Rebuilding? Despite sanctions, Ohio State could be Big Ten's best
Urban Meyer's first season was supposed to be a year of transition for Buckeyes
Ohio State's defensive line shut down Michigan State's previously stellar RB
Inexperience could lead OSU to stumble; Braxton Miller injury would devastate
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- From a cramped corner of Spartan Stadium, the Ohio State band blasted Hang On, Sloopy early Saturday evening. Further down the sideline, the Ohio State offense huddled around coach Urban Meyer, who explained exactly how the Buckeyes would hang on to their one-point lead.
Michigan State had spent its final timeout with 2:06 remaining, and the Buckeyes faced third-and-four from the Spartans' 49. A first down meant the victory formation. Failure meant potential heartbreak if Michigan State could hit a few passes and set up a field goal attempt for Dan Conroy, who had already hit from 48 and 50 yards. "Hey," offensive tackle Reid Fragel remembered Meyer saying during the timeout. "This is the game right here." Fragel and his teammates understood. "That just got everybody fired up," Fragel said. "We knew what was at stake that moment."
The Buckeyes lined up. Quarterback Braxton Miller took the snap and handed off to Carlos Hyde. Fragel crashed down on Michigan State defensive tackle James Kittredge, using Kittredge as a human shield to wall off most of the Spartans' defense. Ohio State fullback Zach Boren kicked out defensive end Marcus Rush, and Hyde blasted into the hole. "We had run the same play a couple times before," Hyde said. "I knew I would have to jump-cut the play back and get up the field -- now." Hyde needed four yards. He rumbled for five. Three Miller kneeldowns later, the Buckeyes were headed to the band's corner to sing the alma mater and celebrate a 17-16 win that put the Big Ten on notice that Ohio State, after a 2011 marred by controversy, will not be rebuilding in 2012. Ohio State may have some flaws -- its extreme reliance on Miller's legs, occasional flag-football tackling -- but it also could be the best team in the Big Ten even though NCAA sanctions will keep the Buckeyes from playing for the conference title.
Of the 10 teams eligible to play for the Big Ten title this season, Michigan State might be the most complete. Given the league's abysmal out-of-conference performance, that isn't saying much. But this was supposed to be a year of transition for the Buckeyes. They were supposed to struggle at times as they adjusted to a new offense and new coaching staff and dealt with NCAA sanctions. They should not have been able to compete with the likes of Michigan State. Instead, Ohio State looks like the better team in every game left on its schedule.
Consider that Meyer won an SEC and a national title in his second year at Florida. He might be on a similar track at Ohio State. That first year in Gainesville was rough at times. On this weekend in 2005, Meyer took his undefeated Gators to Tuscaloosa and got hammered, 31-3, by Alabama. Two weeks later, he stood in the bowels of Tiger Stadium and shed tears as he tried to explain how his vaunted offense couldn't move the ball in the fourth quarter against LSU. There is no equivalent to that Alabama team on Ohio State's schedule. There is no equivalent to that LSU team, either. If Meyer sheds any tears at all, they'll be tears of joy falling after yet another win.
Ohio State might fall victim to a few maladies. An injury to Miller, who ran for 136 yards Saturday, could be devastating. When he went down in the fourth quarter with an apparent left knee injury, everyone puckered on the Ohio State sideline. After the game, someone asked Meyer if his heart stopped at that moment. While the question might have been insensitive given Meyer's recent medical history, his answer was telling. "Close to stopping," Meyer said, "because I saw his knee jam right in front of me." The Buckeyes also might eventually play down to the level of an inferior opponent and lose a stinker. They have enough inexperienced players to make that a possibility.
But Ohio State's defensive line will make upsets difficult. That group dominated the Spartans on Saturday. Tailback Le'Veon Bell entered the day averaging 152.5 rushing yards per game. He gained 45 Saturday as Buckeyes defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel clogged the middle and allowed linebackers Ryan Shazier and Etienne Sabino to charge in to make tackles. The Buckeyes looked awful as they flailed on seven attempts to tackle Michigan State receiver Keith Mumphery during a third-quarter touchdown catch, but otherwise, they seemed to have addressed some of the tackling issues that surfaced against Cal two weeks ago. That defensive dominance also allowed the Buckeyes to overcome three Miller turnovers (one interception, two lost fumbles). "I've never been around a game where you could go on the road in the Big Ten against a ranked opponent, turn the ball over three times and win the game," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "It's really a testament to our defense."
Of course, this being an Urban Meyer-coached team, the first Big Ten win couldn't come without some kind of controversy. Michigan State's defense might have been hamstrung by a lack of complete game video from Ohio State. Big Ten teams are supposed to share video, but Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi told The Detroit Free Press that the video the Spartans initially received from Ohio State was edited to cut out pre-snap motion on Ohio State's offensive plays. Defensive coaches need to see the pre-snap action to diagnose tendencies, so anyone who edited a video that way would know they were violating an unwritten code. "We had tape cut off all week, where they changed the tape, I'm not gonna lie to you," Narduzzi told the Free Press Saturday. "They send you tape and they've got it all cut off and you don't get to see shifts or motions or anything else." Meyer told the paper he didn't know anything about the situation. Later, Michigan State spokesman John Lewandowski told SI.com that Michigan State coaches complained this week to athletic director Mark Hollis, who called Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and rectified the situation.
Meyer and his staff should be careful. With Ohio State on NCAA probation, it isn't wise to violate any rules -- be they written or unwritten. Besides, the Buckeyes don't need to be sneaky. They proved Saturday on third-and-four that they can go toe-to-toe with the best the Big Ten has to offer and impose their will. The song begged them to hang on. They did so by surging ahead.