COLUMBUS, Ohio — Back on Monday morning, I did not like Ohio State’s chances to play Saturday at Michigan State.
We do not know the extent of last week’s increase in coronavirus cases on the team the Buckeyes will take to East Lansing. We know coach Ryan Day, still in quarantine, will not make the trip. We believe other players, coaches and staff are affected as well, and Day admitted Thursday OSU will be “a little short-handed.”
The cancellation of last week’s game at Illinois did not cost Ohio State its No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. Lackluster play in the final weeks, however, would chisel away at any margin for error the Buckeyes have left.
Ohio State would do itself a favor by living up to its status as a three-plus touchdown favorite at Spartan Stadium. That seems attainable if they come through in three particular areas.
1. Make Michigan State one-dimensional, and make it count
Truth be told the Spartans are doing the first part of this themselves. Michigan State’s 2.7 yards per carry ranks last among Big Ten teams and fourth-worst in the nation. Adjust for sack yardage, and the Spartans’ rushing attack still looks bad.
Ohio State had this opportunity against Indiana, bottling up Stevie Smith and forcing the mobile-in-theory-but-not-in-practice Michael Penix to throw from a 35-7 deficit. What happened? Laser show.
Rocky Lombardi is one of the most Big Ten quarterbacks around, and in case you’re new to the Midwest, that’s not a compliment. OSU defensive line coach and acting head coach Larry Johnson said the follicly fabulous signal caller throws as good a deep ball down the sidelines as the Buckeyes have seen. He throws it to the wrong team once every 18 attempts or so, and OSU needs to drive up that rate.
Better secondary play will be key — don’t be surprised if safety Josh Proctor has a bigger role — but so will keeping the pressure coming. Penix stood in the pocket like a statue and stoically torched the back end of the Buckeyes’ defense. Lombardi looks like a metal head, but does he have the mettle to keep his head against that rush?
2. Lay the foundation by clearing a path
Mel Tucker’s first Michigan State team is winning with defense. The Spartans are third-best among Big Ten teams in both yards allowed per carry and opposing quarterback efficiency.
The question is, can it stand up to an Ohio State team that is simultaneously strong in both areas?
Remember when we sort of chuckled last season that the media voted Master Teague third team All-Big Ten based largely on his mop-up yardage after J.K Dobbins hit the showers? Well guess who ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, and just outside the top 10 in yards per carry? He has help, because the Buckeye offensive line and tight ends Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert are routinely parting the sea ahead of him.
• What Ohio State football’s Master Teague overcame, and what he still wants to be for the Buckeyes
Justin Fields looked rattled against Indiana in a way we hadn’t seen since, well, Michigan State came to Ohio Stadium in 2019. I expect Fields to bounce back strong. Establishing the league’s best rushing attack early will help him do so.
3. Find a better late-game resolve
The last two times we saw Ohio State on the field, Rutgers and Indiana combined to outscore them 52-28.
You can excuse the Rutgers performance more easily. Some of the big plays came against Buckeyes who otherwise never see the field. The Scarlet Knights took a Guinness Book of World Records approach to special teams trick plays. Sometimes weird things happen when you’re up 31-3 at half.
But then they happened again against Indiana. For any members of the CFP selection committee who aren’t convinced about Ohio State, those regressions may play a role.
We assume some second-string Buckeyes will need to play prominent roles, which in effect means third-string Buckeyes are on alert. Both the Rutgers and Indiana second halves came with special circumstances attached. But Ohio State needs to finish better to ensure it finishes the season where it wants to be.
New Ohio State face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Ohio State-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection. A 3-pack is available on Fanatics for $29.99.
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