After a 14-3 win over Minnesota to close out an 11-1 regular season, the Spartans head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game against the Ohio St. Buckeyes (12-0) at 8:17 on Saturday night.
If you had to narrow it down, the Spartans’ biggest challenge Saturday night may be whether the Offense can score enough points to beat Ohio St. It’s very unlikely that less than 3 scores worth (21 points) will be enough to take the Big Ten outright. The Offense first needs production up front and from Connor Cook to get things going for this unit. The Offensive Line continues to look better and better, and has already led Jeremy Langford to a record tying seventh straight 100-yard performance. If he can make that eight straight, MSU should be in very good shape.
The Offense didn’t show many new wrinkles against Minnesota, but that’s not to let them off the hook for only putting up 14 points because they just weren’t very impressive. Cook and his receivers did not connect early and often enough, sharing the blame of off target passes and plain old drops. They showed a few flashes later including tough completions to Tony Lippett and even Macgarrett Kings getting back into the big play mix, but need to raise their game significantly if MSU is going to win this Saturday.
Connor Cook inadvertently made some press conference noise earlier this week after being somewhat setup by a veteran Columbus writer who asked about facing the Buckeyes after they gave up 600 yards of Offense to Michigan. “Anytime you see your opponent give up that many yards the week before you play them, obviously, you know, you’re licking your chops and you’re feeling a bit more confident, you’re feeling more excited for the game itself,” Cook quickly replied. Those words probably don’t read the way that Cook meant to explain himself, and just a few moments later he reset the premise that will guide him again this week. “You’ve just got to treat it like any other game that we’ve had all year.”
Ohio St. isn’t a middle grade Defense, especially in the front seven. They’re not a great Defense, but rank 30th in Total Defense under Luke Fickell’s coordination. They feature some considerable beef up front and an All-Conference Linebacker in Ryan Shazier. “He’s super fast,” Cook said earlier this week about the vast ground that Shazier covers. Don’t be too totally fooled by the yards and points they gave up in The Game at Michigan. Expect a more stingy effort this weekend.
Look for OSU to try and make MSU one-dimensional, and fast. Of the 603 yards given up to Michigan last week, only 152 were on the ground. If OSU can stuff the MSU ground game early, a lot of pressure will fall on Connor Cook and the Receivers. It’s hard to know how confident those passing game components would be in that kind of scenario. Mark Dantonio’s staff needs to lead this week by finding easy completion opportunities for Cook early on to build momentum and confidence from the start. If they don’t, it could be a very frustrating trip for the Offense this time around.
The Spartans ranked 84th in Total Offense for the regular season and will need to play above that mark, as they did during the second-half of the season, to win Saturday night. To get there, Connor Cook knows he can’t do it alone. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now without the great Offensive Line we have here.” Their success will set the table for MSU to carry over their running game momentum from the regular season. If they can run it well enough, they should be able to find the run-pass balance needed to produce Touchdowns. If they become too predictable or stubborn with the run when it’s not working, expect the Offense to struggle until they adjust.
The #1 Defense in the country will have their hands full this weekend, but must be jumping out of their skin to measure up to the 3rd ranked scoring Offense in the country. This is the premier matchup within a matchup of the entire College Football Championship weekend. If you want more numbers, just look to the ground game. The Bucks rank 2nd nationally with an average of 321 yards per game, the Spartans lead the nation at stopping the run, allowing just 64 yards per game. Something’s gotta give in this matchup, which will be a primary focus before, during, and certainly after the Big Ten title is decided.
Braxton Miller is the star of the Buckeyes’ Offense but unlike past season’s he’s not alone as either a passer or a runner. Marcus Hyde is now the feature back for Urban Meyer’s squad, and ranked 14th in rushing yards this year with 1,290. As a point of reference, Jeremy Langford ended up 19th nationally with 1,210 yards. From a passing perspective Kenny Guiton threw the ball well during three games while Miller was injured, though he’d only be expected to play if Miller gets hurt. Though Miller has improved over time as a passer, he hasn’t totally abandoned his running game, and ended up 62nd in the nation with 891 yards in 10 games. Pat Narduzzi said that not going live before last year’s matchup with the Buckeyes’ and Miller was one of the biggest mistakes he made in 2012. As many of you already know, that is not the case this week. The Spartans know they will have their hands full come Saturday and must be very firm up front.
“If you don’t have great defensive tackles it’s very tough to play good defense,” Mark Dantonio told us last week about the foundation of this unit. “It always starts up front, (and) it always will.” Dantonio has made strong interior lineman a staple of this Defense as it has transitioned from good to great in the past couple of seasons. His staff is looking for Tackles to be explosive, imposing enough to take on opposing double teams, and most importantly maintain their position at the point of attack.
The league’s prominent Head Coaches all told Spartan Nation earlier this year that you can’t have a great Defense without a commitment and ability to stop the run first. The space eaters inside are probably more important to that effort than they are to defending the pass. “If you can move those two inside players you’re going to at least have an opportunity to run the football,” Dantonio explained about what an Offense must do in order to run effectively. This Spartan D doesn’t quite feature an All-American Jerel Worthy type player, but they are far from short on collective production and talent.
“We’ve really worked four guys in there…we keep them fresh,” Dantonio said. Aside from staying fresh, he pointed out that this group, especially the elder statesmen Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds, has benefitted from all the time spent under Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Ken Mannie. “(They) are both 420-pound bench press guys.” Their strength will be tested against a very productive Ohio St. Offensive Line.
“They like to just play you and say that their guys are better than yours, and will be tougher than yours,” Buckeyes’ Left Tackle Jack Mewhort said earlier this week. He added that his Offensive teammates will respect and embrace the straight ahead challenge before them. The final game result will probably go along with whoever wins the matchup between the MSU D and the Ohio St. Offense. Keep an eye on what happens inside with the Defensive Tackles early on. “Your linebackers play around those guys, your secondary, and defensive ends play around those guys,” Dantonio concluded about their importance.
In a game that lines up this close on paper, Special Teams can make the difference. Though it might not in an average game, it certainly can and Buckeye great Jim Tressel once told us (in the midst of a long streak of Big Ten Championships) that it was usually a Special Teams play or two that decided the title. There was surprise off-field news earlier this week as Mike Sadler was not awarded the Big Ten’s Punter of the Year award, which doesn’t bode well for a 1st team All-American nod after the season is completed. Sadler should be back for his Senior season, however, and would no doubt trade any individual award for an outright Big Ten title and Rose Bowl trip.
We’ve talked about Sadler all year long, mentioned his coming out party at Ohio St. two seasons ago in last week’s Outlook, and expect him to be a factor in the Dome type setup this weekend. Sadler will have the national stage to make the Big Ten look mistaken for not awarding him their top honors, and may have even another trick or two up his sleeve. Sadler kept the mood loose earlier this week during a local press conference by showing up in pajama pants and needling a teammate or two during his time at the podium. Since the punt is such an important play to Mark Dantonio, Sadler’s role will always be a factor to the Spartans’ success.
MSU may have an edge in the kicking game, but bringing it inside a dome or “air controlled environment” can neutralize that a bit. Mike Geiger has been rock solid kicking 3s for MSU thus far, but the Buckeyes’ Drew Basil has mostly just converted PATs in 2013, making just 8 of 9 Field Goal tries all year. Perhaps his relative lack of “in the clutch” kicking experience will be an issue if the game plays out as close as it’s expected to. He did not try a Field Goal at Ann Arbor last week. His last try was in the 4th Quarter at Illinois three weeks ago. Before that you have to go back to one he made in the 1st Quarter against Iowa on October 19th. If the Buckeyes find it more difficult to reach the End Zone Saturday, Basil will be put to the test.
What a bounce back season 2013 has already been. No more of the woulda-coulda-shoulda stuff Spartan Nation had to chew threw in 2012, unless you want to day dream about the iffy feeling Notre Dame loss. This year has been more direct and complete. Now Dantonio and company return to Indianapolis to settle a few scores and try to snag their first outright Big Ten Title in the cable television era.
Mark Dantonio didn’t want to rehash the bogus Roughing the Punter flag of Isaiah Lewis that decided the outcome of the Big Ten Championship two years ago, but we will briefly review. Since the day after that game the relevant Article and provisions of the NCAA Football rules have been hung on my refrigerator. I’ve seen it every day, and know the three provisions of the rule that should’ve been applied in that instance to pick up the flag. No need to go back into that scene any further, but we should give those of you who are still bothered by that call acknowledgment, and highlight the extra motivation (though none is needed) that must be on Lewis’ mind as he heads to his hometown to play in this game once again.
Urban Meyer said in the past that the turning point in his Buckeyes’ undefeated run was the victory at MSU last year. Practically everyone who knows that game understands that had a quick whistle not been blown after Kurtis Drummond picked up a fumble and was on the way to the house for 6, Michigan St. probably would’ve won that game. That’s not to say the Officials cost MSU the game because they didn’t, but to remind the masses who maybe didn’t see that game of that play’s defining importance. The bitter loss sent the Spartans’ season into a decline and launched OSU from that point into very rare air. Meyer said that without that one point victory, they probably would’ve lost 3 games or more. So along with any bad taste left over from the last trip to Indianapolis, the Spartans have a score to settle with the Buckeyes after the 2012 result.
Some in the national media are selling the Spartans as a surprise to arrive back to the Championship Game this year. Spartan Nation knows that’s really not the case. Nick Saban was even asked about MSU’s ability to compete at a championship level at his press conference after last year’s National Title victory. Who knows where that out of left field question came from at that time for Saban, but he gave an answer that summed up MSU’s 2012 and somewhat predicted the bounce back 2013.
“You know, teams aren’t that far away,” he started to explain. “They lost a bunch of close games this year. I think if you do a good job of recruiting and developing your players that a lot of people are going to have the opportunity to be in this game (National Championship) in the future, and I think Michigan State is one of the better programs in the Big Ten in terms of the history of success that they’ve been able to have.” Now on paper, MSU is just a handful of Pass Interference flags (against the same team Saban beat that day) away from playing the Bucks this Saturday for a guaranteed slot in the BCS Title game. How ironic is that? “I don’t see why they couldn’t be successful,” Saban concluded. That’s actually a pretty big compliment from Nick Saban, and proved to be an accurate response to the inquiry.
After Michigan took Ohio St. by surprise and down to the final play, the Buckeyes look primed to be knocked off of their 24-game winning streak. It’s amazing that OSU was already looking ahead to Michigan State because the Blue are their biggest rivals, but that’s exactly what it looked like last week. Now the Bucks are playing for more than a Big Ten title, they’re playing for a shot at the National Title (also to be played in Pasadena five days after the Rose Bowl). So it’s possible both MSU and OSU could play at the Rose Bowl within a week of each other.
Championship games tend to be more high flying and higher scoring than regular season tilts. That’s what we ended up seeing in this game two years ago against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes have much more Offensive firepower than MSU, so look for the Spartans to do what they can to avoid getting into a track meet. If they’re sucked into one and can’t get out of it, it does not bode well for the Spartans. It’s always presumed to be important to score first and to get up early on your opponent, but that looks much more important for the Spartans this week than it’s been in a very long time. If MSU can get up, especially if they climb ahead more than one score, their Defense may be too much for the Buckeyes to overcome.
There’s no reason to expect anything less than another close one this Saturday night. The Buckeyes have everything to play for, which can often mount too much pressure on a team to give their best performance. The Spartans have a lot to play for too, but should show up much looser because they know with great confidence that they’ve already locked up the Rose Bowl trip. The looser team usually comes out on top when the teams in this kind of game are pretty evenly matched. That combination and the hidden build up since the end of last year’s 17-16 Buckeye victory should produce quite the Championship game.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- The best scenario for the Big Ten this post season is not the best scenario for MSU. The ideal, from a conference perspective, is for Ohio St. to beat MSU in a close game and then win the National Title after MSU would go on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Once again, MSU interests and Big Ten interests don’t align together.
- Brady Hoke made the right call going for 2 at the end of “The Game” last week, and the outcome was the most favorable for Michigan St. fans. Knowing he couldn’t stop OSU if it got to OT and recognizing he did not have the better team overall, he took Michigan’s best opportunity to win it. Regardless of whether it worked or not, it was exactly the right call. It reminds you of when Rich Rodriguez made the wrong choice against MSU at the end of regulation in 2009. That game went to OT, Michigan lost it, and Rodriguez’s tenure began to collapse.
- These are great times at MSU with Football and Basketball having a high level of success, but let’s pump the brakes on calling these completely unchartered waters. In the 1999-2000 school year, football placed 2nd in the Big Ten beating Ohio St., Penn St. Michigan, Florida, and Notre Dame before finishing ranked well inside the top 10. Hockey came up short of a National Title, but made the Final Four, and of course Mateen Cleaves led the basketball team to the National Championship. If the Football team goes on to win the Rose Bowl and this hoops squad makes a Final Four, then we’ll have a fun debate to kick around during the summer.