Facing its first – and possibly last – ranked opponent of the regular season, the Ohio State football team needed to post a statement win at No. 8 Michigan State if the Buckeyes had any hopes of remaining in the conversation for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Ohio State played its best game of the season and earned a 49-37 win over the Spartans at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
The game turned late in the first half. Following a back-and-forth first 25 minutes, the Buckeyes took command. Michigan State took a 21-14 lead with a touchdown with 4:37 remaining in the second quarter. After that, however, Ohio State scored 14 points to take a halftime lead and the momentum it would use to post a victory.
The two late first-half touchdowns came after a major scare for the Buckeyes. Sophomore Dontre Wilson fumbled a kickoff after MSU took its seven-point lead, and the Spartans recovered at the OSU 18-yard-line. Ohio State’s defense stood tall, however, and forced a 39-yard field goal attempt by Michael Geiger, which sailed wide left with 3:30 on the clock.
The Buckeyes built on that momentum quickly. On the first play following the missed boot, Barrett found wide receiver Michael Thomas across the middle. Michigan State cornerback Darian Hicks missed a tackle as Thomas hauled in the ball, allowing the Buckeye sophomore to run down the left sideline for a 79-yard touchdown. It was the longest play the Spartans had allowed this season and, following Sean Nuernberger’s extra-point boot, tied the game 21-21 with 3:19 left before halftime.
Ohio State took its first lead of the game in the final minute of the first half. Following a MSU punt, Barrett led an impressive two-minute drive, leading a five-play drive that went 64 yards. After a first-down incompletion, Barrett completed an 8-yard gain to Thomas and a 12-yard gain to Evan Spencer to advance the ball to the OSU 44. Facing a third-and-2, senior wide receiver Devin Smith raced past MSU safety R.J. Williamson and hauled in a touchdown pass with 56 seconds left before halftime.
The Nuernberger PAT made it 28-21 at halftime. The Buckeyes cruised from there, outscoring MSU 14-3.
Going up against Michigan State’s vaunted defense, which entered the game No. 5 nationally in total defense by allowing 279.4 yards per game, the Buckeyes were dominant. Led by redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, OSU piled up 568 yards of total offense and wore down the Spartans. Barrett led the way with three touchdown passes on 16-of-26 passes for 300 yards and no interceptions.
Smith was Barrett’s top target, hauling in six passes for 129 yards. Thomas added three receptions for 91 yards. The rushing game was led by sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed 23 times for 154 yards and two scores. The last time the Buckeyes had two receivers post 100-plus yards and a running back go over the century mark was the 2006 Fiesta Bowl when receivers Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. and running back Antonio Pittman accomplished the feat against Notre Dame.
The OSU defense also fared well against an improved Michigan State offense. Junior linebacker Joshua Perry led the Buckeyes with eight sacks, and junior defensive tackle Michael Bennett had four stops, including two for a loss and a sack.
Michigan State was led by junior quarterback Connor Cook. He completed 24 of 44 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns. Senior tailback Jeremy Langford had 137 yards and three TDs. Sophomore tight end Josiah Price and senior wideout Keith Mumphery both caught TD passes.
Spoiling Sparty’s Party
Ohio State started the game on offense after taking the opening kickoff and drove 45 yards in nine plays to the MSU 30 before settling for a Nuernberger 47-yard field goal attempt that fell just short of the crossbar.
The Spartans turned their first drive into points after the missed kick. Cook put MSU into the red zone on the second play of the drive with a deep pass that fell into the arms of Mumphery, who had gotten a step on OSU redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Tyvis Powell. Conley started the game at cornerback in place of fellow redshirt freshman Eli Apple, who was dealing with a hamstring injury.
Two plays later, Cook found Mumphrey again at the OSU 12. He then went right, broke a tackle attempt by Conley and bowled into the end zone. A PAT by Geiger made it 7-0 MSU with 9:42 left in the first quarter.
Ohio State did not waste time in answering the score, thanks in large part to the legs of Elliott. He started the march with a 19-yard run to the OSU 48 after taking a pitch over the right end and then had his number called again. He broke out on a big run that started to the left and cut to the middle of the field all the way to the Spartan 5. Barrett threw an incomplete pass on first and goal before calling his own number on a 5-yard touchdown that knotted the game following a Nuernberger extra point with 8:41 left in the opening frame.
Michigan State was forced to punt on its next possession, but the Buckeyes made the game’s first key mistake on the play. Mike Sadler’s punt hit off the leg of OSU gunner Jeff Greene and MSU’s Chris Frey – a native of Upper Arplington, Ohio – fell on the live ball at the OSU 33. It only took the Spartans one play to turn the miscue into a touchdown on a Langford run.
Ohio State had a promising drive after the Langford TD. Taking over at the 27, Barrett drove the Buckeyes to the MSU 22 before having the drive quickly turn sour. On first down, Elliott was stopped for a 5-yard rush by MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Barrett found Smith for an 18-yard gain on second down, but the play was called back on a personal foul on OSU senior tackle Taylor Decker. On second-and-30, Elliott rushed for a yard before Barrett lost 14 yards on an intentional grounding penalty he took while being sacked.
That forced a fourth-and-43 and a Johnston punt.
The Buckeyes tied the game early in the second quarter. Barrett’s arm and legs made the big plays. Facing a third-and-23 from the OSU 36, Barrett threw a picture-perfect pass to Smith down the right sideline over his outside shoulder. The gain went for 43 yards to the Michigan State 21. Redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall entered the game as the wildcat quarterback and led the Buckeyes to the MSU 2 after a trio of rushes.
The Spartans held strong near the goal line, forcing a fourth-and-goal inside the 1. After an OSU timeout, Barrett called his own number and rushed up the middle for a touchdown that tied the game after a Nuernberger PAT with 12:27 left before halftime.
The first four scoring drives of the game were all quick, lasting five, four, one and eight plays, respectively. Michigan State changed that trend after the Barrett rushing TD. The Spartans took over at their 34 and rushed 11 times for 37 yards during a 14-play drive that elapsed 7:43. Langford only had one of those carries, but it was for a 1-yard touchdown. The Geiger PAT made it 21-14 with 4:37 remaining in the second quarter.
That set up the late first-half scoring burst by the Buckeyes.
The Spartans started the second half with the ball and drove for the first points on a 40-yard field goal by Geiger. Ohio State had two chances to make a big defensive play during the 12-play, 56-yard drive, however. OSU junior tackle Adolphus Washington forced a Langford fumble near midfield, and Powell attempted to scoop it up at the MSU 41. He overran the ball, though, allowing MSU center Jack Allen to fall on the ball. Later in the drive, Cook threw a pass directly two Apple, who had the ball bounce off his hands and onto the turf for an incompletion.
Geiger’s field goal made it 28-24 with 8:38 remaining in the third quarter.
Ohio State responded with an impressive touchdown drive that put the Buckeyes in command. Barrett and company methodically marched down the field, going 67 yards in 13 plays and elapsed 6:14 off the clock. The drive featured two third-down conversions by Barrett, one on a 3-yard run and another on a 16-yard pass to Dontre Wilson that advanced the ball to the Michigan State 16.
Elliott concluded the drive with a 1-yard TD run that made it 35-24 OSU with 2:18 left in the third quarter.
The Buckeyes continued their momentum on defense. Michigan State took the ensuing kickoff and drove to the OSU 35 before Ohio State’s defense held. On a fourth-and-5, Cook handed the ball off to Hill, who rushed to the left and was dropped for a 1-yard loss by Apple on the last play of the third quarter.
Ohio State sealed the win with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes took over after the fourth-down stop and marched 64 yards in six plays, capped with a 7-yard touchdown reception by Wilson from Barrett with 12:07 left in the game. The PAT by Nuernberger made it 42-24 and sent some of the green-clad Spartan fans to the exits.
Michigan State answered with a touchdowns of its own. Price caught a 16-yard scoring strike from Cook with 9:15 remaining to help make it 42-31, but again the OSU offense came through. Any hopes of the Spartans taking momentum were dashed when the Buckeyes went on offense and marched down the field.
It took just four plays for Barrett to lead OSU to the end zone. His rush of 55 yards helped set up a touchdown on a 17-yard run by Elliott with 7:12 remaining that set the score at 49-31 following the PAT.
Michigan State did not quit. The Spartans answered with a touchdown after a 10-play, 76-yard drive that lasted just 1:36. Langford rushed for a 1-yard score to cut the deficit to 49-37 with 5:20 remaining, but the Spartans’ two-point attempt failed and set the final score.