Though they sit at 4-0 on the season, the #14 Ohio State Buckeyes haven’t proven much. In fact, if they’ve shown anything, it’s that this team is still very much a work in progress. The offense has been reminiscent of Terrelle Pryor’s early year under Jim Tressel; sophomore Braxton Miller is an electrifying runner and can scramble his way out of most predicaments, but his passing skills have been hit or miss.
And as was the case under Tressel, it seems that that passing attack is being intentionally held in check by head coach Urban Meyer. Perhaps he doesn’t yet have enough faith in his young receiving corps. Maybe Miller and his targets are still working on their timing. Maybe Braxton requires some additional time with the playbook. Whatever the reason, the OSU offense has been somewhat flat and predictable in recent weeks.
That hasn’t presented too much of a problem against the UCFs and UABs of the world. Against Cal, the Bucks’ inability to move the ball after halftime nearly resulted in an upset loss at home. And in the upcoming battle against Michigan State in East Lansing, Ohio State can hardly afford the kind of play its featured to date.
The Spartans’ defense is of a different caliber than anything OSU has seen thus far. MSU’s front seven won’t be fooled by Miller’s sleight of foot, and Mark Dantonio’s stop unit has both the speed and size to nullify the advantage of a dual-threat QB. In short, Miller is going to have to throw the ball on Saturday. And he’s going to need some help.
Devin Smith, Philly Brown, and tight end Jake Stoneburner will all need to concentrate on sharp route-running. All need to bring their good hands to this matchup. Tailback Jordan Hall and the Buckeyes’ offensive line need to find a way to build an effective running game that doesn’t center around Miller.
Over the last two weeks Miller has amassed 44 carries, nearly doubling his per game average of 11.5 over the first two weeks. That level of effort on the ground takes a significant toll. The Bucks can’t win, nor can they expect Miller to stay healthy, if the QB continues at that pace.
Granted, Hall was absent early in the year, but now that he’s back, much more of the rushing burden needs to shift his way. Saturday’s game is a chance for him to put forth a signature performance on this young season. And we know, based on previous years, that he has the talent to do it. The question is will he get the kind of blocking he’ll need to make it happen?
Across the field, Hall’s counterpart Le’Veon Bell will almost certainly be the focal point for an MSU attack that starts with the power ground game. A Heisman hopeful, the big bruising back will look to punish the stalwart OSU defensive line. Nathan Williams, John Simon and company will have their work cut out for them. Expect defensive coordinator Luke Fickell to stack the line of scrimmage, forcing MSU’s young QB Andy Maxwell to put the game on his shoulders.
But would that be a good thing for Ohio State? After all, the secondary has been victimized all year long. OSU ranks 104th in passing yards allowed after playing four fairly weak opponents. While the pass efficiency defense (38th) hasn’t been quite as hideous, the defensive backfield is clearly a source of concern.
Bell comes into this contest as the nation’s third best rusher, statistically. He’s tops in the Big Ten. The Bucks’ number one goal, without a doubt, has to be to contain him. But that will necessarily leave the door open for Maxwell. Ultimately, those two factors symbolize this game.
Which team will contain the other’s primary weapon more effectively? It’s the MSU defense versus Miller and OSU’s line versus Bell. Beyond that, which secondary weapon can come up big? Can Hall bust out and be the number one back the Buckeyes hoped he’d be? Or will Maxwell be the latest to find success against OSU’s corners?
While both teams have the talent level to win, going on the road for the first time all year is going to be a shock to the system for Ohio State. Don’t be surprised if Miller and company struggle in East Lansing.