East Lansing — A year ago, Michigan State could do almost nothing to stop Ohio State.
In particular, Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett.
“My goodness, J.T. was ridiculous,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Our receivers played great. The offensive line blocked that defensive line, and once again, not a good defense, a great defense.”
It amounted to a 49-37 victory for Ohio State, which piled up 568 total yards on Michigan State. Barrett was especially effective, throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns and adding 86 rushing yards and another two scores.
And it was Barrett — late in the first half — who turned the game around.
With Michigan State on the verge of taking a two-touchdown lead late in the second quarter, Ohio State flipped it quickly, thanks to a 79-yard touchdown pass from Barrett to Michael Thomas. Less than three minutes later, Barrett hit Devin Smith with a 44-yard touchdown pass, and Ohio State never trailed again.
“It was awesome,” Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “We’ve faced a few that have had big days and been right on the mark, but he dropped in a couple deep ones that he couldn’t have put them anywhere else and they would have been completed.
“It’s like, ‘That’s unbelievable. We couldn’t have been in a better call, had better coverage.’ He had a couple shots as he was being hit where he threw it before the receiver was even close to being open and put it right on the mark. So he was right on the money.”
Keeping that from happening again when No. 9 Michigan State takes on No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday will be the task for the Spartans defense.
Meyer said last year’s Spartans defense was great, but they haven’t been that this season. They were effective in last week’s victory over Maryland, and the secondary had one of its best weeks. But it was one week of a season made more difficult because of injuries.
The Spartans have been solid against the run, but are 86th in the nation against the pass (243 yards) and ninth in the Big Ten in total defense (364 yards).
The numbers for the Ohio State offense are significantly better. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in scoring (36.4 points) and rushing yards (244.8), and are second in total offense (453.3 yards).
But Meyer is expecting more, much like the Buckeyes had last season against the Spartans.
“That was our best game offensively, by far,” he said. “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.”
For Michigan State to avoid a repeat performance, the focus will be slowing the Ohio State rushing attack. Barrett was effective in the last meeting, while Ezekiel Elliott ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
“They do a great job staying behind their blockers, staying tight to the gaps they are supposed to hit,” Spartans linebacker Darien Harris said. “Last year when they were able to establish the run, that’s what the pass opened up. We had them in a lot of third down and 2, third down and 3, third down and short-yardage situations and they were able to muscle it forward for the first down.”
Much of it was because Ohio State controlled the game up front. That’s one area, however, where the Michigan State defense has excelled this season.
The front four has been effective with sophomore defensive tackle Malik McDowell disrupting offenses. He didn’t play much in last season’s meeting, but could play a significant role this year.
“Malik McDowell needs to be a difference-maker in every game he’s playing,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s to that level of play right now.”
To contain Barrett and Elliott, who has run for more than 100 yards in 15 straight games, it will take much more than one player.
“We need to swarm, we need to fly around, we need to be destructive, be disruptive,” Tressel said.
All the while, the much-maligned secondary will be wary of the deep ball that burned them last year.
“It’s a fine line,” Tressel said. “You’re trying to scheme against getting beat over the top, you’re trying to scheme against the run. They obviously know if you’re selling everybody out in the box, the flats might be open.
“To take away all of it is difficult. But to take away over the top, you need to make plays on the football, regardless of what coverage you’re in.”
Michigan State at Ohio State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Ohio Stadium, Columbus
TV / radio: ABC / WJR 760
Records: No. 9 Michigan State 9-1 (5-1 Big Ten), No. 2 Ohio State 10-0 (6-0)
Line: Ohio State by 14
Series: Ohio State leads 29-14