That Buckeyes team was playing for a shot at a national title when they fell to the Spartans in the Big Ten Championship Game. The current version of the scarlet and gray has made it clear they are out for revenge when the team’s square off this Saturday.
While the entire team may carry the burden of that loss, many of the most important players on the 2014 Buckeyes only have memories of watching Ohio State and Michigan State battle for Big Ten supremacy 11 months ago. Of the 49 players on Ohio State’s two-deep, 24 were either not on the team last season or didn’t see the field in the championship game.
The Buckeyes relative inexperience extends beyond that one game as 28 players in the most recent two-deep are either freshman or sophomores against 24 juniors or seniors. By contrast, the Spartans have 34 juniors or seniors in their two-deep. Nine Michigan State starters are fifth-year seniors.
“It's a huge factor,” head coach Urban Meyer said of the experience discrepancy. “Last year I thought we were kind of a veteran team, certainly on the offense, with those linemen. And that's certainly not the case this year.
“It's a factor, but not much you can do about it but go back to work and do the best you can. So that's certainly a factor.”
Ohio State has five players on both offense and defense who started in the Big Ten Championship Game last season. Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein both started that game on the offensive line as did wide receivers Evan Spencer and Devin Smith and tight end Jeff Heuerman. Defensively Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry started at linebacker, Doran Grant started at cornerback while Joel Hale and Joey Bosa both started on the defensive line. Hale has since moved to offensive line. Punter Cameron Johnston and long snapper Bryce Haynes will also start for the second consecutive year against the Spartans.
“After the first game they became veteran players, that’s my perception of it,” Decker said of his young teammates. “Baptism by fire.
“I think after the Penn State game, them being in that kind of hostile environment where it’s us against everybody, that’s good for them. They are going to grow a lot from that experience because we are going into another hostile environment against a good team, good players. I think that game and the fact that we gutted it out was really good for a lot of the young players in that environment. Like I said, I think after the first game they became veteran players. They’re not necessarily rookies anymore.”
Still, it’s undeniable that the Buckeyes are young. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is the most visible of Ohio State’s young players. He, like the running back tandem of Ezekiel Elliott and Curtis Samuel, didn’t play against Michigan State last season. Three offensive lineman while join those players in getting their first offensive snaps against the Spartans Saturday.
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman agreed with his offensive lineman that the Penn State game forced his team to grow up.
“Youth is never a good thing,” he said. “But it’s not an excuse either. Like I said, had the Penn State game not twisted and turned and turned out the way that it turned out, I might be a little more worried, because I really had yet to see, other than one game, our guys challenged. And that feels like it was three years ago against Virginia Tech and we didn’t respond well to that challenge. Now that the Penn State game has happened and we didn’t play well for the most part of the game but we still rose to the occasion when we needed to, I feel a lot better about the youth of our group growing up a little bit.”
If they rise to the occasion against Michigan State, they’ll do so against a veteran group. The Spartans have 10 juniors and seniors starting on defense and eight on offense, including quarterback Connor Cook who returns after carving up the Buckeyes for 304 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Herman said the experience shows.
“They’re grown dudes,” he said. “They’re very physically developed and I can’t praise enough how fundamentally sound they are in what they do. They’re never out of place, they’re never out of a gap, they never get fooled, they never get tricked. They’re as sound an outfit as we are going to play in my time here.”