College football’s newest tradition is Ohio State roaring up the rankings and then getting stomped by at least four scores.
Last year the Buckeyes were throttled 55-24 at Iowa, a 31-point whupping delivered by a genteel Hawkeyes program that went on to finish 4-5 in Big Ten play. On Saturday Ohio State was steamrolled 49-20 by Purdue, a team that opened this fall with losses to Northwestern, Eastern Michigan, and Missouri (combined 2018 record: 12-10) before winning its last four games. The Buckeyes entered this weekend at no. 2 in the AP poll, undefeated with an average margin of victory of 27 points. Then they lost by 29 to Purdue.
Man, first Drew Brees sets the all-time NFL passing yards record, then somebody makes a movie about Neil Armstrong, and now this. What a month for Purdue. (Fun fact: The longest any Purdue graduate has ever gone without mentioning Neil Armstrong in conversation is 47 seconds, a mark set by Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson while arguing with a referee in a 1997 Bucks-Pistons game. I cannot comment as to whether Robinson mentioned Purdue’s big drum.)
Dating back to the 2016 College Football Playoff, Ohio State is now 24-4 in its last 28 games ... with all four losses coming by at least two touchdowns, and three of them coming by about 30 points. When the Buckeyes lose, they get absolutely smoked. Do the Buckeyes just forget that they have to play in certain games? When Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told investigators in August that he has “significant memory issues,” maybe what he meant was that he sometimes forgets how to do every part of his job.
Last year’s loss to Iowa was largely the product of turnovers. Then-Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett uncorked a pick-six on the first play from scrimmage and tacked on three more interceptions by the game’s end. But Saturday’s rout wasn’t the result of a handful of bad plays. The Buckeyes didn’t turn the ball over until they were already down by 22 points with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. They just got hit by a big Purdue freight train, like an unfortunate Red Dead Redemption horse. The Boilermakers outgained them by about 2 yards per play. Time and again, the Buckeyes failed to tackle Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore, who finished the contest with 12 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns.
Moore is a 5-foot-9 true freshman who can squat 600 pounds. If you’re not into weightlifting, that’s enough to change the course of an entire college football season with your thighs.
In the long term, the biggest upshot of Purdue’s rout is that it serves as America’s formal introduction to Boilermakers second-year head coach Jeff Brohm. (Well, I guess the second introduction; the first came in 2001, when Brohm provided the greatest, most pro-wrestling moment in the extremely brief history of the XFL.) Brohm is an offensive whiz who attacks every part of the field and believes the flea flicker should be a regular part of teams’ offensive game plans. In his first head-coaching stint, at Western Kentucky, he helped the Hilltoppers churn out the most efficient offense in the FBS. Two years after his departure to Purdue, WKU ranks 100th nationally in yards per play, while Purdue has vaulted from 108th to 10th in the statistic. It’s easy to envision a world in which Brohm is the head coach at his alma mater Louisville next fall (Bobby Petrino’s act has worn thin without Lamar Jackson), and it’s just as easy to see some of the biggest powers in the sport—or maybe even some NFL teams—wanting a piece of his schemes.
In the short term, the upshot of this result is that we’ve officially reached the chaotic part of the college football calendar. It’s not really college football season until there’s a chill in the air and thousands of students rush a field to celebrate a potential playoff team’s sadness. In 2016, Penn State stunned the Buckeyes in State College after blocking a field goal and taking it back for a touchdown; in 2017, Syracuse downed Clemson in the Carrier Dome after Eric Dungey picked apart a defense full of future NFL draft picks. And now we have Purdue’s strobe light field storm.
Ohio State’s national championship dreams are not dead. You don’t get eliminated from the College Football Playoff picture with one loss, as none of the four editions of the event thus far have been comprised entirely of undefeated teams. But two things stand in the Buckeyes’ path. The first is a relatively tough schedule ahead. The Game—capital G—against Michigan on November 24 has turned into a de facto playoff elimination matchup, as both teams now have a loss and neither would likely be able to crack the four-team field with two (or more) defeats.
The second is that not all losses are created equal. For example: If Michigan were to win every game from here on out, its sole blemish would be the 24-17 Week 1 final at Notre Dame, a team that is currently 7-0. A 12-1 Wolverines squad would almost certainly make the playoff. A 12-1 Ohio State group, on the other hand, would still have lost by 29 points to Purdue.
By 29 points.
Ohio State fans have been quick to point out that the Buckeyes have been more aggressive than just about any other elite program in terms of nonconference scheduling. In Buckeye eyes, this makes the team’s résumé more deserving than those of programs that choose to tread lightly during September. But if Ohio State football has proved anything over the past two years, it’s that a strong nonconference schedule doesn’t make up for getting wrecked in league play—and nobody should count on rolling through its conference slate undefeated, no matter how easy it may seem. Since the playoff committee is made up of humans, it could easily pore over Ohio State’s résumé and say, “Hey, these guys lost by 29 to Purdue! Did you know Neil Armstrong went there? Neat! Also, that seems like the worst loss of any of the teams we’re considering. Let’s put [INSERT X TEAM HERE] in instead!”
It always seems like the defining parts of a college football season are the big games, the showdowns we talk about for weeks and months and years in advance. But the real joys of the sport come when the world-beaters lose to the randos. This is the second straight year in which Ohio State has been dismantled by somebody we’d never expect, forcing the Buckeyes to quietly shuffle toward the locker room while the opposing student body pours onto a field to throw a wild party in a town of 50,000 surrounded by miles of corn. Some people might not remember that these games are on the schedule, but they can set the stage for the moments we’ll never forget.