wildcats can't take any road game against a BCS opponent for granted… Penn State has to be encouraged by a victory away from home to start the season with a true freshman quarterback leading the way. I could see the Nittany Lions evolving into a team that wins games with a ball-control passing game as roster limits begin to take effect in the next couple of seasons (Joe Tiller-era Purdue?), making it tougher to field a really talented defense… Iowa did not do much to hurt my prediction of 2-10 for Kirk Ferentz's squad… Purdue, meanwhile, did shake my confidence in its ability to have a solid first season under Darrell Hazell. Only one game and Cincinnati should be a solid squad, though… Illinois is apparently still in the Big Ten and did not lose.