Defense, punting beautiful to Buckeyes
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Ohio State knew its game against Michigan State on Saturday was unlikely to be aesthetically pleasing.
Frigid conditions against a rugged Spartans defense would require the Buckeyes to grind. This one would be about toughness, field position and making key plays when necessary.
The Buckeyes passed the test, pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 26-6 victory at Spartan Stadium to keep their championship hopes alive.
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"We knew exactly what this would be, and it was,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “That was November football at Michigan State.”
Ohio State’s offense sputtered most of the game. It scored a touchdown late in the first half and a final one with a minute left.
Mostly, the Buckeyes (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten), ranked 10th in the College Football Playoff rankings, were content to not make mistakes and let their defense and punt game carry the load.
Punter Drue Chrisman’s day started horribly — a shanked 4-yarder. But he was brilliant the rest of the game. Chrisman’s first five punts of the second half were downed at the Spartans’ 5, 6, 3, 1 and 2-yard line.
“We just kept playing the field-position game,” Meyer said. “That was to me the difference. We always talk that the offense’s job in a game like this is get two first downs, get the ball to midfield and let’s (punt) the ball inside the 10-yard line. I can’t imagine a group that works harder at that than Drue and our gunners.”
Ohio State’s much-maligned defense seldom let the Spartans off the hook, though it helped that No. 18 Michigan State (6-4, 4-3) is no offensive juggernaut after being ravaged by injuries this season. Rocky Lombardi created a spark when he replaced starting quarterback Brian Lewerke late in the second quarter and directed a drive that produced a field goal to make it 7-3 at halftime.
Lombardi had a 47-yard keeper to set up another field goal that made it 7-6 in the third quarter.
But that was all the Spartans could muster. After Lombardi threw three incompletions following Chrisman’s punt to the 1, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio opted to take a safety by having his long-snapper snap the ball over the head of his punter and out of the end zone.
Ohio State’s ensuing drive went nowhere, but after Chrisman’s punt to the 2, the Buckeyes capitalized on a huge blunder by the Spartans. Michigan State mistimed its shotgun snap and it hit receiver Laress Nelson as he went in motion. Ohio State defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones pounced on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.
It was the Buckeyes’ first takeaway since the fourth quarter of the Minnesota game on Oct. 13. Their next forced turnover came on the game’s next snap, when Jonathon Cooper recovered Lombardi’s fumble at the Michigan State 15. That led to a Buckeyes field goal for a 19-6 lead, and the air was out of the Spartans’ tire.
After that, Ohio State began to wear down the Michigan State defense, which is the stingiest nationally against the run. Mike Weber had 57 of his 104 yards in the fourth quarter, the last coming on a 2-yard touchdown run.
Dwayne Haskins Jr. completed 24 of 39 passes for 227 yards for Ohio State, including a 1-yard shovel pass to Parris Campbell for the only touchdown of the first half.
“Mike Weber ran for 100, and I would have to say 75 yards of those were post-contact,” Meyer said. “Everything was hard against that defense.”
But Meyer was even happier about the way his defense played. Michigan State quarterbacks completed only 18 of 47 passes for 220 yards. Only one completion, a 27-yarder, went for longer than 18 yards. Other than Lombardi’s one long run, the Buckeyes held the Spartans to only 7 yards on 17 carries. Ohio State forced five three-and-outs.
“Against Michigan State, it’s always going to be about toughness and how physical we are and how hard we play,” Cooper said. “Whether they’re ranked or not ranked, it’s Michigan State, and we take them very seriously.”
Even if the game was a slog at times — the teams combined for 17 punts — the Buckeyes didn’t have the less-than-satisfied feeling they have had after many of their victories this season.
“That was a big one,” Meyer said. “We’re very satisfied. In other ones, people didn’t really feel like they won. That was a great locker room. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. Enjoy the win and get ready for the next one.”
The next one is Maryland, but that’s probably not the one the Buckeyes have in mind. Michigan, after all, awaits in two weeks.