Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo preview the Michigan State-Ohio State and Michigan-Iowa games on this week's "The Detroit News' College Football Show." The Detroit News
East Lansing – It was fair to wonder how good Justin Fields would be at Ohio State.
As preseason camp began, the Georgia transfer was technically in a battle to win the starting quarterback job, but most assumed it would be the former five-star recruit who came to Ohio State with no intentions of being a backup.
But a legitimate question loomed before the Buckeyes’ season began: Was Fields all he was cracked up to be, or was there a bigger reason he didn’t win the starting job at Georgia?
Through five games, anyone still asking those questions isn’t paying attention.
The sophomore has thrown for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns against no interceptions. He’s completing 69.8 percent of his passes and has run for 222 yards and seven more touchdowns.
“He's a runner, he's athletic and he’s still got a big strong arm,” Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie said of Fields. “He can put the ball anywhere he needs to on the field. Very talented guy. Very talented offense. This will be a great challenge for us.”
That’s for sure.
The numbers through five games have been stunning. Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) hasn’t scored fewer than 42 points in a game and has won four in a row by 40 points or more. That ties for longest streak among Big Ten teams since World War I.
And Fields has been the catalyst as the only quarterback in the country to have a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown in all five games this season.
Ohio State’s first-year coach, Ryan Day, was asked this week if Fields has exceeded his expectations.
“I try not to have too many expectations because all that matters is getting better every day and seeing where it goes,” Day said. “He's played well. Haven't played four quarters yet, but we'll see. He's been growing, and the more experience he gets, the better he'll be. But again, trying not to put too many expectations on it other than the fact that let's get better every day and try and take care of that ball.”
The key for Michigan State (4-1, 2-0) will be making sure Fields sees something new and that he, indeed, will have to go four quarters to get the victory. That begins with stopping the run and trying to make the Buckeyes one-dimensional, but it includes containing Fields when he drops back to pass.
Fields, however, feels he’s ready for whatever Michigan State has in store.
“I think I’ve prepared in recent weeks a good bit, so I’m not going to change up my routine at all just because we’re playing Michigan State,” Fields said. “They are a great defensive team and they do have a great scheme. (They have) great coaches on defense, great coaches on each side of the ball. They have great players.”
Those players understand they’ll need to continue to be great if they’ll be able to slow the Buckeyes’ attack, and that starts with containing Fields.
“We can't give him step-up lanes,” Bachie said. “We know that he steps up, he keeps his eyes downfield, he's going to make great throws downfield. He's done it plenty of times this year. We've got to get pressure in his face. These past two weeks the average time the quarterback gets the ball off is two seconds and that's crazy fast, unheard of. They're going to hold it as long as they take those deep shots and hopefully our defensive line and blitzing linebackers can get in his face a little bit.”
In last week’s win over Indiana, the Hoosiers might have provided a bit of a blue print for teams looking to move the ball against the Spartans. Quarterback Michael Penix got the ball out quick and let his receivers make plays in the open field.
Michigan State LB Joe Bachie, S David Dowell and DT Raequan Williams talked Tuesday about the challenge of containing Ohio State's offense. The Detroit News
Ohio State certainly has the players to do that, but don’t expect a big shift in scheme for a team loaded with individual talent.
“To be honest, it's that they have those athletes,” safety David Dowell said. “They have these big-play athletes that can make plays and score touchdowns on any play. For us, it's kind of focusing on what we are doing and just getting ready to play. For me personally, it's just about being able to compete throughout the entire game, throughout all four quarters and going out there and playing with confidence.”
In other words, there won’t be any significant changes on either side.
“They have answers, so if you run a play against them, they have the answer right away,” Day said of the Spartans defense. “They're really good at knowing what the defense is. They're not super complicated, but they have answers to everything that you do. So the minute you run a play, they're on top of it and they've got it defended the next play.”
While Michigan State gave up its share of points last week, the Spartans still will be the best defense the Buckeyes have faced this season. They’re fourth in the nation in rushing defense (55.8 yards a game) and seventh in total defense (253.8 yards a game) while giving up 15 points a game, which ranks 14th in the country.
It’s that sort of production Day was referencing when talking about Michigan State having the answers. But there’s no doubt, this will be the toughest test, perhaps all season.
Still, the Spartans believe they’re ready for it.
“They're one of the best teams in the nation, probably are the best team in the nation and they've got some players,” defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “They've definitely got a great quarterback, a great running back. It's a great offense and we're excited for the challenge.”
Michigan State at Ohio State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Records: Michigan State 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten; Ohio State 5-0, 2-0
Line: Ohio State by 21.5