Going on the road for the first time this season, there were many questions about this Buckeye team on every side of the ball. The defense couldn't tackle lower echelon running backs, leading to a nail biter with California, and a closer-than-it-should-have-ever-rationally-been banger with UAB. Last year's Buckeyes probably would have been 4-0 heading into the Michigan State game, too, based solely on the talent on the field and the lack thereof on the other sideline.
But last year's team would have lost to Michigan State. This year's edition showed us what a difference a year makes.
Of the many things that Coach Urban Meyer and his staff have brought to Columbus this year, the biggest thing one notices is the staggering amount of toughness possessed by each member of the team. It may be this year's most important attribute. Physically, this team has gone from last year's Jack Black to this year's Jack Lalanne. They fight, and they fight hard on every play, on every down.
A great many people credit Ohio State's strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti for this. The weight room guru, with dreams and aspirations of changing the Buckeyes on the genetic level, had a tall task at the beginning of the year, and is seeing the fruits of his and his players' labor on the field each week, never more so that on Saturday in East Lansing. No one goes into shutdown mode this year, or at least did against Sparty on Saturday. Even on plays when you think the ball is all but dead, like a short punt.
OK, so maybe El Guapo might have had a bit of a mental lapse there and gone a bit too high on that hit. Still. Give this a click, and watch that beautiful bean footage again in .gif form!
Carlos Hyde is the "boom" portion of the running game, coming back from injury and ready to absolutely obliterate anyone who gets in the way of a Buckeyes victory. In this case, it was MSU's Nick Hill not fairly catching the ball and opening himself up to wanton destruction. Hyde was flagged for the high hit, as well he should have been, but the hit sent a message to the fans, to the opposition and to the rest of his team - we are bigger, we are stronger, we hit harder and we will physically beat you all over your own stadium.
It has only been five games and the benefits of a new strength and conditioning program are showing between the sidelines on the field, and the improvement is striking. But the bigger improvements might actually be happening between the ears of this team.
Resiliency is another attribute that was missing from last year's Buckeye team, save for one important exception, of course. These Buckeyes have needed to be resilient in the face of possible defeat on a number of occasions: after a dismal first quarter against Miami. With some pundits (and if Bianchi had his way, most of the University of Florida fan base) picking UCF as an upset special in week two. Tied late in the game vs California. After dreadful first and third quarters against UAB. All of the previous games had the Buckeyes facing their share of adversity. But the Michigan State game was filled with it.
Spartan Stadium, despite being a home away from home for Ohio State over the last few years (Saturday was the fourth straight win in East Lansing for the Buckeyes), has become a formidable foe itself to opponents, and can be, despite Ohio State's current win streak there, a very difficult place for visiting teams to try and win a game. And that doesn't even count some of Braxton Miller's #1 fans that inhabited the place on Saturday. Winning on the road is never easy, but this team overcame the crowd and the noise and the setting to do just that.
Environmental factors aside, resilience was a factor needed in high doses on a number of other on-the-field happenings. Miller, who passed for 179 and ran for 136, had to overcome a minus-three turnover differential on his own, including a jaw-dropping fumble that was a second concern to what looked like an ACL tear-type injury that could have spelled doom for the Buckeyes in the game and for the season. But Miller's giveaway only led to a Sparty field goal, the Ohio State defense coming up big for their starting quarterback. And Miller, the true sophomore with the pressure on him equal to that of a fifth-year senior, was back on the field for the next series.
With Michigan State punting to Ohio State with just over four minutes to go in the game, it was clear that Ohio State would need three first downs to wrap the game up and head back to Columbus a winner. There would be no passing; Ohio State knew it, Mark Dantonio knew it, you knew it, and I knew it. With Jordan Hall going down earlier in the game, gaining that yardage would be put in the hands of Miller and Hyde. With the game on their shoulders, Miller ran for one first down, and Hyde added the other two, including this nifty kick out to the right to ice the game.
Overcoming obstacles was not an ability that the past few Buckeyes teams have shown to have in any kind of capacity. But this is a different team, with a different mindset, succeeding because of superior talent, stronger physical factors, and much tougher mental acuity. They are not without flaws, but this is the year of solving problems. Last week gave us a glimpse of what an Urban Meyer-coached Buckeye team can do when they match their physicality with their mental toughness. The results were more than promising.