Despite struggles, Buckeyes still in prime playoff position

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Penn State cornerback Grant Haley (15) recovers a blocked field goal and returns it for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Ohio State on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. Penn State won, 24-21. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)

By Dan Escalona, Columnist

By all accounts, it’s been a great year for sports in Ohio.

In June, the Cavaliers made the improbable comeback down 3-1 to the 73-win Warriors, bringing home Cleveland’s first-ever NBA title.

That championship mystique carried over to the Indians — just one victory away from the team’s first World Series championship since 1948 (yes, Chicago, the Cubs are still alive).

Through the middle of October, Ohio’s de facto professional football team, the Buckeyes (apologies to the Cleveland Browns),  also seemed to be inhaling the intoxicating championship aroma carrying over from Cleveland.

But, beginning on Oct. 22, that Cleveland championship mojo began to fade away from the Buckeyes.

While much of the sport world’s attention on that Saturday night was focused on the Cubs clinching their first trip to the World Series since 1945, Ohio State faltered against Penn State, blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. It was an upset punctuated by Penn State returning a blocked punt for a touchdown to ultimately seal the victory.

In one swift stroke, Ohio State’s College Football Playoff chances took a major uppercut.

The Buckeyes playoff chances took a further hit as Ohio State struggled in a close victory over an average Northwestern team.

Considering Michigan’s continued dominance, it’s easy to assume that Ohio State’s is fading fast.

This may be an easy assumption to make if one were beholden to conventional college football logic that suggests we overreact to one bad loss and another subpar performance.

Yes, Ohio State had been dominant in its first five games of the season, outscoring opponents by 212 points, which included a major victory over a potential playoff contender in Oklahoma.

Even the last three games when Ohio State was not nearly as invincible as it looked in early October, they nonetheless proved their championship contender status.

The Buckeyes’ come-from-behind victory on the road in Madison against the Badgers on Oct. 15 was a perfect example of that. Though not pretty, that victory gave the indication that Urban Meyer’s young, inexperienced squad could survive a difficult matchup on the road against an elite defense.

Ohio State’s loss in another road game against Penn State, while clearly a bad loss, should still not be enough to doubt its status as a national title challenger.

In the game against the Nittany Lions, Ohio State for the most part outplayed them. The Buckeyes out-gained Penn State 413 to 276 yards, had zero turnovers and had 15 more minutes of possession time. It was only eight penalties (compared to Penn State’s one) and one special team’s mistake that ruined Ohio State’s undefeated season.

Most recently on Saturday against Northwestern, the Buckeyes avoided further disaster by sneaking past the Wildcats. Even so, Ohio State didn’t look all that bad as they outperformed Northwestern and had zero turnovers for the second consecutive week.

None of this is to say that Ohio State can’t improve their performance. The team has plenty of room for improvement, especially in getting better production in the passing game where they rank 77th in the nation (although, to be fair, Michigan only ranks 72nd in passing offense).

With already stingy defense and an explosive ground attack, Ohio State is not all that far away from being the second best team in the nation once again, especially if J.T. Barrett can recover after the passing attack.

It also benefits Ohio State that they not only control their own destiny but that they host their two toughest remaining games on the schedule against Nebraska this coming weekend and against Michigan in the season finale.

Following two weeks where the Buckeyes certainly did not look like a top-10 team, it was easy to overreact and assume that Ohio State’s playoff chances were closing quickly.

Yet, they are still one of the most complete teams in the nation and are led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in Barrett.

For these reasons, don’t be surprised to see Ohio State bounce back in a powerful way against Nebraska.

If not, then Ohio State’s struggles were not merely overreactions.

Still, expect the Ohio championship vibe to inspire the Buckeyes take that initial season charge into the College Football Playoff.

Dan is a graduate student in Media.

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@danescalona77

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