The Michigan State Spartans are taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes for the right to call themselves Big Ten Champions. Saturday, on Lucas Oil Field, a champion will be crowned. In the eyes of many, the Buckeyes should get to 13-0 and 25 wins in a row by beating the underdog Spartans.
For Michigan State, an 11-1 team hoping to get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a long time, how do you beat the No. 2 Buckeyes?
Simply put, with a plan. A plan that neutralizes Ohio State's best plays on offense and exploits the weaknesses on defense. As great as storylines sound surrounding a game, football is about specific boxes that have to be checked in order to emerge victorious. Football is a game of matchups, not numbers, and Michigan State has to find success in its matchups with the Buckeyes.
Winning a Big Ten Championship, for Michigan State, means that the offense hits the two major vulnerabilities of the Buckeye defense: intermediate and underneath coverage and one-on-one situations at the edge.
Overall, Ohio State's defense is a quality unit. However, the Buckeyes struggle with covering intermediate to short zones. When the corners are isolated on the edge, receivers can win that matchup.
Michigan State loves to run the football, but going into this game against a Buckeyes team determined to stop the run, the passing game will be key. Connor Cook has grown as a passer. The coaches of the Big Ten noticed, putting him on the second team All-Big Ten Team.
Cook and his talented group of receivers will have to take advantage of space in the Ohio State defense.
The issue with the Buckeyes is not simply getting burned in underneath coverage. It's underneath coverage; there is no getting burned. Rather, the issue is a feel for how to drop into coverage, when to let the quarterback take you to the ball, when to jump routes, and how to handle potential threats.
Ohio State's defenders tasked with patrolling these areas, linebackers, safeties and corners in certain coverages, understand what they are supposed to do. These guys take their drops, and they push to their landmarks. Essentially, more often than not, the Buckeyes do exactly what would appear on a teach tape for the various coverages.
However, the struggle is in converting the teach tape to practical application.
Here the Buckeyes are lined up, looking to play a three-deep zone. The drops should look like this:
Ohio State gets just that. Unfortunately, as the tight end pushes vertical, the outside receiver curls up in front of the safety. That's the difference between a team stopping the short passing game and a team allowing a play that helps extend a drive. Ideally, the linebacker would carry the tight end to the deep third safety and the hook-to-curl safety and the corner would drive on the receiver to break up the ball.
That is Ohio State's struggle in 2013. It is not bad coverage or guys getting burned. No, the big struggle for Ohio State is transitioning from simply getting to the landmark to getting into the zone and matching up with potential threats. It is not a talent issue. It is not a coaching issue. It is simply an understanding and feel issue that takes a lot of time to develop.
Michigan State has to hit those windows.
The Buckeyes are going to load up the box to stop the run game, and Cook has to find Tony Lippett, Bennie Fowler, Macgarrett Kings and the rest of the receivers in those pockets of space. That's how the Spartans can extend drives. That's how they can keep Braxton Miller off the field and put themselves into the end zone.
The Spartans also will have to take shots down the field. Ohio State's corners have been stout against the run and solid moving to the interior. But on the edge, isolated, they can be had.
This aspect does not just refer to deep 50-50 balls being chucked up to waste downs. It is about measured chances taken downfield, including back-shoulder fades and comeback routes.
Cook has to put the ball where only his targets can get it. Expect the Spartans to take a few shots on the edge during the game. Michigan State has to stretch the field to hope to run the ball against the stout rush defense. By pushing vertical a few times, the Spartans will create more space in the intermediate areas.
The offense has to follow that plan to put points on the board against the Buckeyes.
On defense, this game starts and stops with the Spartans stymieing Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the tremendous rushing attack of Ohio State.
Talk of stopping the run often becomes talk of grit and toughness and other adjectives that fit well into storylines. But getting stops against the run boils down to gap integrity, shedding a block to make a play, and committing bodies to run defense.
In the most recent edition of the Iron Bowl, the nation watched Alabama surrender 296 yards on the ground to Auburn's rushing attack. A lot of that had to do with the Tide not having an extra defender dropped down to create an eight-man box. No eight-man box against a zone-read-heavy team means no extra tackler. No extra tackler means 296 yards' worth of abuse on the ground.
Unfortunately for Alabama, lack of trust in the cornerback position created a need to dedicate four defenders to the pass instead of two or three.
Fortunately for Michigan State, the Spartans have no dearth of confidence in their cornerbacks.
Michigan State's ability to stop the run is buoyed by its faith in the cornerback position. Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes are the best cornerback tandem in the nation, and they free up the Spartans to fully commit as a defense to stopping the run.
Here, against Northwestern, that commitment shines through.
Both corners are over, mugged up, ready to press the receivers on the snap. The safety, Kurtis Drummond, is lined up over the third receiver, playing from distance. On the snap, the complete commitment to stopping the run shows; the Spartans have three guys playing pass and eight bodies crashing the line of scrimmage to defend the run.
That is Michigan State Spartan football. This is a team that believes its corners will stop the opponents' receivers. The Big Ten Championship Game is a great versus great situation: the great run defense of the Spartans against the great rushing attack of the Buckeyes. It is a heavyweight title fight, and both teams' A-games will be on display.
If Michigan State can stick to this game plan, it certainly can play its way to the Rose Bowl. The defense has to do what it has done all season: stop the run. Offensively, the key to a win will be Connor Cook finding the openings in the intermediate areas and taking some successful shots down the field.