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THE GAUNTLET LOOMS

The next three weeks will reveal what the 2009 Buckeyes are made of. With Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan on the horizon, this final stretch will almost certainly be the toughest of the season for the boys from Columbus.

The question weighing heavily on my mind is, which Ohio State team will show up for these games? Will it be the bullish Buckeyes, who wiped the floor with Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota, or will it be the bumbling Buckeyes who squeaked by Navy and were de-pants’d by Purdue. Will the offense come to life like against Toledo (75-yard touchdown pass on first drive) and Minnesota (38-7 victory), or will it look disorganized and inept (Wisconsin and Purdue)?

For the most part, the defense has done its job, posting three shut-outs and surrendering 11.7 points per game. However, that side of the ball was confused for much of the afternoon against Navy, and in the Purdue disaster, they allowed Boilermaker quarterback Joey Elliot to throw for 281 yards and two TDs.

For as much criticism as Terrell Pryor and the offense has taken this year (from myself included), they have shown flashes of explosiveness. Wide receiver DeVier Posey seems to have emerged as a home- run threat, while Dane Sanzenbacher has caught everything except the swine flu (knock on wood) out on the field. And there are times when Pryor looks unstoppable running the ball, evading the rush, and heaving it downfield.

Still, the question of consistency remains. Which Ohio State team will show up these next three weeks?

Let’s start with Penn State. They waltzed into Columbus last year and handed the Scarlet and Grey their only Big Ten loss, 13-6, costing Buckeye Nation a trip to the Rose Bowl. That memory should be located conveniently in the front of the brain for this year’s Buckeyes, though they may not be able to hear themselves think over the roar of more than 107,000 Nittany Lion fans in Happy Valley this Saturday. Penn State should have no trouble getting up for this game, as they still have hope for a Big Ten Championship despite a home loss to Iowa on September 26th.

If the Bucks can make it out of the Nittany Mountains alive, the Iowa Hawkeyes will be waiting. All these guys have done is amass a 9-0 record and a #4 ranking in the most recent BCS poll. While it has not always been pretty, including a one point victory over Northern Iowa and a two point win at Michigan State, the Hawkeyes have found themselves collectively perfect. Some may remember a 2002 Ohio State team who narrowly escaped the jaws of defeat several times on their way to a national championship. The 2009 Hawkeyes bear an unsettling resemblance to that team, as they play a tough, sometimes downright ugly style of football, yet find a way to win week after week.

And finally, a Michigan Wolverine squad who has ridden a proverbial rollercoaster all season will host Ohio State to round out the 2009 campaign. I’m aware that Michigan has not beaten the Buckeyes recently. I also realize that they were far from competitive last year, but the Wolverines do have a few things going for them this time around. They have shown signs of life (victories over Notre Dame and Indiana), they actually have athletes at the quarterback position (Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson), and the Michigan / Ohio State rivalry is one of the best in all of sports. Anything can happen…especially at the Big House.

With this gauntlet of challenges staring the Buckeyes in the face, the uncertainties remain. Will they get chewed up and spit out, or survive unscathed? Only time will tell, but the unfolding of these unknown mysteries is what makes college football of America’s greatest spectacles.