Column: Three decades of the most talented Ohio State football opponents


When the Big Ten Network announced its All-Decade team last week it reminded me how many great players I have seen play against Ohio State in writing about OSU football since 1992.

So, I decided to make a list of the best players I’ve seen at each position based on how they played when they competed against Ohio State and on their overall careers. Call it my All-Opponents All-Three Decades Team.

The No. 1 requirement was that they had to have been a starter in a game against Ohio State, which eliminated great players like Pat Fitzgerald and Dallas Clark. No. 2 was that I had to have been in the press box when they played against OSU.

Here’s my list:

QUARTERBACKS

1. Drew Brees (Purdue). 2. Vince Young (Texas). 3. Deshaun Watson (Clemson). 4. Philip Rivers (North Carolina State). 5. Peyton Manning (Tennessee).

Honorable mention: Russell Wilson (Wisconsin), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Tom Brady (Michigan), Antwaan Randle El (Indiana), Colt McCoy (Texas), Denard Robinson (Michigan), Tajh Boyd (Clemson), Connor Cook (Michigan State), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson).

Brees is the Big Ten career leader in passing yards with 11,792. He and his coach Joe Tiller might not have revolutionized Big Ten offenses but they certainly changed them. Only three of the top 25 quarterbacks in passing yards in Big Ten history played before Brees. His signature moment against Ohio State was passing for 455 yards and three touchdown in 2000 to help Purdue get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 34 years.

For some people, Young’s struggles in the NFL have obscured how great he was in his final college season when he led Texas to the national championship in 2005. In a 25-22 win over OSU he threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 2 1/2 minutes to play, passed for 270 yards and two TDs and rushed for 76 yards.

Watson passed for 259 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 57 yards and two TDs in Clemson’s 31-0 win over Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal in 2016. Rivers passed for 315 yards and four touchdowns when the Buckeyes held on for a 44-38 triple-overtime win against North Carolina State in 2003.

Manning completed 20 of 35 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown in a 20-14 win by Tennessee over Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl at the end of the 1995 season. It rained for 12 straight hours before the game and the field was a mess. It wasn’t Manning’s passing numbers that made him one of my most memorable quarterbacks. It was that his demeanor was more like what you’d expect from a guy in his third or fourth year in the NFL, not a college sophomore.

RUNNING BACKS

1. Ron Dayne (Wisconsin). 2. Saquon Barkley (Penn State). 3. Tshimanga Biakabutuka (Michigan). 4. Ki-Jana Carter (Penn State). 5. Curtis Enis (Penn State).

Honorable mention: Derrick Henry (Alabama), Curtis Martin (Pittsburgh), Tyrone Wheatley (Michigan), Laurence Maroney (Minnesota), Napoleon Kaufman (Washington), Garrison Hearst (Georgia), Larry Johnson (Penn State), Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Mike Alstott (Purdue), Chris Perry (Michigan), Tevin Coleman (Indiana), Mike Hart (Michigan).

Dayne, a 250-pound tailback, might not fit into some 21st century offenses. He might not have been everybody’s idea of a 1990s tailback. But he was a perfect fit in Wisconsin’s offense from 1996-1999. His 7,125 yards rushing is still an NCAA record. He rushed for 161 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-17 win over Ohio State in 1999 and gained 72 yards in 1996.

Barkley combined power and speed. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards three times from 2015-2017, caught 54 passes his final season at Penn State and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, including one for 97 yards against Ohio State. His best game against OSU was in 2015 when he rushed for 194 yards.

Biakabutuka’s 313 yards rushing on 37 carries in Michigan’s 31-23 win over Ohio State in 1995 still creates nightmares for Buckeyes fans. No running back has ever run for more yards in a game against OSU.

He was hardly a one-hit wonder, rushing for 1,724 yards that season. But it was his only big game against OSU. Until that day his career totals against Ohio State were four carries for 15 yards.

Carter, who went to high school at Westerville South, rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his two seasons as Penn State’s No. 1 running back in 1993 and 1994 before the Cincinnati Bengals made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft. He ran for 123 yards against OSU in 1993 and 137 yards in 1994.

Enos, from Mississinawa Valley, ran for more than 1,000 yards his last two years at Penn State in 1996 and 1997. He rushed for 146 yards against OSU in 1995 and 211 yards in 1997.

WIDE RECEIVERS

1. Braylon Edwards (Michigan). 2. Sammy Watkins (Clemson). 3. Amari Cooper (Alabama). 4. Andre Johnson (Miami). 5. Rondale Moore (Purdue).

Honorable mention: Lee Evans (Wisconsin), Wes Welker (Texas Tech), Plaxico Burress (Michigan State), Bobby Engram (Penn State), Eric Decker (Minnesota), Tyler Johnson (Minnesota), Allen Robinson (Penn State), D’Wayne Bates (Northwestern).

Say what you want to about Edwards’ career with the Browns but he always produced a big game against Ohio State.

In 2002 he caught 10 passes for 107 yards in a 14-9 Ohio State win that sent the Buckeyes to the national championship game against Miami. In 2003, a 35-21 Michigan win, he had 7 catches for 130 yards, scored on catches of 64 yards and 23 yards and had an 87-yard TD called back because of holding. In 2004, he had 11 catches for 172 yards and a touchdown in a 37-21 OSU win.

Watkins, who had 101 catches for 1,464 yards for Clemson in 2013, got 16 of those catches and 227 of those yards in the Orange Bowl against Ohio State. Cooper (9 catches, 71 yards, 2 TDs in the 2014 Sugar Bowl) and Johnson (4 catches, 54 yards in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl) didn’t have huge numbers but it was obvious they were elite.

Moore was a recruit who got away from Ohio State and got away from the Buckeyes’ defense in a stunning 49-20 loss to Purdue in 2018. The freshman wide receiver had 12 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns. He finished his first season of college football with 114 catches.

TIGHT ENDS

1. Kellen Winslow Jr. (Miami). 2. Travis Beckum (Wisconsin). 3. Jake Butt (Michigan). 4. Dustin Keller (Purdue). 5. T.J. Hockenson. (Iowa).

Honorable mention: Mike Gesicki (Penn State), Noah Fant (Iowa), Tim Stratton (Purdue), Anthony Fasano (Notre Dame), Kyle Brady (Penn State).

Winslow and Beckum were more like wide receivers than traditonal tight ends. Winslow averaged 58 receptions a game his last two seasons and caught 11 passes in the 2002 national championship game against Ohio State. Beckum had 61 and 75 catches in 2006 and 2007 at Wisconsin. He caught 9 passes for 140 yards against OSU in 2007.

Butt averaged just under 50 catches a season his last two years at Michigan in 2015 and 2016. Keller caught 56 and 68 passes his last two seasons at Purdue in 2006 and 2007. Hockenson was one of two Iowa tight ends, along with Noah Fant, selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

1. Joe Thomas (Wisconsin). 2. Jeff Hartings (Penn State). 3. Steve Hutchinson (Michigan). 4. Matt Light (Purdue). 5. Jake Long (Michigan).

Honorable mention: Flozell Adams (Michigan State), Robert Gallery (Iowa), Jon Jansen (Michigan), Aaron Gibson (Wisconsin), Marco Rivera (Penn State).

Thomas, the former six-time first-team All-Pro left tackle with the Cleveland Browns, is generally regarded as the best offensive lineman ever at Wisconsin where he played from 2003-2006. Hartings, from St. Henry, was recently named the greatest offensive lineman ever at Penn State by a panel of former players and media members. He was a first-team All-American in 1994 and 1995 and was first-team All-Big Ten three times.

Hutchinson was first-team All-Big Ten four years in a row from 1997-2000 and was a unanimous All-American as a senior. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year after an 11-year career in the NFL.

Light began his college career at Purdue as a tight end but became a three-year starter at offensive tackle. He was first-team All-Big Ten in 2000 on the first Purdue team to go to the Rose Bowl in 34 years and went on to start on three Super Bowl winning New England Patriots teams. Long was first-team All-Big Ten in 2006 and 2007 and was selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

1. Khalil Mack (Buffalo). 2. Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue). 3. J.J. Watt (Wisconsin). 4. Andre Wadsworth (Florida State). 5. Clelin Ferrell (Clemson).

Honorable mention: Vince Wilfork (Miami), Courtney Brown (Penn State), Erasmus James (Wisconsin)

Mack played only one year of high school football and ended up at Buffalo, a Mid-American Conference school, so there was not a lot of hype about him when Ohio State opened the 2013 season against Buffalo. With nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and a pass interception as a defensive end/outside linebacker he changed a lot of perceptions that day.

Kerrigan had 13 sacks in 2009 and 12.5 of them in 2010. He had three sacks in Purdue’s upset of OSU in 2009 and six overall in three games against the Buckeyes. Watt, who transferred to Wisconsin from Central Michigan, had 36.5 tackles for losses and 11.5 sacks in two season with the Badgers in 2009 and 2010. His best game against Ohio State was in a 31-18 Wisconsin win in 2010 when he had two sacks and three tackles for losses.

When Ohio State played Florida State in the Sugar Bowl in the 1997 season, the Seminoles had six sacks, led by Wadsworth, who had two sacks and an interception. Ferrell, a sophomore, had a sack and 3 tackles for losses when Clemson’s defensive front dominated OSU in a 31-0 College Football Playoff semifinal in the 2016 season.

LINEBACKERS

1. Dana Howard (Illinois). 2. Tamba Hali (Penn State). 3. Jonathan Vilma (Miami). 4. Chris Borland (Wisconsin). 5. LaVar Arrington (Penn State).

Honorable mention: Simeon Rice (Illinois), Clay Matthews III (USC), Devin Bush (Michigan), Kevin Hardy (Illinois), Chad Greenway (Iowa), Brian Cushing (USC), Paul Posluszny (Penn State), Brian Orakpo (Texas).

Howard’s Illinois teammates Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy were more highly regarded in college and had better NFL careers but no linebacker in the Big Ten tormented Ohio State more in the early 1990s than Howard. He had 15 tackles in an Illinois win in 1992, 13 tackles in an OSU win in 1993 and 14 tackles and two sacks in an Illinois win in 1994.

Hali is one of many great Penn State linebackers but he stands out for 11 sacks in 2005, including a strip sack of Troy Smith that ended any chance Ohio State had of winning that game or competing for a national championship. Vilma led Miami in tackles three seasons in a row and led the Hurricanes with 14 tackles against Ohio State in the 2002 national championship game.

Borland had more than 100 tackles three seasons in a row from 2011-2013. He had 13 against OSU in 2011 and 16 in 2013. Arrington was one of the most athletic linebackers in Big Ten history. He had three sacks in a 23-10 Penn State win over OSU in 1999 and 11 tackles and a sack in a 28-9 win by the Buckeyes in 1998.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. Charles Woodson (Michigan). 2. Jamar Fletcher (Wisconsin). 3. Sean Taylor (Taylor). 4. Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State). 5. Ty Law (Michigan).

Honorable mention: Lawyer Milloy (Washington), Jabrill Peppers (Mihigan), Desmond King (Iowa).

Woodson is the only defensive player to win the Heisman and had a big impact all three times he played against Ohio State. In a 31-23 Michigan win in 1995 he had two interceptions. The next year he had nine tackles, two pass break-ups and a tackle for a loss in a 13-9 Michigan win. In 1997, when Michigan won 20-14, he had an interception, returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown and caught a pass for 37 yards.

Fletcher intercepted seven passes each of the three years he played at Wisconsin from 1998-2000 and was All-Big Ten three times and an All-American two years. He had an interception in 2000 in the only time he played against Ohio State.

Taylor had two interceptions against Ohio State in the national championship game in 2002 and had 10 more for the Hurricanes in 2003. Dennard was the leader of Michigan State’s 2013 secondary, which was called The No Fly Zone. That group was a big reason OSU lost to the Spartans in the 2013 Big Ten championship game.

Law had two interceptions in Michigan’s 28-0 win over Ohio State in 1993 and 10 tackles in a 13-13 tie in 1992 before having a 15-year career in the NFL.

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (26) runs the ball against Ohio State during a 2016 game in State College, Pa.
https://www.galioninquirer.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/38/2020/07/web1_10.23.16.osu_.jpgPenn State’s Saquon Barkley (26) runs the ball against Ohio State during a 2016 game in State College, Pa.

Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard (31) breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Ohio State’s Devin Smith (9) in the second half of the 2013 Big Ten Championship game. DON SPECK/The Lima News
https://www.galioninquirer.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/38/2020/07/web1_Denard.jpgMichigan State’s Darqueze Dennard (31) breaks up a touchdown pass intended for Ohio State’s Devin Smith (9) in the second half of the 2013 Big Ten Championship game. DON SPECK/The Lima News

https://www.galioninquirer.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/38/2020/07/web1_NavCol.jpg