Trailing the Spartans 27-24 with 5:46 left in the 2013 Big Ten Championship, Ohio State faced a 4th-and-2 from the Michigan State 39-yard line. The Buckeyes ran Braxton Miller over the right side and he was stopped by Denicos Allen who slipped a Jeff Heuerman block and wrestled the quarterback to the ground. That tackle essentially ended the game, Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak and its shot to play for a national title.
Entering the Nov. 8 rematch with the Spartans the Buckeyes remember that play, enough that they don’t need to see it again.
“If I show it too many times to Jeff, he'll jump off a building,” tight ends coach Tim Hinton said. “I'm not going to show him that play very often. Took me a week to bring him back down to earth after that game.”
That play was one of many that led to the Spartans hoisting the Big Ten Championship Trophy last season. Although this week’s matchup is a regular season contest, it feels as though that trophy – or at least the opportunity to play for it – is once again on the line.
Both Michigan State and Ohio State enter their battle in East Lansing at 7-1 overall and a perfect 4-0 in the conference. The winner will have a one-game lead in the Big Ten East division. That edge would essentially be two games as Saturday’s winner would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker meaning they could stumble once down the stretch and still reach the title game.
For an Ohio State team that hasn’t beaten a ranked team in 13 months, dropping their last two contests against top 25 teams, the game offers a chance to validate the 31-3 record Urban Meyer has amassed since taking over prior to the 2012 season.
“This is our biggest game of the season right now as it is, so if we win good things could happen if we lose bad things could happen, just like any game,” senior offensive tackle Taylor Decker said. “They’re a top 10 team. We want to play them, we want to beat them just to show what we are capable of and show how good of a team we are because everybody knows that they are a good team and maybe we haven’t been tested, some people feel that way, so I think it will be a good gauge of Ohio State football as a whole.”
Not only are the Spartans the first ranked team the Buckeyes have faced this season, they will almost certainly be the last in the regular season. Ohio State closes their 2014 slate with games at Minnesota and home against Indiana and Michigan. The Gophers flirted with the rankings earlier this season, but a loss to lowly Illinois put aside any hopes Buckeyes fans could have of getting a ranked team in Minneapolis. Indiana and Michigan, meanwhile, have a combined record of 7-10.
The Buckeyes came in No. 14 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings and beating the Spartans would give them the one thing the committee craves, a quality win. Furthermore, it would almost certainly give Ohio State a shot at a league championship, another criterion the committee covets, and a shot at another ranked team in the title game.
“There’s a little added intensity,” senior defensive tackle Mike Bennett said. “We understand this is a pretty pivotal game in our season. They’re the highest ranked team we’ve had all year, and it’s a deciding factor of how this season is going to go.
“I guess you could call it a signature win. I think people for the last few years have said we’ve beaten up on teams that aren’t good and when it comes down to it we can’t win a big game. I think if you look back, we’ve had plenty of big games that we’ve won. I think that’s the hype around Ohio State is that we don’t win big games, but it’s important to win this game because they’re a great opponent. If you want postseason dreams, you have to keep winning.”
If like last season’s championship game Saturday’s contest comes down to Ohio State executing a short yardage situation, there may be reason for concern for the Buckeyes.
So far this season Ohio State has converted 56.3 percent of third downs with less than five yards to go. The Buckeyes have picked up five of their 10 fourth-down attempts of the same yardage.
Meyer said the absence of running back Carlos Hyde has been felt in those situations, adding that some schematic tweaks may be in order.
“Teams also give us some pretty tough looks to run into and I think we've got to be – we've tried to do a little throwing in certain situations,” the coach said. “So that's certainly an area that we're going to take a look at and obviously we had one last year we didn't convert on a fourth down.
“So that's a big part of the game now. The personnel and defenses are so good in those situations that it's something we're going to sink a lot of time into.”
Even in their 55-14 decimation of Illinois last week, the Buckeyes were less than impressive in short yardage. After converting their first two short third downs, Ohio State missed on three straight, including a third-and-goal at the 1-yard line. It followed an incompletion on that play with a complete pass on fourth down that resulted in a 1-yard loss.
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said the execution in those spots will have to be better against the Spartans.
“As we saw in the Big Ten Championship, execution is sometimes a matter of inches,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure the inches fall in our favor this week.”
Spartans Offense Matching Defense This Season
Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a nationally relevant team on the defensive side of the ball, but his 2014 squad is just as powerful on offense.
The Spartans enter their game with the Buckeyes as the No. 5 scoring offense in the country, trailing only the Buckeyes in the Big Ten. Michigan State is 10th in the nation in total offense and tops in the conference.
“They seem a lot more consistent with the run and pass,” Bennett said of the Spartans. “I think last year, they were a lot better at running the ball. This year, I think they’re averaging about 250 yards per game each with the run and pass. They’re a lot more consistent, a lot more even. I think it’s very important for us to shut down the run so they have to pass because I think our secondary is a lot better than it was last year.”
The Spartans have been one of the most balanced teams in the country this season, averaging 254.9 yards a game on the ground and 260.4 in the air through eight games this season. While the running game has unsurprisingly been led by Jeremy Langford, a running back that cleared 1,400 yards last season, the maturation of quarterback Connor Cook has propped up the aerial attack.
Cook broke out against the Buckeyes last season with 304 yards passing and has allowed that to carry over into his junior season. He’s tossed for 1,856 yards with 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions this season.
“He’s a lot more consistent throwing the ball, and I think he can hit his receivers a lot better. I think he’s more comfortable in the pocket,” Bennett said. “He’s just a better quarterback. As you get older you get better at your trade, and I think that’s what he’s done.”
Defensive back Armani Reeves did not play against Illinois and appears unlikely to play against Michigan State. The exact nature of the injury remains unclear and Meyer said that freshman Damon Webb and sophomore Cam Burrows would be in line to replace Reeves as the nickel back.
“I don’t think Armani’s going to get cleared,” Meyer said Nov. 5. “Still hasn’t practiced today. He was out here today but didn’t practice.”
J.T. Barrett, meanwhile, is not suffering any ill effects from the MCL sprain in his left knee he suffered against Penn State two weeks ago. “J.T.’s good. I haven’t asked him, he looks great,” Meyer said.
Starting cornerback Eli Apple was dealing with a hamstring injury in practice, Meyer said on his weekly radio show, but the coach expects the freshman to be fine for the game.
A win would give Ohio State its 21st consecutive regular-season conference win, a victory that would give this version of the Buckeyes the record. The team’s 20 straight conference wins is currently tied for the best streak ever with Ohio State teams from 2005-07.
The Buckeyes have won their last four and seven of their last eight at Spartan Stadium.