That didn't really come as a surprise given how Ohio State responded in overtime at State College, but the Buckeyes showed few ill effects from that close call as they blew out the Fighting Illini 55-14.
Yep, they still know how to smack around a team that is hopelessly overmatched. For whatever that is worth.
(OK, they did diversify the attack somewhat with a few tendency-breaking plays and a larger Wildcat package, but I thought that would be better for covering more in depth with the "Second Thoughts" after I can re-watch the game.)
What we can expect to learn this week: Everything, right?
Truth is, we may already know a lot about both Ohio State and Michigan State -- or we might not know much at all.
We know where they had weaknesses to start the season, and we have seen them work on those. We've seen both suffer a double-digit loss to an out-of-conference team then take care of business so far in their Big Ten games. New strengths have also emerged for each team, so this is not the same matchup it was last season or that it seemed like it would be even leading up to the season.
A knowledgeable reporter at the game Saturday night hinted perhaps the Spartans are not quite as good as their press clippings, and I fully believe that is possible, but then again I'm not that sold on the Buckeyes either.
Fact is with one exception neither team has really been tested by a good team outside their loss. That one exception would be Michigan State's win over Nebraska, and how are we supposed to judge them on that game exactly? It was not so much a tale of two halves as three quarters and one. For the first 45 minutes, the Spartans looked like one of the nation's best teams. They created big plays on offense and stonewalled a very good Cornhusker offense, even when Nebraska enjoyed a short field. That was a night we could have stamped MSU as definite contenders for the CFP and the Big Ten favorites. Then they nearly lost in the fourth quarter, a 15-minute period in which little went right for the Spartans.
And what about the Buckeyes? They had a nice opening week showing (especially for opening week) against a solid Navy team and since have pretty much had their way with the teams they have played with two exceptions. None of the teams Ohio State has beaten handily are very good. As it turns out, neither is the one that beat the Buckeyes, and neither is the only OSU victim to be within 10 points at the end.
At the press conference Monday, Urban Meyer and his assistants pushed hard the idea they learned a lot of good lessons about themselves in Happy Vally. I believe there are positives to be taken out of games like the win at Penn State where things are tough at the end, but I'm also still having a hard time getting over how many things had to go wrong to reach that point they needed to dig deep.
As they proved this week, the Nittany Lions are not very good. They didn't really play particularly well against Ohio State but let the Buckeyes make just enough mistakes they could strike. If Ohio State had struggled against a team that was going to win at least like eight games, maybe I'd have come away with a different perception, but that's not the case. Penn State isn't even decent enough that the boost from the crowd and some Buckeye jitters should have made that a game. Ohio State won the year before by 49, and this Penn State team is worse than that one was. "Zombie Nation" is not worth 35 points.
Michigan State had some struggles with a poor Purdue team, but the Spartans were never in such dire straits. They had control of that game for a longer period of time, and they never trailed nor were ever tied after halftime. Instead of letting the Boilermakers drive for a tying touchdown in the final minutes, they blitzed Purdue's quarterback into throwing a pick-six.
As Meyer said Monday, the Buckeyes were staring at a loss if J.T. Barrett doesn't take over in overtime at Penn State. They were one bad series or even one bad play from the game being over.
Of course, nothing that has happened before really means anything this Saturday night. Mistakes that were made before can be left in the past, and teams get more motivated for some games than others, but did Penn State expose some weaknesses in the Buckeyes? I'd say so. First of all, pass protection was a problem. So were Ohio State's nerves and the Buckeyes' reaction to adversity for about two full quarters. So was the deep pass for Penn State's only offensive touchdown. Then of course there is the tweak to Barrett's knee.
Did the Buckeyes do enough against Illinois to prove they have addressed some of those issues? Who knows? Obviously there were no nerves. Barrett was shaky early but had a strong second quarter before exiting the game for good. The defense didn't yield much, but the Illinois passing game is nothing to write home about without Wes Lunt. And opening seams for big runs is not something Ohio State has struggled to do against any other defense this year, so I don't know if the Wildcat gashes were anything more than fast players taking advantage of an opponents' mistakes/lack of ability, things that can't be counted upon in East Lansing.
I suppose the other half of my early-week viewpoint about what is going to happen Nov. 8 is shaped by the fact my main reason for picking Ohio State to beat Michigan State when I did my preseason picks revolved around emotion. I saw motivation being the driving factor, that the Buckeyes will go up to East Lansing and play the type of game that no one could top them on that particular night.
Maybe that will still be the case, but I'm not sure I believe that anymore. It's a nice sentiment, especially in July or August, but it's harder to hold onto once we see teams in action in real life a few times.
This week I'm sure will produce a lot of stuff about how each team will attack the other, but I think the players will probably have more to do with how the game is decided than the play calls. As much as the reaction to Penn State included some schematic questions for Ohio State, this one might be a matter of going back to basics.
I have a feeling the best path to victory for the Buckeyes could be running up the middle and throwing deep, something they've done too much in case of emergency at times during close games during the Meyer era but that could be in order this time around. No matter what, the Buckeyes cannot afford to get behind the chains in this game, even if that means being really patient as they call plays.
I think Ohio State could be in real trouble if it faces very many third and longs because of the ways the Spartans can bring pressure straight up the middle, where Ohio State's pass protection has not been very strong, and the quality of MSU's defensive ends.
Michigan State has been more prone up giving up the big play this season, in part because of a rebuilt secondary that is crucial to really making coordinator Pat Narduzzi's whole system work, but going for the home run ball can really turn out to be fools gold for Michigan State's opponents -- in fact, I think that's what they want. And yet Ohio State has some deep threats who can take advantage of one-on-one opportunities, and that's how they won the game the last time they went to East Lansing.
With a mostly different cast of characters, the Buckeyes were able to run the ball pretty well against the Spartans last year, but they may have gone away from it too soon. The same could be said of the trip to Penn State two weeks ago. Perhaps there's no better time than now to show off the lessons from those games.
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