Suggesting that Ohio State plays chess while everyone else plays checkers is an insult to opposing coaches who spend hours cooking up game plans to beat the Buckeyes.
That said, any coach who shows up with a simplistic checkers strategy better suited for Cracker Barrel than the football field will be snapping his suspenders in frustration well before the game ends, because the best way to beat OSU is to implement an innovative, if also risky, game plan.
“You have to be more aggressive. You have to take more chances, on either side of the ball,” said defensive co-coordinator Jeff Hafley, explaining what underdogs must do to pull upsets. “If you’re on defense, you might have to blitz more. If you’re an offensive team and you know the other offense is explosive, you might want to milk the clock down the whole game.”
Even then, it usually isn’t enough. Michigan State tried a variety of strategies Saturday night at Horseshoe Noir, including pressure that quarterback Justin Fields has not seen through the first five games.
It worked a little, but a lot more is needed against Ohio State, which continues to check all the boxes associated with playoff teams.
Know how to tell when a team is as good as advertised? When its weaknesses are harder to find than a Mark Dantonio smile and when 25 things need to go wrong for an upset to happen. Michigan State was the best team OSU has faced, yet despite putting up an early fight — “They exposed some things we got away with in the last couple games,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said — the Spartans were no match for the No. 4 Buckeyes, who improved to 6-0 with a 34-10 win.
Hafley has been on the other side of the equation, as a defensive assistant at Pittsburgh in 2006-07, when the Panthers were 11-13, and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 11-21 in 2012-13 with him coaching the secondary.
Now with the Buckeyes, he is careful not to forget that overmatched teams like to get creative.
“Nebraska came out in the wishbone. We’re going to get things we haven’t seen. Trick plays,” Hafley said. “I don’t want to say they’re ‘nothing to lose’ plays, but they are.”
Michigan State blitzed more than it had been all season, but the OSU coaching staff quickly worked with players on the sideline to adjust.
For an outsider perspective, I contacted Fox Sports analyst Brady Quinn for a dossier on Ohio State. The former Notre Dame quarterback out of Dublin Coffman wanted to make one thing clear.
“Let me preface this by saying that OSU is good. I mean really, really good,” Quinn texted.
Then he dug in.
• “Your best bet is always to stop the run. Since Fields is a very capable runner, you must sell out to stop it. Load up the box and play with safeties low to give run support. This means your cornerbacks are one-on-one outside with no safety help. That puts a lot of pressure on your safeties, since they have to help with the run but also cover their responsibility in the passing game. Most teams don’t have the personnel to do this.”
Ultimately, MSU lacked the personnel. J.K Dobbins rushed for 172 yards.
“The majority of time they have another guy in the box … which is why they’ve been so good at run defense over the years,” Day said. “It’s very hard to run the ball against them. You’ve got to wear them down. The running backs have to turn 4-yard runs into 6. And then eventually over time, if you can start to run on them, you can maybe start to crack some. And that’s kind of what happened.”
• “I’d throw the kitchen sink at Fields," Quinn said. "Truly test his knowledge of protections and the offense. Make him feel like there’s someone coming on every passing down.”
That strategy worked early for the Spartans, but Fields eventually settled in and used his feet to escape pressure, finishing with 61 yards rushing on 11 carries.
“Coach says move on to the next play, settle down,” Fields said of a first quarter in which the offense totaled just 16 yards on 16 plays. “He reminds me to play the game like it’s practice, because when the game comes you go back to your training. That’s what we did a better job of in the second quarter.”
• "Offensively, you have to have a game plan for Chase Young," Quinn said. "When he comes out of the game, that’s when I take my shots downfield. I wouldn’t waste my time throwing at (cornerback Jeff) Okudah. It’s a wasted down. I’d try to pick on the linebackers in coverage.”
Sparty tried, but late in the game they went deep with Young pressuring off the edge and Jordan Fuller intercepted.
“There was some tackling issues at points,” Day said. “But 285 yards (total offense by Michigan State), it’s a pretty good night.”
• "You have to be the aggressor vs. OSU," Quinn said. "They’re too talented for you to sit back and think they’ll make a mistake. You can’t hope they’ll have an off day. They will eat you alive.”
Whew. So many chess moves must be expertly executed to avoid checkmate. Michigan State never really stood a chance.