Two weeks ago, the offensive coaches made it a point to challenge the Buckeye receivers – particularly starters Devin Smith and Corey Brown – as they prepared to go up against a pair of standout California cornerbacks in Marc Anthony and Steve Williams.
The challenge was that those DBs would be playing a fair share of press man coverage, and that meant the Buckeye wideouts would have the chance to make plays – if they were up to it.
"(Offensive coordinator Tom) Herman said, with the guys playing press on us, that's a question to our manhood," Smith said at the time.
It's fair to say the Buckeyes answered the call that day, particularly Smith. Ohio State hit a number of big plays and quarterback Braxton Miller threw for a career-high 249 yards, needing all of them as the Scarlet and Gray squeaked out a 35-28 win against the upset-minded visitors.
The Ohio State coaching staff confirmed the challenge will be laid down again going into this weekend's game at Michigan State. The No. 20 Spartans have one of the best defenses in the country, and one of the keys is a pair of cornerbacks who make opposing receivers fight for every yard they get.
"This is the best secondary we've played to date, so it's a challenge for the whole group and the quarterbacks as well," receivers coach Zach Smith said. "It's a challenge that I've laid out and Coach Meyer has laid out, but it's also a challenge that I feel like we're ready for. I'm excited to watch them take on that challenge."
The star of the group is senior Johnny Adams, a third-year starter who hails from Akron Buchtel. A preseason All-America candidate coming into the season, Adams was a first-team All-Big Ten choice last year and has nine career interceptions.
On the other side, junior Darqueze Dennard is in his second year as a starter and has 20 tackles to go with three pass breakups on the year. Then there are the safeties, as junior Isaiah Lewis was a second-team All-Big Ten choice last year and Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond are playing well while splitting the other starting spot.
The experience possessed by the back four allows Michigan State to have confidence in those players, linebacker Max Bullough said.
"You just don't have to worry about them, about things going wrong," Bullough told MSU reporters recently. "Sure, someone's gonna make a play on them at times, that's how football is. But for the most part we feel like we have better corners than a lot of the receivers we go against. Not taking any credit away from anyone else, but when you have that, it really opens up the playbook."
Ohio State is well aware of Michigan State's strategy and goes into the game knowing they will have to try to beat the Spartans over the top.
"They do put them on islands," Zach Smith said. "Their structure of defense is they're going to play press man on the outside receivers, and they don't really have a lot of help. They're going to get beat every now and then. That's the nature of asking them to play without help, but at the same time they're really efficient at it."
While Michigan State has a track record of success – the Spartans lead the league in total defense, scoring defense and passing efficiency defense – the Buckeyes feel like they have the players to make things happen.
That starts with Devin Smith, who has become a bona fide deep thread this season. He was huge against Cal, catching a pair of long touchdown passes – including the game winner – and setting up another score by beating Williams in single coverage.
"Anytime you challenge a guy like him that is a competitive kid and when you challenge him, he almost takes it personal, which is a good thing, he gets a little mad and a little disrespected," Zach Smith said. "It obviously produces results, so I'm really excited to watch him play."
On the year, Devin Smith has caught 17 passes for a 16.0-yard average and three scores. He's been aided by Brown, who has a team-high 20 grabs and said he's becoming more comfortable in the offense by the day.
Add in weapons like Jacob Stoneburner, who had a 40-yard catch vs. Cal after beating man coverage, and emerging threats like Evan Spencer and Michael Thomas and the Buckeyes think they have the ability to make things happen against the Spartans through the air.
"I feel like every week we have to be on our game, but this week especially," Brown said. "They have a really good secondary this week. We're up for the challenge and it should be fun."