This game was widely heralded as one of the only Big Ten games worth watching this season to a national audience: Two top-15 teams who have been the class of the conference for several years now, facing off under the lights in a great atmosphere. For the first time in ages, the Buckeyes had a chance to play spoiler to a Michigan State team instead of the other way around. Expectations were perhaps tempered on the Ohio State side of things heading into the matchup -- a shot at the playoff has been a long-shot since the Virginia Tech debacle -- but the thought of revenge was surely on every Buckeye fan's mind heading into Saturday night.
Ohio State tried to get things going through the air early, a major departure from how they've tried to set the tempo throughout 2014. It didn't go the Buckeyes' way early--a missed Sean Nuernberger field goal coupled with shaky pass defense after the turnover led to an early 7-0 Spartan lead and a deflating first few minutes for Ohio State. Ezekiel Elliott provided an excellent counter, putting together two excellent runs on the Buckeyes' second drive to set up a J.T. Barrett touchdown scamper to make the game 7-7. Sparty went up 14-7 after an incidental fumble on a punt return and a subsequent Jeremy Langford 33-yard run to swing things back in MSU favor.
And how about those penalties? The first quarter alone took about a million years, thanks to sloppy line play on both sides of the ball resulting in laundry all over the field. Ohio State doubled down on scores to end the first half, making it a 28-21 contest heading into the break after Michael Thomas broke out for a 79-yard touchdown and Devin Smith caught a beautiful Barrett bomb for 44 yards to bring the Buckeyes into the lead. .
One of the biggest questions heading into this one was Tom Herman's ability to make it count in big games. The talented offensive coordinator has a little bit of a reputation for getting too conservative when Ohio State plays tough opponents, but the play-calling was absolutely fearless tonight. Herman was able to use every head of the Hydra that is the OSU skill-position stable on his way to directing the offense to 49 points.
3 things we learned
1. J.T. Barrett can get it done against top-flight defenses. What were you like when you were J.T. Barrett's age? Sweaty, awkward, not very smooth? Okay, maybe that's just me. Still, dude was cool as a cucumber in the biggest game of his career. He was efficient and smart with the football all night. Win or lose, you have to love the way Barrett plays and how far he's come as a player so early in his career.
Barrett finished the night 16-26 through the air. The young QB consistently demonstrated his ability to make the correct reads and get the ball into the hands of the open receiver. Let's give some love to the offensive line, too -- the big guys up front were able to keep Barrett mostly upright and comfortable all night.
Barrett's proficiency through the air helped open up the running game, too. The team finished with an absurd 568 yards through the air and on the ground. Ezekiel Elliott? Dude can play football. He had a few runs that helped turn blasé Buckeye drives into massive possessions ending in scores. If there was any question about who Ohio State's feature back should be, Elliott answered it tonight. The quick, bruising tailback finished with 154 yards and two big scores. Barrett, loathe to let all the carries go to his half-shirted running mate, kept the ball 14 times for 86 yards and two scores of his own.
2. Ohio State's pass defense ... underrated? Depending who you ask, Connor Cook is anywhere from a 1st-round pick to a 3rd-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft (should he choose to leave school). A maligned Ohio State secondary was mostly able to contain Cook, holding the quarterback to 6-15 for 98 yards and a touchdown (the result of some awful tackling) in the first half. Cook finished with 358 yards on 22-45 passing. The secondary looked particularly strong to close the first half, disrupting a number of Cook passes and flustering the likes of Tony Lippett as they tried to move the ball through the air.
Cook made some excellent tough throws to start off the second half. His one misfire on Sparty's opening drive was a gift-wrapped pick-6 for Eli Apple that was somehow dropped. The team played a blend of man and zone looks, both of which were effective in turn -- Doran Grant had a huge pass breakup on third-and-7 to force MSU to come away with three points instead of a possible seven early in the third quarter.
Of course, Connor Cook and the Spartans wouldn't go gently into that good night. A 16-yard touchdown pass to Josiah Price brought MSU back within 11 points midway through the fourth quarter. Still, this was perhaps the first time all season that the Buckeye pass secondary routinely bailed out the front seven. The Spartans ran all over the Buckeyes--open field tackling was not a team strength tonight, and MSU's running backs did a phenomenal job of keeping their legs moving to generate plenty of extra yards -- but when you're down big, you have to throw eventually, and Ohio State was by and large able to temper an above-average passing game.
3. We probably can't call special teams a team strength anymore. Holy crap. A missed Sean Nuernberger field goal and a botched punt return to set up a Michigan State touchdown were the turning points in the first quarter. Dontre Wilson also fumbled two kickoff returns, one of which bounced right into enemy hands in the red zone. The Buckeyes did not look great on football's most underrated downs, and it came back to bite them. Things might have been even worse had Michigan State converted a short field goal attempt following Wilson's second fumble, but the attempt was pushed left by some miracle.
The one bright spot was Jalin Marshall's big return late in the first half. The former high school quarterback had a 26-yard return that felt like it went about 80 yards counting lateral movement. It led to a Buckeye touchdown a few plays later.