Ohio State made a lot of mistakes against UAB last weekend. That much is a given.
It's a fact that the Buckeyes' performance against the Blazers was not the ideal performance to have had heading into their Big Ten opener, but it could be worse. Ohio State won. It's heading on the road to face Michigan State without a blemish on its record.
And even if the defense hasn't looked as rock solid as some of the other BCS contenders, the offense has been able to score with efficiency—with a few notable exceptions.
But the game changes completely against the Spartans, by far the toughest competition the Buckeyes have faced this season. Here's what Urban Meyer's crew needs to do in order to have any chance of winning.
1. Overcome the Slow Starts
Early in the first quarter, it looked as though No. 16 Ohio State actually stood a chance of being upset by unranked UAB, which was 0-2 heading into the contest. The reason? The fact that the Buckeyes couldn't score in the first quarter—and gave up an early touchdown on a blocked punt.
In fact, before the Buckeyes managed to get on the board, they allowed the Blazers to take a 9-0 lead after allowing a 47-yard field goal early in the second quarter. That can't happen against a ranked Big Ten opponent. Ohio State can't afford to take its time getting into the game; it's going to need to come out aggressive on the road at Spartan Stadium.
Slow starts weren't something that afflicted OSU against Cal in Week 3 or against UCF in Week 2, so hopefully, for the Buckeyes' sake, what happened against UAB was just a one-time fluke.
The Spartans got off to a slow start of their own the last time out against Eastern Michigan, so all the more reason for the Buckeyes to come out firing on Saturday and stake an early lead.
2. Utilize the Running Game (Aside from Braxton Miller)
It's not that the Buckeyes shouldn't utilize Braxton Miller to his fullest. Of course they should. He's a weapon, and probably the best one that they have.
But he can't do everything, and if Ohio State expects him to, the greater the chances he'll make mistakes—or even get injured. And then the Buckeyes will be in a very, very bad situation.
Against UAB, Miller did just enough. Even though it took him some time to get going, he went 12-for-20 for 143 yards and rushed for 64 more and two TDs. But the offense didn't rest solely upon his shoulders, and that's where the Buckeyes succeeded.
Miller got considerable help from the rest of his backfield: Rod Smith and Zach Boren each rushed for a score, and Jordan Hall got another 17 carries for 105 yards.
The Buckeyes have a leg up because they have Miller—that much is true. But no team can rely on one player to do everything, and that's where his supporting cast has to come up big, especially against a team that will present a greater challenge than any other team OSU has faced up to this point.
3. Limit the Penalties
Who's your pick to win this weekend?
Urban Meyer was furious in the aftermath of the Buckeyes' slim win over UAB, and rightfully so: His team made the kinds of mistakes—and many of them—that you can't make if you want to beat a top-25 team.
In total, the Buckeyes were assessed seven penalties for 60 yards. They were lucky that UAB was just a little bit worse: The Spartans suffered nine penalties for 99 yards.
Over the last two weeks, the Buckeyes have gotten very good at capitalizing on their opponents' miscues. Against Cal in Week 3, they snagged a win when Miller lofted a 72-yard touchdown pass in the final four minutes, capitalizing on a huge defensive lapse on the part of Cal. Last week, the Buckeyes were lucky that the opponent made just a few more mistakes than they did.
A better team will make them pay for those kinds of mistakes—a team like the Spartans will make them pay. The Buckeyes have to be much more careful in Week 4, or else those errors are going to come back to bite them—even though they haven't up to this point.