Columbus, Ohio — Virginia Tech beat Ohio State on Saturday night at the game the Buckeyes want to play. The aggressor wore white, and the spoils were a 35-21 victory and greater national respect.
According to the oddsmakers, the Hokies’ win qualified as an upset, but few who watched the game probably came away feeling like there was much doubt which team deserved to win or which is better at this point in the season.
The Hokies hit harder, covered better, ran more effectively, threw more efficiently and just generally executed what they needed to when they needed to at a much higher rate than did the eighth-ranked Buckeyes, who lost at home and in the regular season for the first time in Urban Meyer’s three seasons as head coach at Ohio State.
Virginia Tech also put the Buckeyes’ hopes of making the first College Football Playoff into serious jeopardy, though maybe not as much as what happened elsewhere in the country did in the matter of a few hours.
To be sure, Ohio State is a mess right now. After struggling early against a good Navy team at a neutral site then pulling away in their opener, the Buckeyes played from behind almost the whole night in their first home game of the season.
The Buckeyes have questions all over the lineup, from freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett to an offensive line that has four new starters to a cadre of inconsistent wideouts. No one has yet emerged as a go-to player from a handful of hotly recruited scholarship tailbacks, either. And that’s just the offense.
On defense, Ohio State has its share of new faces, but the scheme is new, too. And this was the first week the Buckeyes really got to try it out against someone in a jersey of a different color since the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack gave them a different look than they will see the rest of the season.
Youth and inexperience are recurring themes in discussions of these issues, and there is reason to think time will heal many of Ohio State’s wounds.
Will that matter after the Buckeyes took their first loss of the season and fellow Big Ten standard-bearers Michigan and Michigan State went down in big tests against Notre Dame and Oregon on Saturday night? If Ohio State gets its ship righted and wins the conference, can the Buckeyes put together a resume good enough to impress the CFP selection committee? That remains to be seen, but it’s probably a long shot. Players age faster than perceptions change in college football.
Regardless, there were no excuses being tolerated in Columbus on Saturday night.
"How much of a surprise is this performance? A little bit surprised," Meyer said. "I thought our skilled guys would perform better. I thought we’d protect a little better. A little bit disappointed. I don’t know. Coaches don’t get surprised, we get disappointed."
Ohio State allowed the new-look Virginia Tech passing attack only 199 yards, but first-year starting quarterback Michael Brewer completed 23 of 36 passes. He hooked up with Sam Rogers and Bucky Hodges for 10-yard touchdowns, and he seemed to be at his best on third down, contributing significantly to the Hokies’ conversion of nine of 17 of those situations.
That had to be dismaying to Ohio State fans who spent the offseason reading and hearing about how a new, more aggressive scheme would erase memories of the 2013 unit that allowed more passing yards than any in school history and was particularly poor late in the season as the Buckeyes slipped by Michigan before losing to Michigan State and Clemson. It had to be particularly disheartening because the other team on the field Saturday night had just that type of in-your-face attitude they have been looking for.
The Hokies’ well-known eight-man fronts left little room for the Buckeyes to run, and their man-to-man coverage forced Ohio State’s receivers to work to get open, something they were not able to do consistently. The constant pressure Barrett faced also limited his effectiveness. He looked very much like a player making his second college start behind a rebuilt offensive line as he completed only 9 of 29 passes and threw three interceptions.
Barrett was sacked seven times, but he also ran effectively at times, including a late scramble for 22 yards when things looked dire on third-and-20 with the Buckeyes trailing by a touchdown and under three minutes left. He was victimized by a couple of dropped passes, but he also had connections of 58 yards to Devin Smith and 53 yards (for a touchdown) to Michael Thomas along with a 40-yarder to Dontre Wilson.
There were peeks at the Buckeyes’ potential amid the avalanche of pressure from Virginia Tech, a team that has played the way Ohio State wants to on defense for a long time.
The Buckeyes will need to reach that standard — or at least get much closer — by the time conference season rolls around if they want to think about making this a memorable campaign. They shouldn’t have any trouble remembering what it looks like now.
"I still have confidence," Meyer said. "We have enough skill on this football team to get by people. It didn’t look like it, but we have to get by people or you’re going to see what you saw today you’ll see every week."