The Buckeyes have been inconsistent throughout most of the 2008 season, and they are clearly not playing like a team that was a pre-season favorite to win the national championship. It's hard to pinpoint a specific reason why the Buckeyes are not playing to the level that was expected of them.
Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel has coached in a lot of big games during his eight years at the helm of the Buckeyes, but for the first time in his career he appears to be facing issues that have never been a part of this program before.
In the past few weeks there have been players openly questioning the wisdom of Tressel benching quarterback Tood Boeckman, and giving the starting job to freshman sensation Terrele Pryor. Jake Ballard and Alex Boone have discussed in the media the idea of bringing Boeckman off the bench to give the team a spark. In the past it would be highly unusual to see players disagreeing with the head coach, but lately it's become a routine experience.
We have also seen Tressel spending a tremendous amount of time coaching the offensive line in practice. He's jokingly referred to himself as the "assistant line coach," but seeing the head coach having to step in to help motivate a unit that is coached by long-time assistant Jim Bollman is highly unusual. The Buckeyes have used many different combinations of players to try to solve the poor play of the offensive line, a group thought to be a team strength heading into the season.
Also, for the first time in his tenure, Tressel appears to be leading a group of underachievers. This team has played uninspired football for much of this season, and that trait has never been associated with a Tressel-led team in the eight years he's been at Ohio State.
So where do the Buckeyes go from here? What do they have to do to not only beat Michigan State, but get this ship headed in the right direction?
I don't think anybody would disagree with the notion that Ohio State is a more talented team than the Spartans. The Buckeyes need to approach this game with a sense of urgency, knowing that a loss to Michigan State probably ends the dream of winning a third straight outright conference title. If the Buckeyes are mentally prepared to play their best game of the year, and can eliminate mistakes and penalties that have plagued them all year, a victory over the Spartans is likely.
The Ohio State defense needs to totally shut down Javon Ringer and the Michigan State running game, putting the pressure on quarterback Brian Hoyer to make plays in the passing game. If the Buckeyes can make the Spartans have to try to beat them by throwing the football, it dramatically increases their chances of winning the game. The Buckeye defense, led by All-Americans Malcolm Jenkins and James Laurinaitis, is coming off a great performance in shutting down Purdue. If they can make Michigan State one-dimensional offensively, they should be able to keep the Spartans from scoring more than 20 points.
Offensively the Buckeyes need to allow Terrelle Pryor to make plays outside the pocket, with both his legs and his arm. The Buckeyes will need to establish Pryor as a thrower to open up running lanes for Beanie Wells. This is a game where Tressel and the offense needs to go against conventional wisdom, and use the passing game early to set up the run. Having Pryor throw on first and second down, when the Spartans are playing to defend the running of Wells, should enable the freshman to have success throwing the football. Leaving Pryor to only throw the ball in obvious third-and-long situations is a recipe for disaster.
In short, this game will be one by the team that gains control of the game, and the score, early in the contest, thereby forcing the other team to have to throw the football to get back into the game. The team that throws the ball when they want to, not when they have to, will win this game.
Above all, Ohio State needs to head into East Lansing as a team that believes in each other, and in the coaching staff. They need to focus on beating the Spartans, and not be worried about who's starting and who's on the bench. They need to realize that Jim Tressel didn't become one of the greatest coaches in Ohio State's storied history by accident. If this Ohio State team is at its best both mentally and physically on Saturday, they will not lose. In fact, this game could end up being an easy Buckeye win. You can take that to the Bank.