WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A funny thing has happened during what was supposed to be Ohio State's rebuilding season. Over the past two weeks, the Buckeyes have stepped over the carcasses of Southern California, Oklahoma, Florida, West Virginia and Texas to vault from No. 8 in the polls to likely No. 3 when the latest sets are released Sunday afternoon.
Rebuilding for Ohio State -- much like the mystique of USC -- is officially over.
Until Saturday night, there were plenty of questions still swirling around the two-time defending Big Ten champion. After all, this is the same team that was exposed by Florida in the national championship game last year, 41-14, when the Buckeyes didn't have enough speed on either side of the ball to compete with the Gators.
Don't look now, but those same Buckeyes are back, even without their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback (Troy Smith), their two receivers taken in the first round of the NFL draft (Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez) and their 1,200-yard tailback (Antonio Pittman). With a defense playing like this, the offense doesn't have to pick up the tab very often.
Saturday night at Purdue, in a matchup of the Big Ten's No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense, it wasn't much of a contest at all. The Buckeyes swarmed Purdue, 23-7, shutting it out for 59 minutes and 50 seconds after the Boilermakers entered averaging 495.8 yards and 45.4 points.
"They're sick," OSU right tackle Kirk Barton said of his defense. "It pretty much ends speculation of who has the best defense in the country."
At the start of the day, that was thought to be LSU. It still might be, but the Tigers barely survived at home after surrendering 24 points to Florida and allowing an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
Ohio State, meanwhile, held Purdue to 4 yards rushing on 17 carries.
Trailing 17-0 in the second quarter, the Boilermakers were faced with a fourth-and-1 from the Ohio State 40. At the time, it was Purdue's deepest penetration -- and it remained that way until the game's final two minutes.
Unsure what play to run, the Boilers called timeout to talk it over. Then quarterback Curtis Painter lined up in the shotgun with three receivers.
Purdue tried setting up a screen, but OSU linebacker Marcus Freeman read it and charged through the line to blow it up. Painter got the pass off, but tailback Kory Sheets never had a chance. Even if he had caught it, there was nowhere to run.
"Each week, we'll usually find something weak in the opponents' defense and just keep attacking and attacking," Purdue tight end Dustin Keller said. "There's no weakness there."
For the night, Ohio State held Purdue to 272 yards of offense. The Boilers didn't score until the game's final minute. It was the fifth time in six games this year the Buckeyes have held an opponent to a touchdown or less.
But for all the good they have done, the players on this defense are still haunted by last year's finish. That defense was being compared to the best in school history, then was gashed for 80 points in the final two games against Michigan and Florida.
Haunted by those memories, no one is ready to place this defense on a championship-caliber level. Yet.
"We'll have to see how we finish the season," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "Last year we had a great defense, but nobody remembers us because we had two horrible games at the end."
The 2002 defense will always be the standard by which other Ohio State units are measured. That team won a national championship built around its defense, winning six of its last seven games by a touchdown or less.
The style of this team is beginning to resemble 2002 -- build a lead with a power running game and make it stand with a stifling defense. Chris Wells' streak of four straight 100-yard games was snapped Saturday night, but not because of a poor performance. Wells hobbled off again with an ailing left ankle that has bothered him since spring practice. It has become clear he likely won't be 100 percent until after the season, much like Maurice Clarett played through a painful shoulder injury for the bulk of '02.
Quarterback Todd Boeckman fits the mold of Craig Krenzel, but with a stronger arm. Boeckman can make the deep throws Krenzel didn't, but Boeckman must improve on reading the coverages.
Through the first five games, teams consistently left junior Brian Robiskie alone in single coverage. Boeckman exposed it with long touchdown passes -- three of Robiskie's six touchdowns have been for more than 40 yards.
Against Purdue on Saturday, Boeckman didn't read the safety dropping into coverage and twice tried to hit Robiskie on deep patterns. Both times, it was intercepted. Boeckman threw three interceptions on the night, all in the second half.
Still, if only because of the volatility around college football, the Buckeyes have placed themselves in the unlikely position of returning to the national title game for the third time in six years.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has never been one to talk about the polls in October. He would prefer if they were never mentioned until November. Hearing that USC was upset, to fall right in line with all the upsets from last week, he wasn't about to change that stance now.
"My reaction is it's early in the season," he said. "We're only halfway through the regular season. We better go back and watch film and see how we can keep getting better."
He wasn't ready to compare this defense to the one from '02 or any other year, either. But before Saturday night's kickoff, Purdue coach Joe Tiller met with Tressel at midfield to talk about Ohio State's defense.
"I asked Tressel before the game if this was the best defense he's ever had," Tiller said. "He said, 'It might be.'"
Six more games and we'll all find out.
Jason Lloyd covers Ohio State for the Lorain Morning Journal and Lake County News Herald.