Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was hired for many reasons, but his ability to win championships was the most important. His gift will be put to the test on Saturday night when the No. 2 Buckeyes take on No. 10 Michigan State in the Big Ten Football Championship in Indianapolis.
The stakes could not be any more significant. On the line for the Buckeyes are a trip to the BCS Championship game, a chance to extend their winning streak to 25 and an opportunity to end the SEC’s seven-year run on titles.
For the Spartans, they have a chance to earn a trip to their first Rose Bowl since 1988, dethrone the Buckeyes from the top of the Big Ten and prove to everyone outside of East Lansing that they belong among the elite teams in the country.
As fate would have it, Meyer is also trying to undo the carnage that he created in the first place. Ohio State’s image—and, subsequently, the Big Ten’s—started to crumble after Meyer’s Florida team thrashed the Buckeyes in the 2007 BCS National Championship.
Coincidentally, he is trying to beat Mark Dantonio, a coach who is held in the highest regard at Ohio State for helping restore the glory in 2002 when his defense carried the Buckeyes to the championship.
This game matches strength versus strength; Meyer's uptempo, high-octane offense versus Dantonio’s blue-collar, stone-wall defense. The Buckeyes will look to play fast and push the ball down the field quickly. The Spartans will try to force a grind-it-out, smashmouth game.
The Buckeyes are favored to win the game, but the Spartans will test their resolve. Here are the two keys for the Buckeyes to win the game:
Win the Turnover Battle
No team in the Big Ten looked more impressive in November than Michigan State. Over the last four weeks, the Spartans steamrolled through Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota. A primary reason for this success was they were plus-nine in turnovers in these games.
It is not a surprise that Michigan State is in the title game and that the much-maligned offense from September looked remarkably better in the second half of the season. The Spartans are protecting the ball well and taking it away even better. They are ranked No. 5 nationally in turnover margin at plus-1.3 per game.
Ohio State’s offense is certainly not the giving kind, but it will have to be extraordinarily careful against Michigan State to win the game. Scoring will not come as easily against the Spartans, and Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde must dodge the crucial mistakes that would give Michigan State momentum.
Avoiding turnovers will also help the struggling Buckeye defense, which can ill-afford to start any series in poor field position.
The defense can help its cause by finding a way to get the offense a few more possessions. The Spartans are likely to keep the Buckeyes in check, but they won’t be able to stop them all night. Squeezing a turnover or two from Michigan State is all that Miller and Hyde will need to give the Buckeyes some breathing room.
Positive Yards on First Down
Michigan State’s defense is ranked No. 2 in stopping opponents on third down, allowing them to convert just 28 percent of the time. To combat this, the Buckeyes offense must continue being effective on first down to stay out of long-yardage situations.
Success on first down is predicated on the offensive line playing its best game of the year. Miller and Hyde have made a living all season getting to the second level quickly by running through mile-wide holes. Don’t expect the Spartans to be as generous.
They are allowing just 2.23 yards per rushing attempt. The Spartans' defensive line thrives on tying up the line of scrimmage to give its All-Big Ten linebackers free reign to make plays for minimal gains. They are not incredibly fast, but they are disciplined. Nothing will come easy against them.
The Buckeyes' offensive line must disrupt the linebackers' pursuit in order for the speed and elusiveness of Miller and the power of Hyde to be effective on first down. If the line can do it, expect stellar performances by the dynamic duo. If it fails, the Buckeyes will be in for long night. Whoever wins this battle will win the game.
Most people outside of Columbus will be rooting for the Spartans on Saturday night. The SEC is loudly whining that the winner of the SEC Championship Game deserves a chance to play for the title even if the Buckeyes win. That is nonsense.
Meyer was hired to deliver in games like this. The previous 24 games are nice for the record books, but they will be meaningless unless Ohio State wins this game. The focus only needs to be on this game. History suggests Meyer will have his team ready to take care of business. If it does, everything else will fall into place.