10 takeaways: What to make of Ohio State's shocking loss to Purdue

For the second consecutive season, Ohio State went on the road against an unranked Big Ten opponent and laid a dinosaur egg. Last year, it was a befuddling 55-24 loss at Iowa, which ultimately cost the Buckeyes a spot in the College Football Playoff.

This year, Ohio State went to Purdue and imploded in a spree of red-zone ineptitude, critical penalties and a defense that offered little more than token resistance. It wasn’t just that Purdue upset the No. 2 Buckeyes, 49-20, it was the tenor in which they did it. They pushed around Ohio State up front, out-schemed them on both sides of the ball and showed a much higher level of consistent effort.

While the loss is a shock on the scoreboard, it’s really the culmination of the vulnerabilities that Ohio State has shown to this point this season. Strip down the Buckeyes’ 7-0 record heading into this game, and they’d struggled in spots against teams — TCU, Penn State, Indiana and Minnesota — that have since proven to be far from, well, elite. Ohio State’s linebacking unit has been a sieve, they’ve lacked a competent complement to Jordan Fuller at safety and Ohio State’s lack of power on the offensive line has rendered them one-dimensional on offense.

Coming from behind, quarterback Dwayne Haskins threw the ball 73 times, a school record that will underscore the infamy of Ohio State throwing away its biggest goals this season. “The glaring shortcomings we had,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told reporters, “were exposed.”

Mathematically, Ohio State can technically still be in the College Football Playoff race if they win out and ultimately win the Big Ten. They face Michigan at home to end the season, which would be the marquee victory they currently lack. But realistically, Ohio State is trending in the wrong direction and will be an underdog in that game.

The most concerning part for Ohio State is the general lack of energy and interest they showed at times on Saturday night. They played flat and entitled and looked like a team that expected to win because they had better recruiting rankings. Meanwhile, Jeff Brohm’s team played aggressive, assertive and never relented momentum after a fake field goal set up a touchdown that put them up 14-3 at the end of the half.

Ohio State’s Urban Meyer watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. (AP)
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. (AP)

Purdue went up 21-6 after a roughing the kicker call on Davon Hamilton extended a Purdue drive after they’d punted away early in the third quarter. The Boilermakers were never really threatened from there. “We started 0-3, and we were conservative and we got our butts handed to us,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said after the game.

Along with an energy and effort issue, there’s been a talent drain on Ohio State’s back seven. Purdue stud receiver Rondale Moore highlighted it all night as he slithered through Ohio State’s second level for 12 catches and 170 yards. The Buckeyes had no match-ups or answers. “We’re on fumes out of the back seven on our defense,” Meyer said.

Last year’s game at Iowa looked more like an anomaly. This feels more like Ohio State’s reality, a team that could potentially win the Big Ten but has shown nothing to show it can compete with the highest echelon teams in college football. With the season halfway over, little empirical evidence exists that shows this Ohio State team could compete with Alabama or Clemson. Ohio State could still gather itself and win the Big Ten. But to do that, it will need to fix its back seven, find a running game and establish an urgency and energy that was clearly missing on Saturday night.

2) The backdrop of the day in the Big Ten felt apocalyptical. There was a lightning delay in East Lansing, Planet Hoth conditions in Madison and biblical winds in Bloomington. It was the kind of day that has allowed the Big Ten to brand its own genre of weather, as no league is as synonymous with bluster, cold and slog like Jim Delany’s Midwestern crew.

The dire settings met the stakes for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who needed to figure out a way to reverse his reputation for flopping in big games at Michigan. The Wolverines are 3-8 against Top 15 teams under Harbaugh and entered the game 1-6 against Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame. No. 24 Michigan State had won eight of ten in this series entering Saturday, a run of domination that’s defined Mark Dantonio’s remarkable run in East Lansing.

Throughout the chippy pregame, cold spits of rain and an interminable plod of pace thanks to a lightning delay, Michigan steamrolled Michigan State, 21-7, to firmly establish itself as the best team in the Big Ten. They’d likely be a touchdown favorite at Ohio State to end the season the way each team has looked so far this season. Lock this in as the most important victory in Harbaugh’s four seasons in Ann Arbor, as a loss would have put the program back in the spin-cycle of big-game futility.

Led by the suffocating defense of coordinator Don Brown, Michigan held the Spartans to 94 total yards, .7 yards per carry and 0-for-12 on third downs. That was Michigan State’s lowest total since 1947.
Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke revealed after the game, according to MLive.com, that he played with an injured shoulder that impacted his accuracy. That may have explained his gruesome line — 5-for-25 for 66 yards, which according to ESPN was the lowest completion percentage by a Big Ten quarterback in the past 20 seasons with a minimum of 20 attempts.

Harbaugh’s first three seasons had been largely a tease at Michigan. They’ve handled business against most inferior opponents, won a majority of the games they were supposed to and then consistently flinched when the spotlight got brightest. Will today mark a pivot from that reputation? Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson has changed the paradigm of Michigan’s offense from dysfunctional to solid, as the Wolverines entered Saturday improved by more than 100 spots – No. 115 (32 percent) to No. 13 (49 percent) – in third-down conversions. Patterson’s legs have helped there, as he showed particular deftness in pulling the ball on zone reads on Saturday. (He finished Saturday 12-for-25 for 212 yards and two touchdowns.)

It’s premature to coronate the Wolverines, but this is clearly their best chance to win the Big Ten since they imploded in Columbus two years ago and lost in double overtime. The brooding backdrop today did not portend another bitter loss in a big game for Harbaugh. It continued the program’s searing momentum forward since losing at Notre Dame to open the season.

3) Michigan may be drastically improved on the field, but it still remains one of college football’s most consistent drama majors. Harbaugh and Dantonio traded barbs that will be repeated in cubicles, bar rooms and country clubs nearly daily in Michigan for the next year.

Harbaugh called Michigan State’s pregame walk through the field with arms linked “total bush league” and accused Dantonio of being “five yards behind it all smiling.” Dantonio, with a grim look on his face, called Harbaugh’s comments, “B.S.”

Harbaugh’s observations were second-hand, and he appeared to be attempting to rub in the loss more than being outraged by what happened. (He said one player got clotheslined and another got his headphones knocked off.) Michigan’s Devin Bush went viral by defacing the Spartan logo by digging his cleats into the dirt, a move that would have made Earl Weaver proud. In response to Michigan State’s pre-game arm-linked walk-through, Bush cleaved out large chunks of dirt as payback. His actions made Harbaugh’s description of MSU pregame — “bush league” — an accurate pun of his own star player’s behavior.

The smack talk didn’t end there. Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich revived former Wolverine star Mike Hart’s “little-brother” trope. (Which, considering the recent lopsided results in this series sense, is non-sensical.) “This one [was] for our season,” Winovich said to Fox postgame. “We knew that they couldn’t hang with us. We did what we had to do. Sometimes your little brother starts acting up, and you just gotta put him in place.”

This game will put a lot more vitriol in place for future meetings, as Harbaugh hasn’t lost his knack to draw attention.

Michigan defensive lineman Lawrence Marshall (93), linebacker Devin Bush and head coach Jim Harbaugh walk off the field with the Paul Bunyan trophy after Michigan won 21-7. (AP)
Michigan defensive lineman Lawrence Marshall (93), linebacker Devin Bush and head coach Jim Harbaugh walk off the field with the Paul Bunyan trophy after Michigan won 21-7. (AP)

4) For the first time in his experience with the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry, Butch Jones was on the cigar-smoking side.

Tradition calls for the winning team in the annual Third Saturday in October rivalry to celebrate with cigars. And Jones, who had his teeth kicked in all five years he was the coach of the Volunteers against the Crimson Tide, finally wound up with a postgame stogie after a 58-21 ‘Bama rout. The first-year Alabama analyst also got a late-game Gatorade bath on the sideline, courtesy of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and running back Damien Harris.

“Good to see Butch get dumped on,” head coach Nick Saban said with a smile.

“Oh, it was awesome,” Tagovailoa said. “This whole week, we were talking about Butch being able to smoke a cigar finally.”

Jones went 0-5 against Alabama, three of them lopsided blowouts and only one game truly close — a 19-14 contest in 2015. He was fired last year and replaced by Jeremy Pruitt, who formerly was Saban’s defensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa.

For Tennessee fans, watching Jones celebrate was embarrassment on top of insult on top of injury. Not only was this a 12th straight Alabama win, the most consecutive losses the Volunteers have ever suffered against one program. Not only was the Tide’s 58 points the most ever scored on the Vols at home. But Jones is still being paid by Tennessee through 2021, and he just helped UT’s hated nemesis beat his former program.

This was a very foreseeable beatdown, but at least one Tennessee fan didn’t handle the 42-14 halftime deficit very well. He threw a cup of ice at Saban as he exited the field after the first half and was escorted out by police.

“The ice doesn’t bother me at all,” Saban said. “I’d rather have somebody upset when we’re playing on the road than happy about their circumstance. Because that means our circumstance wouldn’t be very good.”

5) Next week is a bit of a dead week in college football. The only games between teams that project to be ranked in the next poll are No. 11 Florida playing No. 8 Georgia on a neutral field and No. 19 Iowa playing at No. 18 Penn State. In theory, both Florida and Georgia are still mathematically in the national title race. But it would be a stretch to say that the game will reverberate strongly in the title race.

The game to circle on your calendars? That would be No. 1 Alabama’s trip to No. 5 LSU in two weeks. The Nov. 3 meeting in Baton Rouge will be arguably the biggest game of the college football regular season, reminiscent of the match-ups between the Tide and Tigers earlier this decade when Les Miles had “quality” teams to face the Tide.

With both teams heading into a bye before the game, there are already a few storylines to lock in on. The first is that this game resonates so loudly because it may be Alabama’s only true test before the College Football Playoff. Alabama’s games with Mississippi State and Auburn, both at home, appeared much more difficult before the season began. No one in the SEC East would be within a double-digit point spread of Alabama in the title game.

The other storyline will be that LSU is playing the first half of that Alabama game without star linebacker Devin White. He got called for targeting against Mississippi State and ejected. The ejection is not subject to appeal, despite the call not appearing to be a classic targeting call as he appeared to lead with his forearms as opposed to his head. White is LSU’s best linebacker and perhaps the best at that position in college football, as he’s projected as a top-10 NFL pick. (Think a 2018 version of Georgia’s Roquan Smith.)

It will be a huge loss for the team that appears best-suited, in terms of personnel, to slow down Tua Tagovailoa and Alabama’s juggernaut offense.

6) Pac-12 officiating has been in the thicket of the news lately. The “third-party” interference on a targeting call by a Pac-12 executive, revealed by Yahoo Sports two weeks ago, led to replay procedure changes. On Friday night, Yahoo Sports published Mike Leach’s text messages that cast doubt on the integrity of the league’s officials. Both have drawn severe scrutiny to the league’s procedures and decisions.

This puts the Pac-12’s beleaguered officiating group in an interesting position when reviewing the comments of Arizona State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales.

In the wake of Arizona State’s home loss to Stanford, Gonzales took umbrage with the Pac-12 officials: “I’m probably going to get in trouble, but that’s as unfair a football game as I’ve ever been a part of,” he said, according to AZcentral. He went on to criticize pass-interference penalties against the Sun Devils that keyed touchdown drives. Gonzales’ defense held Stanford All-American Bryce Love to 21 yards, but ASU lost in part because of drives extended on pass interference.

(Independent NBC officiating expert Terry McAulay didn’t give much credence to Gonzales’ criticism, as he said on Twitter “he should watch the video before making foolish [statements] like this.)

The Pac-12 has a rule against public commenting on officiating. All eyes on the league if they’ll fine or reprimand Gonzales.

7) Louisville was off this week, but their fans had plenty to cheer for. The Cardinals have been the biggest flop in college football this season, as they’re 2-5, 0-4 in the ACC and generally have lost that most precious of commodities in college football — hope.

There were plenty of Louisville fans rooting for one of their most famous graduates, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, on Saturday night as he pulled off the biggest win of his career. It’s the worst-kept secret in college football that Louisville will target Brohm if it decides to part ways with coach Bobby Petrino. It would cost Louisville in the neighborhood of $14 million to fire Petrino, a lot of money for a school that’s gone through expensive transitions of basketball coaches and athletic director in the past year.

If anyone were to hire Brohm after Dec. 5, it would cost $3 million. After Purdue started the season 0-3, including a loss to Eastern Michigan, the notion of hiring him may have been a bit awkward. But as Purdue sits at 4-3 after consecutive blowouts of then-No. 23 Boston College, Nebraska, Illinois and No. 2 Ohio State, Brohm may be the hottest coach in the whole country.

He even managed to pull at America’s heartstrings as he was eviscerating Ohio State. ESPN deftly told the story of a young Purdue fan, Tyler Trent, who is suffering from bone cancer. Purdue’s captains visited him and presented with a game ball after the Nebraska win, and he watched the game from a suite. In his postgame interview, Brohm said: “We love you Tyler. Thank you for being you. Thank you for being a Boilermaker.”

8) The missed targeting call on USC’s Porter Gustin keeps coming up for Washington State. Consider this: After Washington State mauled Oregon, 34-20, in Pullman on Saturday night, it’s safe to say the Cougars are one bad call from being in the thicket of the playoff case. Washington State’s only loss came at USC, 39-36, and if officials had flagged Gustin for targeting, Washington State would have had the ball on the USC 10-yard line with nearly two minutes remaining. Instead, they had a field goal blocked and endured their only loss of the season.

The Cougars’ authoritative victory shows that they’re a favorite to win the Pac-12, as they improve to 6-1, 3-1 in the conference and will carry the lingering feeling of what-could-have-been had that night in Los Angeles played out differently.

The dominant victory played out on a surreal day in Pullman, where ESPN’s “GameDay” visited for the first time and the entire scene during the game felt like a four-hour last call at a nightclub. (A nightclub far from Pullman). Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew continued the 2018 seasons’ most impossible ascension, as he’s gone from a mediocre quarterback at East Carolina to an All-American candidate – outdueling potential No. 1 pick Justin Herbert on Saturday. Minshew finished with four touchdown passes and 323 yards.

9) The one person most grateful that the Pac-12 officials missed that call on Gustin is USC’s Clay Helton. Utah blew out USC, 41-28, running off 34 consecutive points at one juncture. USC’s last realistic goal of the season was surviving to win the Pac-12 South, which has been one of the worst divisions in all of college football this season.

The loss puts USC behind Utah in the Pac-12 South, and leaves the Trojans scrambling to remain relevant.

Even worse for USC, the prodigy quarterback expected to help save the Trojan program has hit a slump. Freshman J.T. Daniels finished the game 6-for-16 passing with two interceptions. After the game, USC coach Clay Helton told reporters that he wasn’t sure what the quarterback situation would be next week. Sophomore Matt Fink completed 6-of-7 passes in the fourth quarter for 43 yards and a touchdown.

With USC 4-3 and 3-2 in Pac-12 play, the Trojans have a manageable stretch of four games — Arizona State, at Oregon State, Cal and at UCLA — where they should be favored in all of them. They close the season against Notre Dame, which could be for the Irish to clinch a playoff bid.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Helton needs to change the momentum of the program or the conversation around USC will continue to be whether they can afford his buyout. (It’s believed to be somewhere well over $15 million.)

10) Old Dominion is officially the most exciting two-win team in college football. ODU (2-6) has pulled off two of the season’s most indelible victories. They stunned then-No. 10 Virginia Tech earlier in the season, 49-35, a game that’s still considered the biggest upset of the college football season.

But for sheer entertainment value, they may have topped that on Saturday night. Old Dominion scored 18 points in the game’s final 5:40 to beat Western Kentucky, 37-34. They won after penalties allowed three field goals to be attempted – two by WKU and one by ODU – with no time remaining.

With the game already extended because of a penalty on a missed 57-yard field goal, WKU lined up for a 52-yard field goal. ODU channeled Auburn from the famous Kick Six game. But there was a twist, as Isaiah Harper only returned the field goal 83 yards. But a face-mask penalty on WKU extended the game, as a game can’t end on a defensive penalty. That allowed ODU’s Nick Rice to kick a 26-yard field goal with the clock still at 0:00. The loss drops Western Kentucky to 1-6.

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