It was a nightmarish game. Braxton Miller had entered Saturday’s contest against Michigan State as a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender. But nearing the end of the third quarter, despite impressive stats, Miller shouldered much of the responsibility for Ohio State’s playing from behind.
There was a second-quarter interception with Ohio State making its way deep into Michigan State territory. On 1st-and-10 from the Michigan State-25-yard line, Miller threw lazily into double coverage and was intercepted by Kurtis Drummond. The turnover came with Ohio State attempting to stretch out a 7-3 lead.
Ohio State had another opportunity late in the second quarter to add to the lead. But once again, Miller turned the ball over, this time with a fumble at the MSU-38. It caused more angst than the previous miscue because it came after a blocked punt. The Buckeyes didn’t give up points on either turnover, but they took points off the board by squandering sure scoring opportunities.
Late in the third quarter, after a three-play, 65-yard drive from the Spartans to take a 13-10 lead, Miller had the ultimate chance for redemption – lead his team on a go-ahead scoring drive. With 75,705 fans in Spartan Stadium on their feet – most of them screaming for more turnovers from Miller – the Buckeyes’ signal-caller remained calm and delivered in the cool fashion that he’s made his trademark.
And, of course, Devin Smith had a starring role.
This time the touchdown pass was 63 yards, but the result was the same: game-winner.
“We found out something about our team today,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “To go on the road in a hostile environment against a quality, quality football team and find a way to win, we answered every drive with another drive. When it was time to go make a play, we did.”
The final score read 17-16 in favor of Ohio State, and the story was Miller. He finished with 315 all-purpose yards, including the game-winning touchdown pass to Smith. He was 16 of 23 passing for 179 yards and gained 136 rushing yards on 23 carries. And he did it all bruised and battered, leaving the game multiple times after taking vicious hits.
“A gutsy effort by our quarterback,” Meyer said. “He had some miscues but just the toughness – he’s banged up, he’s banged up, and he just kept coming back.”
Unlike the previous Miller-to-Smith dramatics, though, there was still more than a quarter of play left. The Ohio State defense had already shut down Michigan State much of the day, but it really clamped down in those final possessions.
The Spartans gained 64 yards on 19 plays in its final three possessions. The only points that were put on the scoreboard came from a 48-yard Dan Conroy field goal.
It wasn’t a bad showing for Meyer – being the new kid on the block.
“This was a war,” he said. “This was two sledgehammers going at each other. The Big Ten has taken some heat, but that was a great game, a great atmosphere and a bunch of great players on the field who will play at the next level. That was good for the conference and good for the Big Ten.”
Michigan State entered the game with one of the top rushing attacks in the country, with a 176-yard per game average. Running back Le’Veon Bell was the nation’s third-leading rusher, averaging 152 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. He didn’t even gain 52 yards against the Silver Bullets.
“Anytime you hold a quality running back to whatever it was, I think 34 or 40 yards, that’s a great effort,” Meyer said. “A great team win.”
The Ohio State defense, almost left for dead on the side of the road after four games – ridiculed for missed tackles and too much yardage against the likes of California and Alabama-Birmingham – became the dominant defense of the past decade.
Bell gained 45 yards on 12 carries, less than three yards per rush. He also had eight receptions for 58 yards, but never sniffed the end zone. As a team, Michigan State gained 34 yards on 22 carries, similar to the hex the Spartans put on Ohio State last season. In that 10-7 Spartan win, Michigan State sacked the Ohio State quarterbacks nine times and only allowed 0.9 yards per rush.
“I thought our defense was good enough to play better in the first four games,” Meyer said. “That’s how much confidence I have in our players and coaches. I think we have really, really good players. Do we have great players? I think a few of them. But I did have confidence in them.”
Ohio State sacked Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell twice, but it was a knockdown that was arguably the biggest defensive play of the game. On Michigan State’s final possession, Etienne Sabino broke free and chased down Maxwell, hitting him just after the ball was released. The pressure and subsequent hit made the pass sail considerably off target. The ensuing fourth-down play failed and the Buckeyes ran out the clock with three first downs.
Where Ohio State did give up points were on penalties. They finished with six for 65 yards. Cornerback Bradley Roby had two – holding and a 15-yard facemask – that contributed to 10 Michigan State points.
The missed tackles also made a brief appearance in the third quarter. Keith Mumphrey caught a short pass from Maxwell and eluded five Buckeyes who made half-hearted attempts at tackling. The end result was a 29-yard touchdown that put Michigan State in front. The next possession was Miller’s touchdown pass to Smith.
Miller’s gaudy statistics and Smith’s touchdown catch are what will be shown on highlight reels. But two other offensive players turned in performances to remember. Wide receiver Corey Brown’s reception yardage total might not be out of the ordinary – 84 yards – but he caught 12 passes, the fourth-most in school history.
Carlos Hyde replaced the injured Jordan Hall in the second quarter and rattled off 49 yards, none bigger than the final 18. Those yards came as Ohio State ran out the clock, including a five-yarder on 3rd-and-4.
“Against that front when they knew it was coming to just take the ball and end the game like that, that tells you a little bit about us,” Meyer said. “I didn’t know if we could do that. Did I think we could line up and just make holes and guys run through tackles like Carlos did? I thought – to say that I knew we could do that, if I knew we could do that we would have done that earlier in the game, too. That was a hell of an effort.”
It looked like the game could be a snoozer after Ohio State went right down the field to start the festivities. It scored in eight plays, with Hall scoring from one yard out. The Buckeyes twice had chances to extend the lead in the first half, but Miller’s turnovers negated those opportunities. The only scoring Michigan State did in the opening half of play was a field goal.
The Spartans gained 303 yards on the day, with several Buckeye defenders playing a role in the low number. Bradley Roby finished with a team-high nine tackles, two passes broken up and the blocked punt. Sabino and Ryan Shazier each had eight tackles. Sabino added a sack, pass breakup and quarterback hurry.
The defense had four tackles for loss, six pass breakups and six quarterback hurries.
Said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio: “When you lose by one point, it's a big failure.”