Ultimately the Buckeyes were simply the better team. Ohio State and Urban Meyer finally got its big win over a top opponent, and they did it with a matured offense and a just-good-enough defense that made the stops when the team needed it most.
Dantonio summarized the game well when he said, "The bottom line is we didn't stop ‘em." The Spartans didn't beat themselves. This wasn't a game where the underdog won because the other team repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. Connor Cook's 358 yards passing and no interceptions, and Jeremy Langford's 137 yards rushing are evidence enough that the Spartans did not beat themselves. The Buckeyes just simply had more firepower.
So let's go one by one through the reasons why the Buckeyes finally got the win they were looking for - and firmly reinserted themselves into the playoff picture.
Winning the possession efficiency battle
The Buckeyes' win was built on surprising efficiency considering the quality of the Spartans defense. In the preview we mentioned that Michigan State was the seventh-overall defense according to Defensive F/+, the top defense by Success Rate, the third against the run, and the eighth against the pass. Even then, the Buckeyes managed to get consistent yards, reeling off six straight possessions ending in touchdowns starting at the end of the first quarter:
|Points per possession||Points per play|
The Buckeyes' offensive game plan was perfectly designed by Herman and Meyer and then executed. It featured a variety of post snap read passes, which played in to Barrett's strength in decision making, and perimeter runs, which highlighted the Buckeyes' offensive speed. No back averaged under 6.1 yards per carry, but their efficiency scores were excellent too:
Elliott ran with power and speed all night in one his best performances (here's to hoping that shoulder is on its way to recovery), while Barrett had insane inefficiency. In fact, Barrett only had a single carry - getting stuffed at the goal line on second-and-1 at the end of the third quarter - that wasn't a success (according to the Football Outsiders' definition of efficiency). Again, this was all against the third-best run defense after opponent adjustments. An ESPN graphic noted that the Spartans allowed just 2.3 yards per carry against designed rushes this season, but allowed 5.7 against the Buckeyes.
Barrett's 55 yard scramble was the perfect highlight to illustrate his abilities. While Braxton is a game-changing runner due to his short area burst, balance, and agility, Barrett runs fast, but not quick, and with patience and vision around his blocks. The 55-yard run saw Barrett run one of Meyer's staple, base run plays - the counter trey - for an explosive gain, because Barrett waited for Elliott to deliver a killer block after the line opened up a hole. It was patience, vision, and trusting the play design rather than pure athletic ability that led to that explosive gain.
Short yardage situations
Coming in to the game, one of my biggest concerns was that the Buckeyes would face a great number of third downs, and the Buckeyes have really struggled in short-yardage situations this season without Carlos Hyde. However, the Buckeyes dominated both third downs and short-yardage situations.
The Buckeyes were 10 of 14 overall on third downs, with is an incredible conversion percentage. Part of the reason for that was because eight of those opportunities were with three or fewer yards to go. Taking away three third downs that had 15 or more yards to go (due to penalties or sacks), the Buckeyes averaged just 2.8 yards to go on third down across their other eleven third down tries. That still would have concerned me pre-game due to the short-yardage woes this season (i.e. 1/5 on third-and-2 or less against Illinois), but the Buckeyes converted seven of those eight short-yardage situations against the Spartans. The third down play calling was varied and creative enough to keep the Spartans on their heels.
Explosive offense plays
Efficiency and consistency formed the foundation of the win, but explosive plays were arguably even more important to the Buckeyes leaving East Lansing with another win. If there was one hole in the Spartans defense, it was that they were susceptible to big plays, as evidenced by their 124th ranking in Defensive IsoPPP, a measure of explosive plays. While personnel has some to do with that, much more is due to their aggressive scheme that puts a lot of pressure on cornerbacks to win one-on-one battles with little backup support. Meyer and Herman recognized this (even in the pre-game presser!) and used play action to great effect, targeting Michael Thomas and Devin Smith for huge gains.
The Buckeyes had eight total explosive plays - five running and three passing - and the three through the air were all due to receivers winning one-on-one battles. Urban's power spread offense is as much about winning the line of scrimmage and the inside zone as it is putting athletes in space, but sometimes all you really need is a superior athlete with room to work, and that's what Devin Smith and Michael Thomas had (thanks to J.T. Barrett's great throwing).
It's also worth pointing out that J.T. had a heck of a game against one of the best defenses he's seen all season. Not only did he not turn the ball over once, but he passed for 300 yards and ran for another 86, accounting for a total of five touchdowns. As you probably saw during the broadcast, this was the first time since Troy Smith was winning the Heisman trophy that the Buckeyes had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher, and a 100-yard receiver in the same game - and against one of the top defenses in the entire country.
The Buckeyes actually lost the turnover margin (-2) and tied in average starting field position (on the 30 yard line), but the defense ensured that the Buckeyes didn't give the Spartans too many easy scores. Because of a missed Spartans field goal following a Dontre Wilson fumbled kickoff, the Buckeyes only allowed seven points off of turnovers.
The defense didn't have any turnovers of their own, but had great efficiency despite the Spartans racking up a great deal (536) of total yards. Holding the Spartans to twelve fewer points despite just 32 fewer yards was a big reason why the Buckeyes won the game. Michael Bennett in particular played lights out with two sacks while Bosa was double teamed for much of the night.
One critical reason for the defense's success was that even though Cook passed for 358 yards, the Big Ten's leading receiver, Tony Lippett, wasn't one of the top three for the Spartans, and was held without a touchdown on the night.
Looking at the stats in the pre-game, the Spartans also seemed to have an advantage with their offensive line, and while they played fairly well for the most part, some costly penalties limited the offense's effectiveness at critical points.
Where to now?
The Buckeyes have been one of the hottest teams in the country since "that darn loss" in week two to Virginia Tech. They are firmly in the playoff conversation, but will likely need help as they fight to be one of the one-loss teams included. Alabama, Oregon, and TCU - among others - will make things difficult.
But first the Buckeyes need to win out against Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, and a likely Big Ten Championship opponent over the next month.