EAST LANSING – This was supposed to be a statement game for the Big Ten’s best team, and it was. It just turns out that that team is Ohio State, not Michigan State. The Buckeyes grabbed the Spartans’ statement, read it aloud on national television, and now you can get ready for a whole lot of Urban Meyer and Ohio State -- not just this season but next, too.
No. 14 Ohio State beat No. 8 Michigan State, 49-37, and afterward the Buckeyes let the media in on a little secret: They knew this would happen. They didn’t “know” in the way that young athletes sometimes assume they will win, no matter who they play. They really knew they would beat Michigan State. They knew how and why.
Receiver Evan Spencer said during the week, “when we were breaking it down, we realized that ‘Hey, we can get after this secondary.’” Receiver Michael Thomas said he knew he would score a 79-yard touchdown off a little inside route before the ball was snapped. Before another big play, freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett told receiver Devin Smith, “Run really fast by them and I’ll throw you the ball.” Smith did, and Barrett found him.
The Buckeyes knew Michigan State’s vaunted press defense would give them chances to hit explosive passing plays, and they knew they had the quarterback to take advantage of them.
Maybe the Buckeyes would have won this game if star quarterback Braxton Miller did not get injured in the preseason. But they would not have won as easily as they did with Barrett. Barrett may or may not be a better player than Miller. But he is a better player against Michigan State, because he can throw the deep ball against this defense, which is what Miller couldn’t do in last year’s Big Ten title game.
Barrett was magnificent, completing 16 of 26 passes for 300 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 86 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
“J.T had to answer each one of their hits, and he did,” Meyer said. “J.T. was incredible.”
This is the program Meyer is building: A Heisman contender goes down, and a likely first-team all- Big Ten performer replaces him. That is how good Barrett has been. He has a feel for the game, deep-ball touch and maturity you rarely see in a college quarterback.
After their win, the Buckeyes emphasized the importance of avenging their loss to the Spartans last December. On the bus ride to the game, receiver Evan Spencer kept playing a video on his phone of Michigan State hoisting the Big Ten championship trophy, just to remind himself. The Buckeyes felt like Michigan State swiped their title last year, and robbed them of the chance to win to a national championship.
Well, revenge is often built on fiction. Michigan State was better than Ohio State last year (largely because its secondary was better), and if the Buckeyes had beaten the Spartans, they probably would have lost to Florida State by two touchdowns. The Seminoles had a great team. The Buckeyes were a very good team that feasted on a weak schedule. In their final three games, they almost lost to a mediocre Michigan team, then lost to both Michigan State and Clemson.
Because Meyer is such a good coach, and the Big Ten is so weak, the Buckeyes have been able to win while they build. The Big Ten helped them look better than they were the last two years. And if the Buckeyes played in a better league, they probably would have been beaten two or three times already this season.
A better league would have knocked the Buckeyes out of this year’s national-title race before they could grow up. But they play in the Big Ten. They only lost once, to lowly Virginia Tech when Barrett was still finding his footing. And now it’s November, and are there really four teams that are better than this one right now? Are you sure?
Saturday night, it seemed like Ohio State scored a touchdown on every possession. That’s because Ohio State almost did score a touchdown on every possession. The Buckeyes fumbled away a punt return and a kickoff return, but they scored touchdowns on six straight possessions when Barrett actually took a snap. They punted twice the whole night, and one of those came in the final minute.
This was a heck of a performance against anybody, but it was stunning against the vaunted Michigan State defense that has ruled the Big Ten over the last two years.
What did it mean? Well, on Saturday morning, Ohio State sat at No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and would likely be out of the picture by midnight. Michigan State was supposed to hand the young Buckeyes their second loss, and we would all forget about Meyer’s team until next season.
But as you may have noticed over the last few weeks or century, college football is not easily predicted. No. 3 Auburn lost. No. 7 Kansas State and No. 10 Notre Dame lost convincingly. Alabama looked vulnerable against LSU (and faces No. 1 Mississippi State next week).
Meanwhile, Ohio State beat the Big Ten’s only clear top-10 team in the most impressive way -- decisively, on the road, at night. Say what you want about the Big Ten, and much of it is true, but Michigan State did win the Rose Bowl last year. The Spartans did play Oregon close on the road. (The final score of 46-27 was misleading, to say the least.) Beating Michigan State in Spartan Stadium like this is not easy.
Are we really so sure that Arizona State (which lost to UCLA, 62-27) is better than Ohio State right now? Or that TCU is? And even if ASU and TCU definitely are better, what if Arizona State loses to Arizona, then beats Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, and TCU loses at Texas, and ….
More strange things happen in this sport in a day than in other sports all year. Ohio State is in the playoff conversation now, and the Buckeyes may be there for good. They play at Minnesota next week, which won’t be easy, and then there will be the Big Ten title game, but Ohio State is as likely as any one-loss team in the country to win the rest of its games. The Buckeyes could keep creeping up.
Meyer wouldn’t bite on the playoff talk, though he was tempted: “If I have to go fight for this team …” He knows there is plenty of time for politicking, and he knows from his days at Florida how to do it. (Whether it will work with the new playoff committee is another question.)
Meyer also knows his young team is loaded and is getting better every week. If the Buckeyes can win at Minnesota, they can watch other teams fall in front of them as they keep moving up.
Michigan State and its No-Fly Zone secondary were the talk of the Big Ten last year, but as Thomas walked out of his media session Saturday night, he asked: “Where’s that no-fly zone at?”
Ohio State had just blown through it, right into the national-title race. Here comes Urban, here come the Buckeyes. And they’re here to stay.