Three of Ohio State’s starting defenders missed Saturday night’s game against Michigan State with injuries, and it appears likely to remain without at least one of them for the rest of the regular season.
Ryan Day said after the game that linebacker Tommy Eichenberg’s status is “week-to-week” with his arm injury and that Ohio State is optimistic Eichenberg and safety Josh Proctor, who also missed the Michigan State game after taking a shot to the head and leaving the Rutgers game early, will both be back on the field sooner than later.
The outlook for safety Lathan Ransom, however, looks bleaker. Ransom was using a knee scooter to get around with his left foot in a walking boot Saturday night, and Day described Ransom’s injury as “long-term” during his postgame press conference.
“It's not long-term, but it will be week-to-week, and we feel like we're gonna get him back here soon,” Day said when asked about Eichenberg. “Lathan’s more long-term, but I think with Proc, we’re gonna get him back here real soon.”
After having multiple starters suffer injuries of varying severity in each of its previous two games, Ohio State did not appear to suffer any major injuries during Saturday’s game. Freshman cornerback Jermaine Mathews Jr. received some attention on the sideline after injuring his hand on a third-quarter pass breakup, but it appeared as though he could have returned to the game if needed even though he didn’t.
One injury concern popped up pregame when backup quarterback Devin Brown seemingly aggravated the ankle injury he initially suffered against Penn State. Brown fell down while backpedaling during the Buckeyes’ dynamic stretching warmup and came up limping. He was still healthy enough to dress for the game and throw during the final round of pregame warmups, but he did not see any game action. Freshman quarterback Lincoln Kienholz saw his first action of the season instead, completing two of three passing attempts for 18 yards in the fourth quarter, when he replaced Kyle McCord with Ohio State already leading by 38-3, which would be the game’s final score.
With Eichenberg, Proctor and Ransom sidelined, Cody Simon made his first start of the season at linebacker while Sonny Styles made his second consecutive start at one safety spot and Malik Hartford made his second career start at the other. Simon tied for the team lead with five tackles on the night while Hartford recorded four tackles and Styles recorded three tackles, including one sack.
Stover comes back strong
While Ohio State’s defense was without a few key players against Michigan State, Ohio State’s offense was finally back to full strength for the first time since September as all of their regular starters were in action against the Spartans. That included tight end Cade Stover, who missed the Rutgers game with a knee injury but looked no worse for wear against the Spartans.
In just one half of play, Stover tied his Ohio State career-high – previously set earlier this year against Notre Dame – with seven catches. He caught the ball every single time he was targeted for a total of 79 yards, highlighted by an impressive 18-yard touchdown catch that gave the Buckeyes a 35-3 lead before halftime.
With those 79 yards, Stover became the fifth tight end in Ohio State history to surpass 500 receiving yards in a season. He’s now caught 34 passes for 508 yards and four touchdowns, leaving him only 163 yards shy of the school record for receiving yards by a tight end (671 by Billy Anders in 1966).
“He's one-on-one a decent amount, he's a big target and he's made contested catches, and I think Kyle feels comfortable throwing to that big target.”– Ryan Day on Cade Stover’s production as a receiver
Ohio State’s offense had what could be considered its best half of the season as the Buckeyes scored touchdowns on five of their six first-half possessions against Michigan State, after which Ohio State began to take its starters out of the game as Stover did not play any second-half snaps. Day felt the return of Stover played a significant role in Ohio State’s first-half offensive excellence.
“He's become a weapon in the passing game. And he's in a situation where he's one-on-one a decent amount, he's a big target and he's made contested catches, and I think Kyle feels comfortable throwing to that big target,” Day said. “Even when he is covered, like he was in the two-minute drill, he's a big guy, you can throw him open like that and he's going to make that catch. That was a really nice play. So another guy who, when we're working at full capacity, he's a big part.”
Defensive dominance continues
While Ohio State didn’t need to be a defensive-driven team on Saturday – as it has been for much of the season – given the way its offense played against Michigan State, that didn’t stop the rejuvenated Silver Bullets from having another fantastic outing.
Even with Ransom, Proctor and Eichenberg all sidelined, Michigan State never got farther than Ohio State’s 36-yard line as the Buckeyes held the Spartans to a measly 3.2 yards per carry and an abhorrent 3.5 yards per pass attempt. Michigan State scored its only points of the night on a 53-yard field goal.
“It’s great to see some guys step up,” Day said. “You just never know how this thing is going to shake out. You have to have guys play, and even at the end of the game we got some guys some reps. Those are precious reps because you just never know when guys are going to have to be put in those situations.”
Hartford was among the standout fill-ins, playing deep safety and collecting a team-high four solo tackles.
“He’s a young, talented player,” Simon said. “There’s not many freshmen out there who are coming out and playing big, high-level football. He’s super smart and he’s going to get better every play, so I’m excited for him.”
“It’s great to see some guys step up.”– Ryan Day on Ohio State’s defensive excellence despite being down three starters
Tyleik Williams continued what has been a breakout season as one of Ohio State’s premier defensive linemen, collecting four tackles and a sack from his defensive tackle spot.
The Spartans also went just 2-of-14 on third down against the Buckeyes, a number that will improve the team’s standing entering the week as the No. 17 third-down defense in college football. Michigan State finished the game with a meager 182 total yards, tying its 49-0 loss to Michigan on Oct. 21 for its lowest output of the season.
That was the second-lowest yardage total allowed by Ohio State’s defense this season behind only its season opener against Indiana, a game in which the Buckeyes also allowed only three points.
Youth gains experience
A 35-3 halftime lead and minimal threats from the Spartan attack ensured plenty of young talent got to play for Ohio State on Saturday.
Notable players who saw an increase in playing time for Ohio State on offense included Kienholz and freshman tight end Jelani Thurman, who was on the receiving end of both of Kienholz’s completions.
Another young player who entered in relief and stood out to Day was freshman cornerback Calvin Simpson-Hunt, who played his first defensive snaps against Michigan State after shedding his black stripe earlier in the week. On his first defensive play in the game, Simpson-Hunt shed a block from an offensive lineman to make a tackle on a 2nd-and-10 screen pass short of the first-down line.
“A young guy that just flashed to me was Calvin Simpson-Hunt on that screen play,” Day said. “Just what a great play for him to show up there. Like, OK. Now the coaches see that, that’s evident now. We should be looking at this guy.”
Sophomore linebacker C.J. Hicks, a five-star prospect, flashed some of his potential with two solo tackles, one made for no gain and another for a loss. Ole Miss transfer defensive tackle Tywone Malone also made a pair of tackles to double his total for the season.
Minnesota, if Ohio State can build a similarly comfortable lead in the first half, will likely be the last chance for the Buckeyes to play deep into their depth chart this season. After that, Ohio State will face tougher competition the rest of the way as it closes out its regular season against Michigan and then moves on to postseason play.
Day said the reps that the backups were able to get against Michigan State will be valuable for all of those players regardless of how well they performed.
“They’ve got to grab onto those reps and some guys did flash,” Day said. “That’s where you see a guy on the field. And other guys, as we say, you spit the bit. They didn’t quite handle it the right way and they have to learn from that. They’re all gradable snaps on film and it doesn’t matter what the score is.”