With all the subplots involved in Ohio State's trip to Michigan State this weekend, it came as no surprise the Buckeye assistants made available to the media Monday and a bunch of interesting things to say.
This week Ohio State made available three assistants instead of the usual two. Tim Hinton, Tom Herman and Luke Fickell had interesting insights into the Buckeyes and their opponents, Michigan State, prior to what figures to be the game of the year in the Big Ten.
Tim Hinton, tight ends coach
Big games against ranked teams are what you're signing up for when you decide to go to a place like Ohio State. These are what defines a season. You have to play well on the road in a tough environment.
Asked if the offense is more complete this season, he said that's a great question. There have been some days it wasn't so hot, but he still asks himself what he would want to try to stop first if he were trying to defend them. The X and Z receivers are playing well, the tight ends have shown they can make plays down the field, the running backs can catch the ball and run between the tackles, they have guys who can catch a screen pass and the perimeter run game is strong. He attributed the lulls the offense has had to the game of checkers that goes on during a game. They need time to realign based on what the opponent is doing sometimes, but he really likes what they're doing.
These are good weeks to coach on Urban Meyer's staff. The worst weeks are when the head coach is worried about complacency. Then he goes out of his way to make sure no one is comfortable. This week everyone should be focused so they can just go about their business.
Asked about the failed fourth-and-2 play in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, Hinton said tight end Jeff Heuerman can't stand to look at that play. Michigan State brought a unique blitz but one they had seen. The defender took a different angle than they had seen on film, though, and he got loose of Heuerman and made the tackle. MSU does what it does but will shift the front a little bit and change rotations for how they make their run fits.
He said former boss Mark Dantonio is a really good coach and good people. He also called Dantonio a lifetime friend. His teams always bring an element of toughness and have some surprises for opponents. They have been in some big games lately and don't back down. Asked to describe the differences between Dantonio and Meyer, he smiled and said that would take too long.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Baugh has had some ups and downs but is making progress.
Sam Hubbard will end up playing whatever position is best for the team, but there is competition among the coaches to get his services. He is a great young man and a dedicated, hard worker. Hinton isn't sure where he will end up but right now he works mostly with the defensive line.
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Someone brought up the quarterback run they called on fourth-and-two in the Big Ten Championship game, noting they had called it for a touchdown earlier in the game and Herman corrected him -- "Twice." The MSU linebacker made a great play, but there is no defense, coverage or pressure that they can't adjust to. They have answers, including if they blitz the water boy off the sideline. "It's just a matter of having the wherewithal, the presence to have enough quality reps at every position to handle all the different things a defense can do."
Asked if throwing against Michigan State is more difficult than other defenses, he said yes and no. MSU presses and challenges every throw, so it is like Cover 0 after you get beyond about eight yards down the field. That means the quarterback has to be more accurate than he was against Illinois. The throws aren't harder to make, they just require more precision and must be on time.
This figures to be the first time this season J.T. Barrett actually sees the same defense on the field that he saw on film. Just about everyone else they have faced has drawn up something new, but that's not MSU's style. That is good because Barrett should understand where defenders will be and what to expect, but on the downside Michigan State is really good at what they do. Herman said Barrett's problems with some high throws early last week were a matter of trying to muscle it past the mid-range defenders in Illinois' Cover 3 defense. Herman told him he needs to trust the trajectory of his throws, not worry about how hard he throws it.
The Buckeyes have seen a lot of bear fronts and a lot of surprises from opposing defenses this season, but he's not worried about either of those from Michigan State. The Spartans do what they do -- 4-3 quarters with press corners. He has earned their respect because they are so good at doing the same thing over and over, essentially saying, "You've got to do what you do better than what we do." He likened it to Iowa when he was an assistant at Iowa State -- under Norm Parker, the Hawkeyes always played a 4-3 Cover 6 every snap. MSU mixes in about 25-30 percent blitzes with its base. It's not a matter of saying they have better players than the opponent but rather their combination of players, training and scheme create something you can't beat.
Asked about Ohio State's problems in short yardage this season, he said there are multiple aspects. It's more an issue of identity than scheme. They might have overreacted to getting stuffed at Maryland a couple of times, and they have to figure out what they want to be. He also said going under center more is not an answer because he has studied it and the only time that is beneficial compared to the shotgun is a QB sneak. The timing of the play is the same whether they hand off out of the shotgun or from under center, especially now that the pistol is in wide use. They're a two-back power team either way.
Braxton Miller's rehab from shoulder surgery is going well. He is on or ahead of schedule. He is engaged when he's around the guys working on things.
Asked if he feels like he has a better grasp on how to attack Michigan State now that he has done so twice, Herman said probably. That experience is only as good as it applies to what this Ohio State offense is capable of doing, though. He has to call plays the Buckeyes can execute correctly that can exploit weaknesses in the scheme. Along those lines, he mentioned again the DBs have no help beyond eight yards. You can't just throw a bubble screen because of how shallow the safeties play and how well they and the linebackers trigger against such a play. MSU has some "grown dudes" who are very physical developed. He can't praise their fundamentals enough.
Jalin Marshall isn't really the No. 1 H-back because Dontre Wilson has done nothing to lose that distinction, but they are pretty much interchangeable now. Marshall is better as the Wildcat because of his experience taking snaps as a quarterback in high school. His development has been a pleasant surprise.
Herman feels better about the youth of this team after seeing how it responded to the adversity at Penn State.
This does not feel like just another game, and that's a good thing. They would be foolish to pretend otherwise. At midnight Saturday night someone will have a big advantage in the division race and toward reaching their goals. They have to manage the pressure and make sure the guys aren't tight. That comes with proper preparation.
He has seen people test Michigan State deep more this season, and that is a strong temptation. There are big plays to be had against this type of high-pressure defense, but the margin for execution is tight. And you can't take five big shots and strikes out five times because getting behind the chains is killer.
Barrett is getting better at going off script and creating something when the design breaks down. He also avoids negative plays when doing so.
Devin Smith has done a great job understanding they need to involve as many players as possible to succeed as an offense this season. He understands it and has no issue with different opportunities this year. He likes winning.
Luke Fickell, defensive coordinator/linebackers coach
He is happy with how the Ohio State defense is coming along. Coaching effort is not something they have to do anymore. It's always where they want it. He always says letdowns are most likely after being praised, but he likes the track they are on. They've been creating turnovers lately because of hard work. Guys are taking advantage of opportunities when they are there. It's not luck. (It might be luck -- MH.)
Connor Cook handles pressure pretty well. The Michigan State quarterback has not been sacked much, and that is a combination of good blocking and his getting rid of the ball and/or keeping plays alive when he needs to. He does take chances, though. You see those on film. He has a lot of confidence in his receivers and gives them chances to make plays. Success breeds confidence, and confident players play better.
Cook's trust is most apparent with Tony Lippett, the team's top receiver. Cook will throw to him whether he is covered or not because he feels like Lippett will make the play for him, and he often does. He is a big-play receiver.
There has been no change in Steve Miller this year. He's still the same guy who is a hard worker, a grinder. He's what the culture they are trying to build is all about. He's just getting more opportunities to show what he can do now. Miller is a fighter.
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