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5 things learned from Ohio State’s gritty, punt-centric win at Michigan State

Drue Chrisman may have catapulted to the top of the list for Punter of the Year after his performance in East Lansing.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It was not the prettiest game played this season, but the No. 10 Ohio State Buckeyes walked out of Spartan Stadium with a decisive victory, 26-6. The downing of No. 18 Michigan State keeps the Buckeyes in the mix for the Big Ten East crown, and, if no funny business occurs next week at Maryland, the meeting with Michigan will decide who from the East goes to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship to take on the newly crowned West division champion Northwestern Wildcats. Also, if a little chaos occurs in the top 10, OSU is still in the mix for a College Football Playoff berth.

But that’s all looking down the line; instead let’s focus on what transpired in East Lansing on Saturday afternoon. The weather wasn’t great, but them’s the breaks of playing outdoors in mid-November in B1G country.

Ohio State showed some improvements following last week’s sleepwalking victory over Nebraska, but also showed some areas where they could improve. Let’s take a look at five things that we learned from the Buckeyes’ ninth win of the season.

Chrisman is here early

At first, it didn’t seem like punter Drue Chrisman was going to have a good day. His first punt of the afternoon went off the side of his foot, and went an astounding four yards. Four. yards.

At the time, this appeared to foreshadow another bad day for the Bucks against Sparty; just like in 2015, when everything that could go wrong dod go wrong. But, alas, Chrisman took his punting game to another level in the second half.

The sophomore had five-straight punts that were downed inside the MSU six-yard line. Take a look at this supercut:

Pinning the Spartan offense this deep in their own territory changed the game. This led to a safety on an intentionally high snap on a punt, and a fumble recovery in the end zone — for an OSU touchdown — on another.

Indirectly, these punts set MSU into crisis mode; they were all out of sorts after those miscues, that they quickly committed two other turnovers not long afterwards. Once Michigan State had some field to work with, Rocky Lombardi, the backup quarterback who filled in for Brian Lewerke after halftime, pitched the ball too high to his running back. That led to an Ohio State recovery. Later in the fourth quarter, Lewerke came back into the game and lobbed an interception to Shaun Wade.

The high-quality punting from Chrisman played a role in those MSU mistakes as the Spartans’ game plan had to change as they were constantly fighting to get out of the shadow of their own goal line.

If half of those punts had been touchbacks, OSU probably would’ve still won the game, but MSU would’ve had the chance to make things interesting. The Spartans are a team where if you give them an inch, they’ll take two miles worth of space. Limiting the trickery of Mark Dantonio is one of the hidden keys to beating Sparty. Ohio State did that thanks to Chrisman’s kicks and high-quality play from the special teams unit.

If they can do this to Michigan in two weeks, that could be the momentum shifter that the Bucks need to pull off the potential upset.

When thunder and lightning becomes Jekyll and Hyde

Yes, both defenses held their own for the better part of three quarters, however, the Buckeye running game had an unimpressive day against the nation’s top rush defense. Even though the Buckeyes had 120 yards on the ground, most if came in the fourth quarter when the main goal was to run out the clock.

Mike Weber broke the 100-yard mark, gaining 104 yards on 22 carries. He also had a touchdown in the waning moments of regulation to put the game officially to bed. But how did Weber do in the first three quarters, when the game was within one score? Through three quarters, Weber had eight carries for 48 yards. Within those eight carries, two of them were for decent pickups of 18 and 11.

J.K. Dobbins was a non-factor against Michigan State. Dobbins had 14 rushes, but managed only 28 yards. It seemed that whatever hole he tried to go through, there were two defenders there waiting for him. And, when he tried to breakaway laterally, there was someone there to wrestle him to the ground.

Whether it is line blocking or choosing the right hole, the ground game is an unreliable piece to the Ohio State puzzle. It’s been enough to get by, but life is always easier when the opposing offense doesn’t have any real weapons to use against you. Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan State are three teams that either have inexperienced guys trying to run point or are a walking injury manifest. Purdue and Penn State were the only teams with sorta functional offenses, and they were able to score points.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State
Grounded: Dobbins was held to 28 yards on 14 carries.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State has been able to get by with Haskins throwing. But, if the passes aren’t there and he gets bottled up, how else will you be able to get points on the board? You can’t rely on Chrisman downing punts inside the 10-yard line, or banking on a Brendon White/Shaun Wade interception return.

Injured offensive linemen Branden Bowen and Brady Taylor traveled with the team to the MSU game, so I’d bet that they see playing time before the season ends. Maybe even next week against Maryland, with a full go against Michigan. If Ohio State wants to be a playoff team, or even a team that can win the Big Ten, they’ll need to have a formula that allows Weber and/or Dobbins to get decent run opportunities.

A stout OSU defense or an inept MSU offense?

Eyeballing the stat sheet, the Buckeyes’ defense looked pretty good: they held the Spartans to 274 total yards. Of those 274 yards, 220 of them came in the air.

Lewerke started the game at QB, and had a decent first quarter going 6-of-11 for 71 yards. However, he quickly cooled off in the second period. He had a string of five incompletions and nothing was working with him under center. Lewerke was airmailing throws; and in tight windows, he was missing the spots that he needed to hit. This isn’t a big surprise, as he’s recovering from a shoulder injury on his throwing arm.

Lombardi came into the game, and at least got something going for the Spartans. Right before halftime, he led the charge for a field goal. Then in the third quarter, he broke off a 47-yard rush from deep inside MSU territory. However, the wonderboy heroics weren’t sustainable. Chrisman’s punting limited what Lombardi and the offense could do, and it put them in precarious positions. After the end zone fumble that lead to Dre’Mont Jones falling on the ball for a defensive touchdown, Lombardi appeared shook. On the next MSU offensive play, he errantly pitched the ball to his running back, leading to a fumble recovery by the Buckeyes. In a matter of five plays, the Spartan offense unravelled.

LJ Scott, their primary running back, was out due to injury, so I thought Connor Heyward would pick up from last week’s big effort against Maryland, but that’s not what happened on Saturday. He only had four carries, and managed one lone yard of rushing. Whether Dantonio abandoned the run, or didn’t have the right situations for the run to flourish are moot. With no running game, and no legit passing attack, the Spartans couldn’t move the ball.

It should also be noted that MSU’s best wide receiver, Felton Davis III, wasn’t playing on Saturday, as he’s out for the season with an Achilles injury.

That leads to the question: how good was Ohio State defense?

They gave up eight total chunk plays (six in the air and two on the ground). The back-to-back Lombardi rushes were the only big running plays allowed on the ground. Two of the passing plays came in garbage time, so I’m not really gonna count those because the game was over. So, in my view six “big” plays were allowed to an injury plagued offense.

From a penalty standpoint, there were zero (zero) flags thrown against the defense.

With that being said, I’d chalk this up as a good performance from the defense. They limited penalties, held their own, and recorded three turnovers.

The short yardage situation solved?

We only saw him twice, but Tate Martell might be the solution to the Buckeyes’ short-yardage troubles. In a goal line situation, Martell was summoned for the snap, and took a QB keeper for about five yards — just shy of the goal line.

Power rushing with Weber or attempting to utilize the shiftiness of Dobbins has failed spectacularly when OSU needs a few big yards. With J.T. Barrett, a QB-read was virtually unstoppable, and made the Buckeyes tough to contain. Haskins isn’t a rusher, and it’s changed the way that the offense operates.

After the win in East Lansing, Urban Meyer talked about Martell and said that he’ll be used down the line.

Ohio State was 6-of-18 on third downs against Sparty. That’s decent, especially considering Michigan State went 2-of-16. Seven of those Buckeye third down attempts were within three yards or less, and they converted on four of them. The three failed attempts came by way of incomplete passes and a fumble.

If Martell was utilized on those third-and-short situations, would the two outcomes that fell incomplete have been converted on the ground? It’s worth keeping in the back of your mind, because if the UM game comes down to these types of third-and-2 or third-and-3 plays, the Buckeyes won’t be able to take a laissez-faire approach, if they want to win the conference. They’ll need to make changes, and be aggressive (but smart) in these scenarios.

Having Martell in the fold may be the answer. It’s worth experimenting more next week against Maryland.

The best-laid plans of mice and men... and Michigan State

A tale as old as time, the 1786 poem by Robert Burns entitled “To a Mouse” still holds true. The most famous line from said poem, translated from its Scottish roots, reads:

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

That’s where John Steinbeck got the title for “Of Mice and Men.” That line was also used, partially, in Rod Sterling’s closing narration of the classic 1959 Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last,” featuring Burgess Meredith. Fun fact: the line was used later on in the Twilight Zone episode “Mr. Bevis.”

And just like those examples before, we’ll use it here.

Dantonio had a trick play dialed up. After a backwards screen to wide receiver Cody White, he delivered a perfect throw to a wide open Matt Sokol in the end zone. That would’ve been momentum shifting had their not been an illegal man downfield.

Teams have reached into their bag of tricks before against the Buckeyes, and have found a fleeting moment of success before the yellow laundry was thrown onto the field. Remember the TCU cross-field throw on a kickoff return? That went to paydirt before being called back.

Ohio State has been bitten by the tricks, but has been bailed out by the penalties. In both cases, those trick plays may have very well turned the games upside down.

The defense has been good, but they’re not invincible. Be on the lookout for more tricks being played in close contests, with an eye on Northwestern if the Buckeyes get to the Big Ten Championship Game.