Depending on your frame of mind, Michigan State’s 10-7 win in Columbus on Saturday was either a dominant defensive display in hostile territory or a lackluster performance by an underachieving offense against a probable Big Ten cellar-dweller. Either way, Sparty came away with its first victory against Ohio State since 1999.
With respect to the fact that Michigan State was in complete command of this game from the get-go, it is important to keep in mind that this was not your older brother’s Ohio State team. The hit the Buckeyes have taken from the "Tatoo Scandal" is reminiscent of the knockout punch Victor Ortiz took from Floyd Mayweather—neither was ready for it. Ohio State has basically hit the reset button and is in full-fledged rebuilding mode.
This would have been a landmark victory for the Spartans in 2009. In 2011, it really should not be looked at as anything more than a solid road win against a lower-tiered Big Ten opponent (expect the Buckeyes to finish with three conference wins or less).
While Michigan State can certainly rely on arguably one of the nation’s best defenses, there is room for improvement all over the field. The Ohio State game afforded a great look into where the Spartans are right now and where they need to be before taking on the 5-0 Michigan Wolverines in two weeks.
I know that this was mentioned in the opening, but if you watched the game then there is a 99 percent chance the first thing you said to yourself afterwards was, "how bad is Ohio State". It is definitely worth discussing further.
Specifically on the offensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes looked like a Pop Warner team. After the snap, all 11 players seemed to run around in 11 different directions. They managed a pedestrian 178 yards of total offense, with 62 of those coming on the game's final possession and Michigan State playing a prevent.
If there is one thing Ohio State freshman QB Braxton Miller can be proud of, it is that he was sacked less in three quarters of play (four times) than backup Joe Bauserman was in just one quarter (five times).
Kirk Cousins is heralded as being one of the most intelligent signal-callers in the country, yet his play of late has been suspect at best.
Against Ohio State, Cousins was responsible for all three of the Spartans turnovers, with each one coming inside Buckeye territory. He threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter in a game that was by no means out of reach, and both picks were the result of poorly thrown balls.
On the first, a fade in the end zone to TE Dion Sims; Cousins badly overthrew the big man. A tighter, back shoulder throw would have given his receiver a much better chance to make a play on the ball.
The second interception came moments later when Cousins underthrew B.J. Cunningham by five yards on a sideline route, and Ohio State CB Bradley Roby was able to make an easy pick.
Both throws were completely avoidable, and while Cousins is lucky his errors did not cost the Spartans the game, he must regain the mental fortitude he displayed last season.
Last year, Nick Fairley led the Auburn defense through the SEC and to a national championship game. He would routinely beat double coverage with his sneaking agility and brute strength.
Jerel Worthy is beginning to live up to a similar standard, and against Ohio State, he was dominant. By garnering most of the attention of the Buckeye offensive line, Worthy opened the door for teammates like William Gholston and Chris Norman to get pressure on Miller and Bauserman.
Worthy can also be credited with helping to hold the Buckeyes to just 35 yards on the ground.
Worthy also found his way onto the stat sheet in the second quarter when he used a quick inside move to blow up a play in the backfield and dropped Miller for a five-yard loss.
And if Worthy keeps playing like this, he can expect to be drafted as high as Fairley went last year too, No. 13 overall.
Earlier this season, B.J. Cunningham became the all-time receptions leader in Michigan State history. He continues to display why that record is no fluke. Against Ohio State, he caught nine balls for 154 yards and a touchdown.
Cunningham has become a nearly unstoppable wide out, as his 582 receiving yards rank him sixth in the nation. He is doing this, mind you, as the only clear receiving weapon the Spartans possess. Michigan State is getting very little out of their secondary receivers, as no one else has even 200 yards receiving this year.
Cunningham's important to the Spartan offense cannot be overstated.
To put this in context, Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles and Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon are the consensus top two receivers in the country.
Broyles has accounted for 28.3 percent of QB Landry Jones' passing yards. Blackmon is responsible for 32.9 percent of QB Brandon Weeden's passing yards. Meanwhile, 48.6 pereent of Kirk Cousins passing yards have been hauled in by Cunningham.
Le'Veon Bell led the way for the Spartans with 14 carries and 50 yards rushing against Ohio State. More importantly than his numbers is the way the sophomore tailback has been pounding the ball and showing deceptive speed.
He is quickly becoming the Spartans' featured back—and deservedly so. Bell is a threat to break off a long run at any time but can also be counted on as a bruiser in short yardage situations. His six rushing touchdowns lead the team. In fact, no other Spartan running back has more than one touchdown.
One reason for the break out by Le'Veon Bell is the Houdini Act being pulled by Edwin Baker. Baker came into the season expected to be one of the nation's best tailbacks. Nearly halfway through the season, Spartan fans are still waiting.
Against the Buckeyes, Baker had only 36 yards on 12 carries. He has only one rushing touchdown this season. He seems to lack the same burst and elusiveness he showed last season. This can surely be attributed in part to the subpar performance by the offensive line, but it is still up to Baker to break tackles and find a way to get in the end zone.
After gaining 1,201 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2010, Baker is on pace for 604 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Coming into the game with the nation's No. 1 ranked defense, the Spartans faced a new challenge against Ohio State—a mobile quarterback.
Braxton Miller showed the ability to create in Ohio State's victory over Colorado, but Narduzzi had the perfect scheme which kept Miller and the Buckeyes scoreless the first 59:50 of the game.
A heavy dose of blitzes mixed with zone coverage over the top seemed to confuse Miller all game long, which led to his indecisiveness and inability to throw the ball downfield. Instead, you saw a lot of deer-in-the-headlights responses from Miller, who pulled the ball down a looked to scramble for any positive yards.
Credit Narduzzi for developing the scheme which forced the freshman to absorb big hits and deal with different looks all afternoon. It caused an Ohio State offense which was averaging 341 yards of offense per game to gain only 178 (again, 62 of which game in garbage time).
The Spartans turned the ball over three times against Ohio State, keeping the Buckeyes in the game far longer than they should have been. Michigan State has turned the ball over six times in the last three games.
If the Spartans have any chance of getting through their next three games alive (aka at least 2-1), they cannot give the ball away to the likes of Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
It starts with Kirk Cousins. As discussed, his decision making becomes paramount if the Spartans are to have continued success in the Big Ten this year.
In the 2001 Red River Shootout between Oklahoma and Texas, Oklahoma safety Roy Williams made one of the more memorable plays in college football history. He timed the snap count perfectly, did a swan dive over the Texas tailback responsible for blocking him and leveled Longhorns QB Chris Simms.
On Saturday against Ohio State, Spartans linebacker Denicos Allen did his best Roy Williams. With six minutes to play in the game, Allen came off the edge, leaped clean over the block attempt of Ohio State running back Jordan Hall and smashed into Joe Bauserman for the sack.
It was one of the more athletic, exciting plays you will see all year. It's just too bad that Matt Millen was calling the game and got to see it live.
There is no denying it, Michigan State's defense is truly special. You don't lead the nation in total defense on luck and good scheduling through five games. They have excellent skill on the defensive line with Worthy and Gholston. Max Bullough is playing with the kind of ferociousness at linebacker that Greg Jones would be proud of. Even the secondary is stepping up, with Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard making big plays.
But even this defense will need help against Denard Robinson in two weeks. I can guarantee that the Michigan offense will put up more than 10 points, even on this stout Spartans defense. The Wolverines are averaging 37.2 points per game.
It will be up to Kirk Cousins to eliminate mental errors and for the offensive line to create holes for Bell and Baker.
For those who think the Spartans should have a much easier time scoring against the Michigan defense than they did against the Buckeyes, beware. The Wolverines have given up a total of 10 points in their last three games.