COLUMBUS — The cold breath of autumn arrived in the Midwest, and it was time for Ohio State to answer the questions that had been asked all year.
Were the Buckeyes a bona fide title contender capable of beating the country’s best teams? Or were they a deeply vulnerable power, ready to fizzle out at any moment?
In seven days’ time, Ohio State improbably answered yes to both questions.
A thrilling 39-38 victory against then-No. 2 Penn State gave way to a ruinous 55-24 loss at Iowa as a 20-point favorite, which, even by college football standards, was a remarkable fall from the top. Ohio State’s mercurial existence in 2017 has seen the Buckeyes look virtually unbeatable in wins and totally despondent in losses.
They’re now the only team in school history to beat a top-five opponent and lose by more than 30 points to an unranked opponent in the same season.
To find anything close, one has to travel to 1964, when the Buckeyes crushed No. 2 Illinois 26-0 that October, briefly rose to No. 1, then began November with a 27-0 loss to a Penn State team with a losing record.
Since coach Urban Meyer arrived at Ohio State before the 2012 season, Ohio State has signed the best recruiting class in the Big Ten six times in a row, and it’s on pace for seven. During that time span, Iowa has signed exactly one five-star recruit; the Buckeyes inked five such players in their 2016 class alone.
Victory against a national power one week, run off the field by a middling Big Ten team the next.
“There are going to be ups and downs,” linebacker Chris Worley said. “That just might be the lowest of the lows right there.”
“It was tough. It was hard to watch,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said.
“Coming off that loss, it was just a shocking feeling for everybody,” receiver Parris Campbell said.
The loss to Iowa had OSU reeling, not only because the Buckeyes lost, but the way in which it happened.
Ohio State’s defense was eviscerated just a week after shutting down Penn State’s top-tier offense in the second half, and penalties continued to be an issue. Their quarterback, J.T. Barrett, who had thrown one interception in the first eight games, threw four in one afternoon.
“It’s too easy to say it’s just a bad day,” Meyer said. “You have to dig and peel back the onion and say, ‘OK, now why was it a bad day?’”
Even after nine games, it’s natural to wonder who, exactly, this Ohio State team is. The Buckeyes faltered against Oklahoma, then crushed their way to a five-game winning streak. They played a poor first half against Penn State, but erased it and won.
They scored with Iowa for the first 20 minutes, but then fell off the face of the Earth. Their adjustments did little to change the game, and they sat idly by as their season sustained a major blow.
“When you really look, no matter how long you do it, it’s an incredibly hard thing to swallow and to get over,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said.
Unfamiliar November territory awaits. Every year under Meyer, the Buckeyes were still playing with the hope of winning a national championship at this point of the season.
Now that a College Football Playoff trip is highly improbable, Ohio State still has its focus set on winning the Big Ten, which remains well within reach, beginning with a key East Division game against No. 13 Michigan State this week.
The Buckeyes’ devastation in Iowa City was palpable, yet meaningful games still await.
In this maddeningly hot-and-cold season for Ohio State, the final stretch of the season will answer which side of the Buckeyes won out.
Meyer has had teams in the past that played their best football after crushing losses. Whether this OSU team can do the same, he said, remains to be seen.
“It depends on the team. It depends on the leadership, it depends on how the assistant coaches and the head coach handle their business, but yeah, there’s a psychological advantage if the team has that anger,” Meyer said.
“We’ll know more about our team as we continue on our journey.”