Ohio State's defense surrendered 407 yards in Saturday's 32-19 win at Michigan State. But, while the Buckeyes allowed MSU to sustain six drives of six plays or more, OSU succeeded in slamming the door on the Spartans in the red zone for much of the day.
"That's what you expect from an offense like that when they run five-wide sets," said cornerback Dustin Fox. "The stats are kind of deceiving at the end. I know we were more successful today than we've been."
OSU gave up one touchdown on Damon Dowdell's 8-yard touchdown pass to Jerramy Scott early in the second quarter. But after that, OSU made MSU settle for five field goal attempts. Dave Rayner connected on boots of 27, 44, 53 and 29 yards in helping the Spartans grab a 19-17 lead with 3:06 left in the game.
The OSU offense came out of its 2-1/2 quarter funk and put up a pair of late touchdowns to help the Buckeyes pull off the final win. But the game would have been over much earlier if the Spartans had been able to convert a couple of those golden scoring opportunities into touchdowns instead of field goals.
"I thought we had pretty good success in the red zone," said linebacker A.J. Hawk, who had 10 tackles and a key interception to end MSU's last true threat. "We held them to field goals and didn't let them score touchdowns. I thought Dowdell played a pretty good game. He's a hard guy to control. Most of the time I think we did a good job of contaning them.
"Any time you stop them in the red zone, it's big. It's a big momentum changer for the defense and for the team as a whole. We've always talked about when we won the national championship in 2002, teams would drive on us but we held them to field goals. That's what you need to do as a defese to stay in the game and give your offense a chance."
OSU actually held MSU to three-and-outs on three of their first four possessions of the game. (The other possession saw Ashton Youboty intercept a Dowdell pass and return it to the MSU 17, setting up OSU's first touchdown.)
"The first three series or however many it was we were playing great defense, getting three-and-outs and getting off the field," Fox said. "The next couple series, we had a couple breakdowns and a couple busts that were huge in some key situations. We kind of got that cleaned up in the second half and continued to play better defense. They were assignment busts maybe where one guy is out of position here or there."
MSU had drives of 10, 14 and 15 plays as the game wore on, but only one of them resulted in a touchdown.
"I think that was a huge difference," Fox said. "Every time they would get down there, we were stopping them and making them kick field goals. Even though they got field goals, it wasn't seven points. It was just three points. With us having the lead like that, every drive was taking time off the clock. It was a field position game and a good deal for us."
Hawk's Big Pick
OSU was nursing a tenuous 25-19 lead and the Spartans were on the move at their own 42-yard line inside the final minute. But on second-and-10 there, Dowdell rolled right, bided his time and threw an ill-advised pass near the sideline. OSU's Hawk made a diving grab and got a knee inbounds before falling out of bounds with the game clenching interception with 45 seconds left.
"That was an incredible pick," OSU coach Jim Tressel said. "From where I was standing, it looked like he landed in their bench. If he's not an All-American, I don't know what an All-American looks like. He's a leader, he's quiet, he's humble."
Hawk shared his view on the catch any receiver would have been proud of.
"That one felt pretty good," he said. "I was just glad I got my knee in. I wasn't sure when they reviewed it. But E.J. Underwood and Brandon Mitchell were behind me and they saw it and said I was in. I was glad it didn't get overturned."The first thing I thought was I was hoping the ref would call me in. Then, when I saw he gave it to me, it's exciting. Whenever anybody makes a big play -- and especially at that point in the game -- it really helps the team out."
Linebacker Anthony Schlegel was tracking Dowdell to force the play.
"I was just stringing the quarterback out and he threw it and it was an awesome catch," Schlegel said.
Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, who had a team-high 13 tackles, added, "It was a great pick. There was a guy down the sideline, but (A.J.) made a heck of a catch and got his knee down. It's the kind of play a play maker makes."
Fox also had a good view of the play: "I was right there. I was excited. I knew he got inbounds. I think I ran to the sideline and took my helmet off. I was just going crazy. It was awesome."
As noted, Youboty's third interception of the year was a big one. He made an easy pick of an underthrown Dowdell pass down the seam and brought it back 26 yards to the MSU 17.
"We were in a zone coverage," Youboty said. "I had to get the re-route. By the time I got the re-route and got off him, the ball was already in the air and I broke on it. I was actually surprised. When the ball was in the air, I was shocked. I had to make sure I caught it. Then I saw Tyler (Everett) blocking for me and I just tried to get it into the end zone."
Youboty had a career-high 12 tackles to go with his pick. He was one of several stellar secondary stars for the Buckeyes in this win.
OSU played the entire game without starting free safety Nate Salley and without starting strong safety Donte Whitner for much of the contest. That meant that Everett and Brandon Mitchell started at safety and E.J. Underwood worked as the nickel back. Fox even took a turn at safety, where he had not played since his freshman year.
"You didn't see me back there at safety?" Fox said. "I was playing safety some there in the fourth quarter. At one point, it was me and Mitchell at safety and Underwood and Ashton were at the corners. It was awesome. It was different. It was cool."
Mitchell had one of his finest games with six tackles and an interception on an MSU Hail Mary pass on the final play.
"This was good for those guys to get in there," Youboty said. "It says that we should do really well when we get our regular players back."