Ohio State fans have circled Saturday’s contest with Michigan State on their calendars since before the season began. Since before the year began, if we’re being honest. Ever since Michael Geiger pinwheeled his way through the Horseshoe on that cold, wet and dark November afternoon, Buckeye Nation has sought revenge on its lesser rival from that state up north.
With Michigan State again taking the penultimate slot on Ohio State’s schedule, the Buckeyes and Spartans seemed destined to yet again battle for Big Ten supremacy and a trip to the playoff. And on the weekend when the entire SEC shamelessly feasts on the sisters of the poor from college football’s subdivision, East Lansing seemed an obvious destination for ESPN’s College Gameday to celebrate this tense midwestern rivalry.
But as Lee Corso says, not so fast my friends.
After starting the season 2-0 and rising as high as No. 8 in the polls, Michigan State dropped seven consecutive games, until finally finding a win last weekend against an even more hapless Rutgers side. The Spartans’ free fall from playoff participant to non-bowl eligible program has been one of the more surprising storylines of the entire season.
Still, if you’re expecting Ohio State to fall victim to a trap game the week before its showdown with No. 3 Michigan, then you don’t know Urban Meyer very well.
It’s a rare feat to beat an Urban Meyer coached team. The man has lost just 28 times in 15 years as a head coach, and boasts the third-best winning percentage in the history of college football with an 85% success rate.
It’s almost equally as rare to get the best of Meyer in consecutive seasons. On 12 occasions Meyer’s teams have had the opportunity to avenge a loss from the previous season. His teams have overwhelmingly played with a controlled rage in those games, winning 10 of the contests by an average margin of 17.2 points.
Meyer is absolutely ruthless in revenge games, a trait he most memorably displayed when he was coaching at Florida. In 2007 Florida and Georgia squared off for their annual rivalry game, and tensions escalated quickly when the entire Bulldog team ran onto the field to celebrate their first touchdown of the game. Georgia went on to upset the Gators, and Meyer carried that loss and the celebratory slight with him all offseason.
A year later, Meyer never called off the dogs as his Gators drubbed the then-No. 8 Bulldogs, 49-10. As the Georgia faithful waited for the merciful final whistle, Meyer called not one but two timeouts in the closing minute of the game, ostensibly allowing the Bulldogs to marinate in their misery for just a while longer.
Those 2008 Gators are considered to be Meyer’s best team ever, but the 2015 Buckeyes would’ve been held in the same esteem had they taken care of business against Michigan State a season ago. It’s a fact that likely still lingers with Meyer, his staff and this team as they prepare for the Spartans with revenge on the mind.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
A single-minded focus: Ever since the Buckeyes fell to Penn State in mid-October, Meyer has distributed a simplistic message to his team; focus on the upcoming opponent and nothing else. When reporters ask forward-looking questions, he diverts attention back to the game at hand. Any graphic in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center containing Ohio State’s schedule has been altered to show only the most forthcoming match. It seems a bit heavy-handed, and maybe even corny, but the young team has responded well to its coach’s tunnel-vision approach.
Michigan State shouldn’t beat Ohio State this weekend, but they shouldn’t have won last season in Columbus on senior day with a backup quarterback either. The coaches know this team is more talented than its 3-7 record indicates, and are preparing as such.
An improved and angry offensive line: Ohio State has had its fair share of problems this season on the offensive side of the ball, none more obvious than the disastrous play of the offensive line against Penn State. In the Buckeyes’ lone loss of the season J.T. Barrett was harassed on seemingly every snap, as the Nittany Lions exposed Ohio State’s pass protection, sacking the quarterback six times.
It was a strikingly similar callback to last season’s loss to Michigan State, when the Spartans bullied Ohio State in trenches for sixty minutes. The Spartans were simply tougher, stronger and grittier in that game, a message that was undoubtably drilled into the heads of this Ohio State team as it prepared for the season during offseason conditioning. And it’s something they won’t forget heading into this weekend.
Since the Penn State loss the offensive line has been the most improved unit on the team, keeping Barrett untouched for the better part of three games and paving the way for massive rushing performances. They’ll look to build on that success against a program that traditionally serves as a litmus test for The Slobs.
#4 in your playbook, #1 in your heart: After the offense sputtered against Penn State, the ever-reactive Buckeye faithful clamored for an overhaul of Ohio State’s offensive coaching staff. It turns out simply getting the ball in Curtis Samuel’s hands is an easier remedy.
The team’s most talented playmaker has been featured prominently as the Buckeyes bounced back from the Penn State loss, averaging 37 yards rushing and 93 yards receiving while scoring six touchdowns in the three games since. Ohio State will likely only play two more games this season as it makes its case for a spot in the playoffs, so there’s little reason to hold Samuel back. The junior from Brooklyn made his debut as a punt returner last weekend, and could use his expanded workload as a platform for a late-season Heisman push.
Michigan State’s biggest advantages
A familiar foe: After suffering losses to the likes of BYU, Maryland and Illinois, it seems unlikely that Michigan State would regain its championship-level form from recent years against No. 2-ranked Ohio State. But the Spartans are the only team to beat the Urban Meyer-led Buckeyes more than once in the last five years, and should carry a quiet confidence coming into this game with that in mind.
This is not the first time that the Spartans have faced unlikely odds against a highly ranked rival this season either. Michigan also visited East Lansing as the second-ranked team in the country, and while the Wolverines led by as much as 20 in the fourth quarter, Michigan State turned in a resilient performance and kept the final margin closer than expected.
An encouraging atmosphere: Michigan State fans have had little to cheer about this season at Spartan Stadium, as their team is just 2-4 at home. Nonetheless, the Spartan faithful will undoubtably turn out to celebrate a senior class that’s won two Big Ten Championships, a Rose Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and a trip to last year’s playoff. And what better way for those seniors to go out than to ruin an Ohio State championship bid for a third time in their final home game ever?
Furthermore, this noon eastern kickoff is fairly unfamiliar territory for the Buckeyes, who have been scheduled just twice in the early television slot in a pair of home games. Three of Ohio State’s four road tests have kicked off at 8:00 p.m., and Ohio State can’t afford to sleepwalk into this game, giving the Spartans confidence early. That will be especially true if the forecast holds, as a rainy climate will mitigate the Buckeyes’ speed on the perimeter as it did a season ago.
An uncommon offensive approach: It seems odd, but in the era of spread offenses it’s uncommon to see a team align in the i-formation and pound the ball with a power run game like Michigan State. It’s certainly not an approach Ohio State has had to deal with much this season, but it is one that’s given the Buckeyes problems in the past.
Of course, Michigan State sucked the life out of the game in 2013 and 2015 with its game-controlling ground attack, finding wins in part by keeping Ohio State’s offense off the field. But the Buckeyes struggled this year too against Wisconsin, as the Badgers deployed a similar strategy while rushing for 236 yards, by far the most Ohio State has allowed all season.
Michigan State’s run game isn’t as prolific as Wisconsin’s, but the Spartans did seem to find something last weekend when they ran for a season-high 277 yards against Rutgers. Their best bet this weekend is to shorten the game with a similarly effective approach.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 41, Michigan State 15
Win Probability: Ohio State 93.4%
To no surprise the numbers clearly favorite Ohio State, which is looking more and more like a national title contender for every week that passes since the Penn State loss. The numbers, however, don’t take into account the fact that Mark Dantonio has had Meyer’s number in recent years, or that this Michigan State team is more talented than records indicate.
It’s important that Ohio State comes out firing from the first possession, looking to quickly demoralize a Spartan side making its last stand. With an offensive line trending in the right direction and the passing attack finally finding its rhythm, Ohio State is poised to turn in one of its most complete performances of the season. A trip to the Big Ten title game is in serious doubt, so the committee will be looking for style points this weekend, and the Buckeyes will answer the call in a four-score win.