Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

In the stretch run, Ohio State is running in placePurdue 26, Ohio State 23 (Overtime).
Ohio State fans are long past the "grim reality" phase that followed ugly losses to Miami and Michigan State, and I'm not sure they ever bought into the "renewed optimism" phase that followed wins over Illinois and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes have ranked last or next-to-last in the Big Ten into total offense eight weeks in a row. Realistically, whatever hopes they still had for this season were left buried in South Beach almost two months ago.

But it certainly doesn't help to have a three-game winning streak halted by a 4-5 team that lost to Rice, especially when it takes a six-year Big Ten championship streak down with it. Ohio State came in very much alive for another conference title, and got exactly what it needed in the standings with Penn State's loss to Nebraska — a result that could have put the Buckeyes in control of their own destiny in the Leaders Division with the Nittany Lions on deck. Senior starters Boom Herron and Mike Adams were back in the lineup after early suspensions. Freshman Braxton Miller took firm hold of the quarterback job at Nebraska, established himself as a legitimate weapon as a runner and led the offense to back-to-back 30-point efforts against Wisconsin and Indiana. The way the Big Ten was shaping up, this team actually had a chance.

Well, so much for that. The offense went three-and-out on five of its first six possessions, fell into a 17-7 hole and only recovered long enough for a blocked extra point at the end of regulation to foil its getaway. A Boilermaker touchdown in the second overtime session sent the Buckeyes limping off to pick up their tickets for the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Miller completed fewer than half his passes for the third time in the last four games. Twenty-three points is more than anyone has allowed to Purdue except Minnesota, Middle Tennessee and Southeast Missouri State. By any standard, it was a regression to the aimless, attrition-ravaged outfit OSU thought it had left behind in mid-October.

In mid-November, the chance to pick up steam, hit the gas and finish with a flourish from the same disappointing place is almost gone. There's Penn State next week, then the all-important finale in Ann Arbor — at this point, the only major goal left in the bizarro world that governs this season. The rivalry match also looks like the Buckeyes' only remaining chance to forge a jumping-off point for the transition to a new head coach in 2012. But even if they do go out on a high note against the Wolverines, any leaps forward will be from a standing start.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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