There's a reason why Saban and Tressel
love this guy
You'd be hard-pressed to find many 6-1 teams packing the drama and uncertainty that this Buckeye team takes with it to East Lansing this weekend. Though they've won four straight games and are ranked in the top dozen of most major polls, you'd think they were winless in conference play if you took the collective pulse of the fanbase. They may be 6-1, but it's a shaky 6-1 and the natives are restless.
And here they are, about to take on what most certainly will be the 2nd-best team they've played all season, coached by a guy that knows Tressel inside and out and in a game that's billed as perhaps Michigan State's biggest football game in a decade. Essentially a semifinal game to advance to play Penn State in the finals, it's a macthup that's certainly important to each team -- the Spartans are looking for that "breakthrough" win under Dantonio, while the Buckeyes have come to a fork in their road and the outcome of this one could well decide which path they take for the rest of the season.
The reason that this is even such a big game is Dantonio, of course. He served with Tressel at YSU and Ohio State and Buckeye fans will forever be indebted to him and his defense for carrying a similarly offensively challenged team to a championship. When he arrived in East Lansing, Michigan players openly scoffed at his countdown clock, but in just his second season, that clock of his has quickly turned into a ticking timer on a scheduled beat-down. He's a 24th level defensive wizard, and his team will be ready for everything the Buckeye offense throws at it (granted that's been a relatively easy chore as of late).
No doubt about it -- this game worries the hell out of us. Will the pupil finally become the master?
No fewer than 10 Ohioans dot the Michigan State two-deep and none better than running back Javon Ringer. As the senior from Dayton goes, so goes the Spartan offense. Currently the nation's rushing leader with 1,112 yards already, only Cal and Iowa have managed to hold him under 100 yards in a game. A three-game stretch against Florida Atlantic, Notre Dame and Indiana that saw him put up 282, 201 and 198 yards has vaulted Ringer firmly into Heisman contention. He's rugged, averaging 35 totes per game and gets a lot of his yards up the middle behind a pretty good offensive line. He's also a touchdown factory, having already produced 14 rushing touchdowns on the season. The Buckeye defensive front will have their work cut out for them, but hey, at least he's not a receiving threat out of the backfield.
Would have been nice to have
when Wells was injured
The Spartans love to run, but when forced to pass, they'll turn to another Ohioan, senior Brian Hoyer. The unspectacular, but efficient veteran enters the game with a 12-8 career record as a starter and can throw the ball when called upon to do so. He has a pair of steady tight ends (one of which has an 82-yard touchdown under his belt) and his young receivers, notably sophomore Mark Dell and freshman Westerville South product B.J. Cunningham are coming on quick. He takes care of the ball possibly because he has the luxury of a line that gives him time to throw -- compare Sparty's four sacks allowed on the year to Ohio State's 19. Still, if the Buckeyes do go down in this one, it will be at the hands of Ringer, not Hoyer.
Defensively, Michigan State is a very middle-of-the-pack team, which has to be somewhat grating to Dantonio. They rely on the ground-control offense keeping the ball out of their opponent's hands, but when opposing offenses do get the ball, they've been able to do some things. Cal put up 38 in the opener, Northwestern piled up chunks of yardage against them last weekend and even Indiana just missed getting to 30 on the Spartans. One thing they've done well is forced turnovers. The Spartans are 6th in the nation in turnover margin and they'll look to take advantage of those while trying to follow the proven blueprint to stopping the Buckeye offense: play the run as tough as you can, spy Pryor and force him to try to beat you with his arm.
The front won't force a lot of pressure -- as a team, they have only recorded 11 sacks on the season, the same as Ohio State. Junior end Trevor Anderson is responsible for half of those sacks (four solo, 2 assists) and as long as he's contained, there should be no repeat of last season when the Spartan front forced two quick Buckeye turnovers that led to touchdowns and turned a comfortable game into a close one in Columbus.
While there doesn't appear to be any true tackling machines, sophomore linebacker Greg Jones (yet another Ohio kid) will be one to watch in the middle, while cornerback Otis Wiley and his four interceptions and seven passes broken up is the standout in the secondary.
Michigan State has a weapon in junior kicker (and former high school teammate of Duron Carter) Brett Swenson. He's the Big Ten's best kicker and he has the last two conference Special Teams Player of the Week awards to prove it. He's 23/23 on point-afters and is 15/16 on field goals, including a perfect 5/5 in the 40-49 range. Envy.
NOTES: Sparty has dropped six in a row and 11 of the last 13 meetings with Ohio State... Tressel's nephew Mike is the ST/LBs coach at Michigan State... In two career games against Ohio State, Ringer has a 3.7 YPC average and 0 touchdowns while Hoyer has one interception against 0 touchdowns... Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Paul Maguire and Stacey Dales will be handling the game.
It's been clear to everyone with healthy vision that a lot of the Buckeyes' troubles this season have stemmed from the play of the offensive line. The fans have seen it for some time and earlier this week, Rory Nicol informed his fellow linemates that they had been playing like a bunch of girls. All of this is not lost on offensive coordinator and line coach Jim Bollman who was asked point-blank about the play of his line on the first question he took Thursday when meeting with reporters. Though he acknowledged that the group needs to step it up, both he and Tressel attempted to point out some positives or reasons for the substandard play. The next thing you know, Angel Woody and Devil Woody were doing battle from atop my shoulders.
Angel Woody would like to point out that even dominant teams have played games they have struggled in or worse yet -- lost (looking your way Southern Cal) against supposedly inferior competition. He also adds that Bollman is right and the offense did have four drives of eight plays or longer against the Boilermakers and that the team finished turnover-free in that game. Angel Woody points to Tressel's statement that in nine of the team's 19 red zone attempts, they've been hit up with a penalty. He'd also like you to know that three games before Purdue, the he put up four touchdown passes against Troy and got that huge drive to win the game in Madison the following week.
Devil Woody, however, would like to call the red zone statistics as his first witness. Just look at them: there are only eight teams in all of college football that have converted attempts into touchdowns at a worse clip than Ohio State. The team that the Buckeyes are tied with in that grouping, Auburn, just canned its offensive coordinator. 50% of all Buckeye red zone attempts have turned into field goals -- only two other teams are even above 40%. The team is tied for 97th in the country in points per attempt with 4.25. Then there's the fact that the offensive line has already given up as many sacks as it did all of last season. After soft outings against Ohio and USC, Tressel got up close and personal with the line and that didn't seem to do anything, so Devil Woody wants to know what makes you think this week will be any different. Hell, the fact that Bollman said Rehring would get more action this week and that was "a good thing" ought to give pause to everything you believe in about the Buckeyes.
However you want to cut it the line has it's step-up or go quietly into the fall night moment Saturday. I'm not exactly optimistic, especially considering the 5th-year All-American candidate was looking to a tight end that might see the field on 40% of offensive plays for leadership, but the best way to neutralize the threat Ringer poses is to keep him on the sideline. Long drives and a lot of them, please. An early lead would be nice -- make Hoyer beat you.
Defensively, the depleted line will have an equal, if not greater challenge. The Vest seemed to indicate that Rob Rose would get about 50% of Wilson's snaps, while I'd imagine Nathan Williams and Curtis Terry will get some split of the other half. We'll obviously see a lot more of Ross Homan this weekend after he was kept on the sideline in favor of the nickel against the Purdue. His emerging run-stopping skills will be needed. I'd expect Laurinaitis and Freeman will be busy guys as well. Ringer is a linebacker's dream challenge.
It's looking like man coverage has once again become fashionable in the WHAC. Facing a team that doesn't throw unless it's needed and even then, prefers to go vertical or seam, this may be the best approach to playing the Spartans -- your corners on islands and everyone focusing on the box.
The Buckeyes will need to play their best game of the season to get out of town with a win and keep hopes alive for a conference title and the nice BCS bowl berth that comes with that. If this were a team that didn't have any talent, most of us would have given up a long time ago, but we know this team has the goods. We're just waiting around for that one game when they put it all together and Saturday sounds good to me.
NOTES: Ohio State is 125-101-12 all-time when facing a ranked opponent, including 37-40-7 on the road (though Tressel is 10-5)... Malcolm Jenkins has an interception in each of his last two games... The Buckeyes have owned their opponents in the 1st and 4th quarters this season, outscoring them 50-10 and 58-22, respectively... Coverage map here -- you're either getting the game on ABC or ESPN2.
PREDICTION: Ohio State 21, Michigan State 16