Despite COVID-19 absences, Ohio State rolls past Michigan State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

EAST LANSING, Mich. – All week, the worry was about whom Ohio State might be missing because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

It turned out that the Buckeyes who were able to make it to Spartan Stadium were more than enough.

No. 4 Ohio State rolled past Michigan State 52-12 on Saturday, thanks to a suffocating defense and an offense that overcame a makeshift line.

After a coronavirus outbreak the previous week that forced cancellation of the Buckeyes' game at Illinois, Ohio State knew it would be without head coach Ryan Day. On Saturday, the team announced that its 23 unavailable players included three starting offensive linemen — center Josh Myers and tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere — as well as middle linebacker Tuf Borland.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (1) breaks a tackle attempt by Michigan State's Xavier Henderson in the second quarter. Fields finished with two touchdowns rushing and two passing.

Assistant coaches Greg Mattison, Corey Dennis and Matt Barnes also didn't make the trip, complicating interim head coach Larry Johnson's debut.

But the Buckeyes (5-0) did have Justin Fields, and the junior quarterback ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more.

"If you're going to coach for one game, you want Justin Fields to be your quarterback," Johnson said.

Left tackle Dawand Jones, left guard Matthew Jones and right tackle Max Wray made their starting debuts, with left guard Harry Miller shifting to center, his natural position. Only All-American right guard Wyatt Davis was in his normal spot, and he was injured early in the fourth quarter.

It wasn't flawless. Miller's early snaps often missed the dartboard. But the line did fine overall.

"We had to change the game plan a little bit, but the offensive line adjusted well," Fields said. "I think they played a great game for it being a first game. I'm proud of those guys and the way they stepped up."

The Buckeyes' defense was better than fine. Ohio State led 28-0 at halftime after outgaining Michigan State 270-80. As it was against Indiana on Nov. 21, the Buckeyes' run defense was dominating. The Spartans (2-4) gained only 12 yards in as many carries in the first 30 minutes. That put Michigan State's offensive hopes on Rocky Lombardi's arm, and that's not his forte.

He was knocked out of the game late in the second quarter, but not before Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett tipped and intercepted a pass in the end zone for the Buckeyes' fourth touchdown.

Ohio State adjusted its offensive game plan because of the missing linemen. Instead of seven-step drops and deep balls, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson called for shorter passes and rollouts that enabled Fields to use his legs. He ran for a career-high 104 yards in 13 carries. Trey Sermon added 112 yards on 10 carries, including a 64-yarder for the Buckeyes' first touchdown in the second half.

Ohio State was in control from the start. After an MSU three-and-out to start the game, Fields led the Buckeyes on an 83-yard drive. Master Teague III gained 21 yards to the 1-yard line to set up a Fields' scramble for the score.

The Buckeyes made it 14-0 late in the first quarter when Fields, after a 44-yard keeper, found Garrett Wilson along the right sideline for a 28-yard touchdown pass.

Sermon set up Fields' second touchdown run by breaking four tackles on a 25-yard carry to the 1.

Garrett's interception for a score was preceded by a Drue Chrisman punt downed at the 1.

On Michigan State's first seven possessions, Ohio State allowed only one first down, and that came on a pass interference penalty.

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Backup quarterback Payton Thorne provided a spark when he replaced Lombardi. He completed his first 10 passes and ran 20 yards for a score in the third quarter that ended the Buckeyes' shutout bid.

After the teams traded field goals, Fields threw to Chris Olave for a 41-yard score to make it 45-10. Freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud scored on a 48-yard run for Ohio State's final touchdown.

The Spartans got a late safety when a snap from center went over QB Jack Miller's head and rolled into the end zone.

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon (8) celebrates after running the ball to the 1-yard line during the second quarter.

Given Ohio State's precarious position in the College Football Playoff rankings, style points matter. Saturday's short-handed win will only help, especially considering the uncertainty of being able to play arch-rival Michigan next week. The Wolverines canceled their game this week because of their own COVID outbreak.

"A lot of things are running through my mind," Johnson said. "I think the seniors and leadership did a great job this week keeping everything focused.