OSU Football Second Thoughts: Michigan State

How did Ohio State avenge its loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and stay on pace for a return trip to Indianapolis? We take a closer look.

While I think this game was mostly about the Jimmys and the Joes rather than the Xs and the Os, the Ohio State offensive coaching braintrust made sure that was the case by correcting the mistakes made in the previous two poor showings by their unit this season. The result was what Urban Meyer called the best offensive performance of his time as head coach of the Buckeyes.

While Virginia Tech got the drop on Ohio State with its bear front and cover 0 secondary, the Buckeyes knew what they would get from Michigan State and attacked it largely with its own bread-n-butter stuff or some variation thereof. Unlike against VT, they mixed in some things to keep the defense from overplaying on their base things. The early short throws worked for some nice gains and to get the offense going, but the key to success was still pounding the Spartans inside then going deep. For all the frustration of the Virginia Tech game, the biggest thing that was missing was intermediate gains. Ohio State still scored on a short slant pass that turned into a long touchdown and was a couple of 50/50 balls from having a pretty good night overall. The latter was also true of the Big Ten Championship Game last season.

Unlike the Hokies, MSU does not put too many guys in the box for you to block very often. They just plan on playing tough, fundamentally sound football to keep everything contained and have the safeties come up to clean up and prevent big plays in the running game. They do this better than a Cover 2 team, but it's not like facing a real eight-man front, either. That challenges offensive coordinators to be patient, something most of them aren't very good at being, which brings us to Penn State. The Nittany Lions also have a fairly different approach to defense from Michigan State, but they tried to trust their front seven to stopping the Ohio State run while keeping two safeties back to prevent getting run off the field like they did in 2013. That didn't really work aside from a few execution errors by the Buckeyes, but Ohio State still went away from its base stuff and found its passing game was a worse alternative on that night. The result was a lot of spinning the rear wheels in mud until overtime, when they finally engaged the four-wheel drive and brought it home on the legs of J.T. Barrett and the offensive line.

Ohio State went to East Lansing loaded for bear (or maybe just MSU's 4-3) and showed not only that it now knows very well who it is offensively but that it has the big play ability to punish mistakes of teams that are good as well as teams that are bad.

So, about personnel... the biggest difference in this game by far was Ohio State's receivers are better than last year and Michigan State's defensive backs are worse. J.T. Barrett did a great job of taking advantage of this.

Mark Dantonio said a day later Ohio State had a good plan for his team, calling it an elementary one that allowed the Buckeyes to play fast. That is a great description. The Spartans have built a reputation as bullies defensively. They get in your face and expect you to fold, but Saturday night they pretty much tapped out in the fourth quarter. It had to be frustrating knowing there was not a lot they could do to stop what Ohio State was doing because they didn't have the horses.

The Ohio State offensive line to a man played an outstanding game. Despite having an almost entirely new cast, they pushed MSU around up front and the backs did a great job taking advantage.

It should also be pointed out Michigan State has four new guys in its front seven. Taiwan Jones is having a very good year at middle linebacker, but the other two haven't brought much. I like the potential of Heath and McDowell at tackle, but the consistency is not there. Hard to know how much injuries might have affected Calhoun, who had his moments but was mostly bottled up. Marcus Rush was barely heard from other than knocking down a short pass and stringing out one perimeter run.

For all the focus on the failed fourth down run and collapse of the defense, last year's Big Ten Championship Game came down to about three great plays made by MSU defensive backs who were considered among the best in the country and are gone now. Their replacements were involved in a lot of big plays for the Buckeyes Saturday night. So were Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall, who were redshirting last year. Thomas, Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith (who perhaps just needs fresh air to thrive against Michigan State?) got open and Barrett got them the ball.

The OSU coaching staff expressed concern about the fourth quarter defense and needing to finish out a game, but that appeared to be mostly mental. Obviously it's an issue but one that is easily fixed. Coverage softened and so did the focus.

Getting blocked up and/or out of a gap as well as a few missed tackles earlier in the game was of greater importance in the grand scheme of things. Taking advantage of turnover opportunities is also something to continue to watch for the Buckeye defense.

Michael Bennett was very active up front, and if this were basketball I'd say Joey Bosa played a solid floor game even though he didn't contribute much on the stat sheet. Bosa was still a factor as MSU paid extra attention to him with its blocking schemes. On the replay, it seemed like both middle linebackers got caught up in the flow too often, and the safeties were not very quick to attack the line of scrimmage. Perhaps the latter was by design to avoid big plays down the middle of the field. That might be true of both sides. Michigan State's starting safeties combined for 22 tackles, but they did not seem to be as aggressive as they usually are. Many of those were probably too far downfield for the staff's liking.

Observations and other notes:

  • The patience Ezekiel Elliott and Barrett both showed in the hole was impressive. One gets the feeling they were told there would be some natural cutbacks that would developed based on the way the Spartans play their front, and they burned them on this several times. As Ian Boyd at LandGrantHolyLand pointed out, Ohio State also controlled the backside with "zone slice", having Heuerman block backside to cut off any pursuit and allow the back to find the soft spot created up front. The Buckeyes also had success with their power play.
  • On Ohio State's first third-and-1 conversion, Michigan State shifted its line to respond to Heuerman going in motion. Center Jacoby Boren not only turned the MSU nose guard but drove him to the ground as the play ended. Heuerman took out the end with a wham block and the middle linebacker just ran past Barrett toward the wrong gap. Everyone up front got a nice block.
  • On Elliott's early 47-yard run, Ohio State audibled to the power play to the weak side (toward the bubble in the MSU front). There was a great downblock by Billy Price while Taylor Decker turned Calhoun outside and Darryl Baldwin pulled and took the linebacker. Nice cut by Elliott, who picked up blocks by Thomas and Marshall on the second level to break away. Jalin Marshall has developed into a serviceable blocker after looking very rough in that area at the beginning of the season.
  • On Barrett's first touchdown run, Michigan State was set up better to defend the same play than the fourth-and-2 in the Big Ten Championship Game. This time they had enough guys to the playside to handle it but Thomas got a piece of two guys. Baldwin handled Rush on the end and the flowing linebackers got caught up in the wash just long enough for Barrett to get to the corner. That was thanks mostly to Heuerman. Curtis Samuel cut down the cornerback. He also got a good block when the Buckeyes used this play to pick up a crucial third down in the fourth quarter while they were trying to run out the clock.
  • One time Michigan State did something several other opponents did and that's get a free rusher by overloading the protection on one side and creating confusion for Ohio State. That resulted in the intentional grounding flag.
  • The third-and-23 conversion for the Buckeyes early in the second quarter was truly an amazing play. MSU brought six but it was picked up as Elliott had a key block. Smith got off the line cleanly and made a great catch on an absolutely beautiful throw. Tough to know what his progressions are here but this also looked like a play where Barrett made a quick read based off the blitz. He pumped to the left, holding the free safety and assuring the cornerback Damian Hicks wouldn't get help.
  • On MSU's third touchdown drive, Ohio State got some penetration but also got out of their gaps at times. Jeremy Langford, a really good, tough runner, took advantage of this with his vision and running ability throughout the night. On Langford's 33-yard touchdown run that made it 14-7, it appeared Perry and Powell were caught flat-footed while Bennett was out of his gap.
  • Thomas showed some tremendous speed after shaking off the tackle of an undersized cornerback (Hicks). Even though he was held inside by another route, safety Kurtis Drummond should have had the angle to prevent the TD but Thomas outran it. Great job of taking advantage of the scheme, but this was mostly about execution and talent.
  • If there was one throw I'm not sure Braxton Miller would have made, it was the last TD pass to Wilson. Miller had a tendency to put too much mustard on that type of throw. Barrett showed great touch.
  • It only felt like Ohio State did the same thing every time it went with an empty set on offense. Aside from the late bubble screen to Marshall, they also converted a third down on a pass from Barrett to Evan Spencer taking advantage or a short corner. There was also the deep pass across the middle in the first quarter that was wiped out by the hands-to-the-face penalty and a third-down conversion on a throw outside to Wilson.
  • I guess it was appropriate the punter got to come in and show off his ability to pin a team at the end. Talk about a team win!
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