With second-string defenders on the field and fans beginning to file out of Ohio Stadium early in the fourth quarter Saturday, the Michigan State offense produced its first points of the game.
The Spartans celebrated a picture perfect pitch-and-catch from Payton Thorne to Keon Coleman over Buckeye cornerback Ryan Watts in the end zone, but if any of them glanced up at the scoreboard in Columbus, they would’ve known that the play was inconsequential. Ohio State was still up 49-7 after the extra point, and the game’s final result had not been in question in quite some time.
Just last week, the Ohio State defense still looked like a liability for the Buckeyes. Depending on the matchup, it may still be moving forward. But on Saturday, the Buckeye defense proved it can come up huge against a top-flight team in the country, and even after a historic day by Ohio State’s offense, the other side of the ball was nearly as impressive for much of the game.
“I think they took it as a challenge to stop the run,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said after the game. “We’re gonna have another challenge coming up this week, but certainly had a lot of respect for (Kenneth) Walker coming into the game and wanted to do a good job stopping the run and really make them play really one-dimensional. I thought we did that.”
Michigan State did not score a point on its first nine drives through three quarters of play in Columbus, and one could be forgiven for forgetting that the nation’s leading rusher – one of the three leading Heisman Trophy candidates entering the weekend – was on the field for the Spartans on Saturday.
Kenneth Walker was bottled up for just 29 yards on seven touches on the day, his fewest of the season, and Michigan State finished with 66 yards on the ground on 21 attempts in the game. The Wake Forest transfer had been averaging 182 total yards per contest in the past three entering the weekend.
“We talked amongst the D-line, amongst the defense. We just decided to have a different mindset about this week,” Buckeye defensive end Tyreke Smith said after the game. “We didn’t want to be one of those teams that he did what he wanted against, so we just had that mindset that we were gonna shut him down the whole week. We were playing the scout team like we were playing Kenneth. So we just took that mindset and took it onto the game, took what we did in practice and put it into the game, and it paid off for us.”
In Michigan State’s defense, running the ball wasn’t exactly an enticing option after the team went down 21-0 with 2:31 remaining on the clock in the first quarter alone.
Instead, the Spartans were forced to pass the ball early and often. They found slightly more success through the air against a Buckeye pass defense that had been maligned coming into the game, but success, in this case, is a relative term.
At halftime alone, Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne had already thrown more incompletions than he had in any full game all season. Thorne was just 8-for-26 with 77 yards and a passer rating of 55.6. By the end of the game, Thorne was still just 14-for-36 with 158 yards.
Needless to say, that was not the offensive game plan Michigan State needed to employ in order to get the better of the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Day said in the week leading up to the game that Michigan State’s “recipe” was to limit big plays on defense, control the game with the run and then set up the play-action pass thereafter. None of those things worked for the Spartans on Saturday.
Defensively, they were dead in the water from the first possession on. Ohio State’s first three touchdowns, all in the opening 15 minutes, came on plays of 23, 77 and 46 yards. As if a three-touchdown deficit wasn’t enough to put the Spartans behind the eight ball, Buckeye safety Ronnie Hickman forced a fumble from Michigan State running back Jordon Simmons with 53 seconds left in the first quarter, and the Buckeye offense got the ball back in plus territory.
C.J. Stroud had a ridiculous first half performance: 29-31, 393 pass yards and 6 touchdowns pic.twitter.com/C1row39Vz6— ESPN (@espn) November 20, 2021
Before a minute passed in the second quarter, the Buckeyes had already scored again. By the end of the first half, the score was 49-0.
“When they come out scoring, getting points on the board early and we’re coming out with three-and-outs, that’s just good chemistry coming together,” Smith said. “It’s like a snowball effect, like we just keep bouncing our energy off each other, and the more it happens, the more we get better. So we’re just getting comfortable as the season’s going on. You’re starting to see that we’re gelling together.”
The Ohio State defense finished with a pair of sacks, nine tackles for loss and 11 pass breakups on the day. The Buckeyes might have held Michigan State scoreless even longer if not for a turnover by their backup offense, when second-string quarterback Kyle McCord tossed an interception in the final minutes of the third quarter to set the Spartans up just shy of midfield.
At the start of the fourth quarter, most defensive starters had already left the game for Ohio State, and Michigan State managed to find the end zone its aforementioned touchdown pass. But in the end, the Spartans racked up just 224 total yards and scored just once on 12 total drives.
Even more impressive is that Ohio State was without two key defensive starters for part of the game. Second-year linebacker Cody Simon left the field with an apparent injury in the first quarter and never returned, and freshman cornerback Denzel Burke didn’t play at all in the second half after suffering a shoulder injury in the second quarter, though he did return to the game late in the first half.
So confident was the Buckeye defense coming into the game that fifth-year senior defensive tackle Haskell Garrett even guaranteed fans at Saturday’s Skull Session that Ohio State would “whoop their ass.” The performance backed his words up and then some against Michigan State, and Garrett stood by the statement after the game.
“It’s just we had a great week of practice, great preparation. A lot of guys sacrificed certain things and made this a priority,” Garrett said. “We knew how big this running back was and how good this team was, and we just had a great practice.
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.”
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