In the rematch vs. Michigan State, one position group in particular has a lot to prove versus the Spartans. Besides Philly Brown, Ohio State’s receivers may as well have been watching last year’s Big Ten Championship Game from the sidelines.
Braxton Miller completed only eight passes in the game and five of them were to Brown and another went to Carlos Hyde. The other two completions went to Devin Smith for 11 yards and Jeff Heuerman for 36 yards.
If the No. 14 Buckeyes want to win in East Lansing this time around the No. 8 Spartans, the outside playmakers have to perform much better this time around against defending Big Ten champions. They will have to do it without Brown who graduated on to the NFL, but Mike Thomas has been a fantastic replacement and this year’s group seems more equipped and prepared to do some damage in the passing game.
Last year the Spartans defense was billed as toughest in the nation and it certainly showed it in the conference championship game, especially in the secondary. Led by future first-rounder Darqueze Dennard, their secondary wouldn’t let receivers gain any form of separation and broke up most passes that were on target. The Spartans’ corners playing press coverage negated starters Devin Smith and Evan Spencer, and they did a good job of confusing offensive coordinator Tom Herman as well.
“It would be like facing a true Cover-0 team, but getting tempted because the fronts and blitzes aren’t Cover-0,” Herman said on Monday. “So you’re like, ‘It’s just quarters, we’ll throw a ball out there if the Sam triggers.’ Well, next thing you know the safety is standing on the line of scrimmage ready to tackle your guy on the bubble. It’s tough to find the space out there because they do such a good job of triggering and their angles are really good.”
The screens and other plays that had gashed opposing defense all year were completely ineffective with defenders right in the face of receivers at the line of scrimmage. But a year has made a huge difference.
Now Ohio State’s defense has employed a similar scheme and the receiving corps is more adept at facing the Spartan defense. They have also found ways they believe they can exploit them as giving up big plays has been an issue for MSU.
“Every time we watch film we see different aspects of opponents that we play that we can exploit,” Evan Spencer said to the media on Wednesday. “They have their certain things that we’re going to try to exploit and I’m sure they do with ours. I think we’ll be really successful as a receiver room and an offense as a whole because of our preparation and the way we’ve looked throughout the week.”
The receiver group is deeper this year and more dynamic with the progressions of Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall in the passing game. And the deep-ball threat will always be there with Devin Smith still in the rotation.
“We know that they like to blitz a lot, like to play press, so we’ll just try to take advantage of every opportunity we get.” Smith said Wednesday. “We’ve worked a bunch of different things in practice. Just looking to go out and show it off on Saturday.”
One thing that seems certain is that the team will not win if it can complete only eight passes again. J.T. Barrett has shown the ability to hit eight different receivers in a single half, so that must continue if the Buckeyes want to walk out of East Lansing with a win.
These players have had almost a full year to soak in what happened in Indianapolis last December, and they are looking for anything they can to earn their revenge and show they can beat an elite defense.
“We’ve seen some plays where the DBs kind of let up a little bit and gave up some big plays” Smith said. “We came in this year looking for this game and marked it on our calendar. Everyone in the wideouts room feels like they’ve gotten better than a year ago and we’re just ready to go out there Saturday.”
We’ll see how much better they’ve gotten Saturday.