The task doesn't get much easier for the Green-and-White when they line up against freshman sensation Tedd Ginn, Jr. and the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday.
Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel says he doesn't think there's any chance of a letdown or a hangover from the Spartans.
"I would say this, if they weren't playing Ohio State, that might be an option, but I'm sure as they worked out all summer long and they looked at their schedule, they had about eight days there right in a row that were circled that were probably going to be the difference in their football season, Saturday to Saturday, Michigan and Ohio State.
And I'm sure they've been thinking about it for quite some time and the fact that it's Ohio State coming to their house, I'd be shocked if there was anything other than an increased effort."
Fortunately for the Spartans, OSU has been less than their old dominating selves since sophomore quarterback Troy Smith took over for the Buckeyes after sophomore Justin Zwick suffered a separated shoulder in a shocking 33-7 loss to the Hawkeyes.
Smith, though, has rallied the Buckeyes to two wins in three chances and comes in playing well according to Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. "I have been impressed by [Smith's] decision making. I have been impressed, too, by his command of the team when he is out there. Troy is a very competitive player, who really wants to win."
Ohio State has benefitted greatly from the emergence of freshman Ted Ginn, Jr. one of the most highly recruited prep players in the nation last season and Scout.com's high school player of the year. Ginn ability to return punts have been game turners for the Buckeyes. He has returned three kicks for touchdowns including a 67-yarder against Penn State leading directly to a 21-10 Ohio State win. "Ted can make plays," said head coach Jim Tressel. "We just need to make sure we get the ball to him."
The Buckeyes sport a talent laden defense that has several potential NFL draft picks. The Ohio State defense has been strong, keeping their team in the game and turning the ball back to their offense. They are led by junior weakside linebacker A.J. Hawk (101 tackles), senior corner Dustin Fox and prototype NFL free safety, junior Nate Salley (6-3, 215 lbs.) who has big time range and hits like a truck.
WHEN OHIO STATE HAS THE BALL Expect the Buckeyes to play a conservative, ball control, field position game. They realize that they don't have a lot of home run hitters on offense, so they are content to keep it close to the vest, waiting for the opposing offense to make mistakes.
Look for senior tailback Maurice Hall to get 10-to-15 carries, setting up play action to sophomore flanker Santonio Holmes, probably the most talented player of the Buckeyes offense. If Hall falters, the Bucks will turn to freshman Antonio Pittman and will likely try to mix Ginn, Jr. into the game on offense.
Tressel spoke about the impact Hall has had on the Ohio State offense. "He had 14 [carries] for 62 yards, which I think was excellent. In fact our staff, obviously, felt it was because he was the offensive player of the game, not just for the running, but for the entire picture."
The Spartans hope that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson is at full strength, because when both he and nose guard Brandon McKinney are in the ball game, they are able to keep opposing offensive linemen off linebacker Ronald Stanley, enabling him to roam free and make tackles.
The Spartans may also have to deal with the return of Lydell Ross to the lineup. Tressel confirmed that Ross will be available and part of the four-man rotation with Branden Joe, that will carry the football for OSU.
Tressel gave his impressions of the problems the Spartans pose defensively, for the Buckeyes.
"I think their front is very, very good. Number 44 (Ronald Stanley) , the one linebacker is all over the place, Stanley, he's been there, it seems like, forever. #25, Harmon, is a sure tackler, and they'll have both 25 and 36 (safety Eric Smith) up in the box. That's just what they do and they're going to dare you to throw deep and if you jump up and catch him, then you won and if you don't, then it's second and 10 and you're punting or whatever it happens to be," said Tressle.
"Their corner, #17(Rod Maples), is a guy that is a little more versatile. He blitzes a lot from the corner, but he also, I think they look at him as their top cover guy. #31 (Jaren Hayes) has a lot of experience. Their nickel guy, #12 (Ashton Watson), is a solid player. Probably where they may be the youngest is at their outside backer position. #34(Tyrell Dortch) used to be a running back and now he's playing outside backer. Although if you're not in two backs, he's not in the game, they're typically in nickel. But good speed. I don't know how many sacks they had Saturday, but just watching the film, it seemed like three or four or five, so they get after you," Tressel stated.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE HAS THE BALL
The playbook figures to be smaller for the Spartans going into this one, but we hope they keep the nifty inside option shovel pass and sprint draw that so befuddled Michigan and led directly to about 150 of junior DeAndra Cobb's 205 yards rushing.
Tressel is wary of what Cobb brings to the Spartans attack. "We remember him because he returned a kickoff for a touchdown a year ago," said Tressel. "He's done that this year as well, returned a kickoff for a touchdown. He covers punts. He covers the kickoff. Now he's rushed for, I don't know, five, six hundred yards, catches the ball in the back field. He has been a big impact in that run game as well."
The running attack for the Spartans will be key, and while they won't run a four-man rotation, look for freshman Jehuu Caulcrick to get more action than he did a week ago. Smith wisely kept Caulcrick on the sidelines as the pressure mounted in the backyard brawl and with Cobb having the hot hand, look for him to get ample opportunity to break one again. Meanwhile, the loss of quarterback Drew Stanton, likely for the season, give senior Damon Dowdell one last chance for glory.
Dowdell showed the ability to get outside of containment and run for first downs, but he needs to use his arm more in this one. Dowdell needs to develop a comfort level with junior Matt Trannon and freshman Terry Love, the two most sure handed of his corps, while seeing if he can coax anything out of his high school teammate Eric Knott in both players last seasons as Spartans.
If MSU can get the passing game going just enough to keep the Buckeyes defense honest, they have the ability and the talent to defeat the Scarlet-and Gray.
INTANGIBLES Meanwhile, the MSU kicking game is in great hands with senior Dave Rayner, a nominee for the Lou Groza award. While Rayner stats are a reflection of poor holding and suspect snaps. Rayner nearly won the Michigan game in regulation before the 52mph winds knocked down his attempt.
Rayner will have to keep the ball away from Ohio State's Hall who in last week's win against Penn State broke the Buckeye's all-time kickoff return record. "He didn't just break it, he shattered the ... return yardage record and I know that his guys in front of him really prepared hard and wanted very badly for him to have the opportunity against Penn State, who was the top-rated kickoff coverage team in the Big Ten," said Tressel. "I thought that was a special moment because of the way it was done in such convincing fashion."
With Ginn having already returned three punts for touchdowns, junior all-american Brandon Fields needs to either use directional punting effectively or hang the ball up high to prevent Ginn from breaking loose. In a close game like this one figures to be, a poor punt could be a game breaker.
Conversely, MSU hasn't gotten much from the punt return game from junior Agim Shabaj but has the always dangerous Cobb ready on kick returns. Cobb broke one against the Buckeyes last year and would like to duplicate the feat.
At home and needing three of their last four games to be bowl eligible, MSU should come out ready to roll despite last week's loss to Michigan. The Spartans simply have more playmakers than the Buckeyes and if they play up to their potential they could win by as many 10-to-14 points. But without Stanton they loose something.
MICHIGAN STATE 17 - OHIO STATE 13