Ohio State wary of 'very, very good' MSU

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Columbus, Ohio — Ohio State has won 23 straight games, and in the regular season against Big Ten opponents, the Buckeyes haven't lost in their last 30.

Since head coach Urban Meyer's arrival in 2012 the Buckeyes have dominated nearly every team they've taken the field against.

Except one — Michigan State.

"The most prepared team," Meyer said Monday of Michigan State. "Very, very good team we're playing, and we've had some great games with them. Lot of respect for the way they play, and their personnel, because they're outstanding."

In 2012, Ohio State came to Michigan State and escaped with a 17-16 victory. But that was just a primer for what was to come in the series.

In 2013, the teams met in the Big Ten Championship game with many expecting the Buckeyes to roll right into the BCS Championship game. But Michigan State opened a 17-0 lead, watched Ohio State score the next 24 to go ahead, then finished by scoring the final 17 to win 34-24 and crush the Buckeyes' national title hopes.

It still stands as the only time a Big Ten team has beaten one of Meyer's Ohio State teams.

And when the teams met in East Lansing in early November last season, Michigan State was ranked higher and pointing toward a spot in the playoffs. But Ohio State put together its best effort of the season, winning 49-37 and springboarding toward a national championship.

"There were a lot of players in this program that might not say it but wanted a little revenge from the Big Ten Championship," co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "So there was added incentive."

Where that incentive will come from Saturday when No. 2 Ohio State hosts No. 9 Michigan State at Ohio Stadium isn't hard to figure out.

The winner enters the final week of the regular season in the driver's seat to capture the Big Ten East and reach the conference title game with a clear path to a spot in the College Football Playoff.

As Ohio State's players and coaches addressed the media on Monday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the magnitude of what they were about to take part in was clear.

"This is definitely the biggest game of the year so far," defensive end Joey Bosa said. "We try and treat every game like that but we're facing a really good team. They're good every year and as always, the next two games are huge and they are every year, so we treat it just like that."

Next week's game, of course, is against Michigan. But recent history has pitted the Buckeyes and Spartans in the conference's recent biggest games. This season it even came with the requisite bulletin-board material.

It wasn't the most outlandish stuff as the Buckeyes did a good job of being diplomatic on Monday. But when cornerback Eli Apple was asked about how he handles the hype of a big game, he had an interesting take.

"There is gonna be a lot of talking out there," Apple said. "It was like that last year. They love to talk and we love to respond back to people when they talk, for sure.

"Our thing is we are gonna just have to play our game, be very, very calm out there and locked in to our assignments and what we have to do. We can't let all the outside stuff get to our heads and try to get too fired up because once you get too fired up you start playing out of character and you can't do that."

Where Ohio State will put most of its focus this week is on replicating the performance it had against Michigan State a season ago.

Players and coaches agreed that was as good as the Buckeyes had played to that point last season. Quarterback J.T. Barrett was outstanding, throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns while running for 86 yards and two more touchdowns. Running back Ezekiel Elliott gained 154 yards and scored twice as the Buckeyes had 568 yards of total offense.

"That was our best game offensively, by far," Meyer said. "We threw for over 300. We ran against not a good defense, a great defense. We're not there right now. We've got to get there fast when you start playing teams like this and a talented team like this.

"So that's one of the first things when I came and watched that Sunday morning is, my goodness, J.T. was ridiculous. Our receivers played great. The offensive line blocked that defensive line, and once again, not a good defense, a great defense."

A similar outing would be another turning point for the Buckeyes. They talked about last Saturday's victory over Illinois and national pundits still questioning whether they're worthy of being third in the playoff rankings.

"We had just won 28-3 on the road by four scores," Meyer said, "and here someone says … Ohio State just kind of gets by or something."

A win Saturday over Michigan State would eliminate any doubt, much as is it did last season.

"I think we were just so determined to show how good we were (last year) and on the field we showed that product," offensive tackle Taylor Decker said. "It was a launching pad for us nationally. We won and people were like, 'These guys are for real.' That team is good and always has been good recently. So it will be a good gauge for us and if we perform well we'll show everybody we're for real."

Added offensive lineman Pat Elflein, "It's kind of a make or break game and I feel we'll rise up to the occasion this week and we'll be ready."