Choose your cliché, because they all apply: Classic Big Ten football. Defensive battle. This one wasn’t pretty.
But Ohio State wasn’t looking for style points. Those are hard to come by in November conference games. The Buckeyes came into East Lansing needing one thing and one thing only: a W, to keep them in position to overtake Michigan for the Big Ten East title when the two teams meet on the final Saturday of the regular season. And they got it. So this—whatever it was—shall suffice.
Ohio State kept its playoff hopes alive by beating Michigan State, 26–6, in a game only a player’s mother could love. There were 17 punts—including a legendary nine-punt performance from Ohio State’s Drue Chrisman, who landed five straight inside the 20-yard line—two missed field goals, three fumbles, dropped passes galore and an intentional safety that, in hindsight, was the first thread pulled in a late-game unraveling by Michigan State.
Yes, an intentional safety. Down 7–6 with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter, Michigan State faced a fourth-and-10 from its own one-yard line. Rather than risk a punt block for a touchdown or a long return, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio instructed his long snapper to snap the ball way over the punter’s head, resulting in a safety but keeping the game within a field goal at 9–6.
Michigan State would boot the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, and after the Spartans’ defense got yet another stop, Chrisman delivered another perfect punt. Ohio State’s punt coverage team, the second star of this game behind Chrisman, downed this one inside the two, and on the next play from scrimmage, the snap never made it back to freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi when it hit a receiver in motion, and Ohio State recovered for the score, giving the Buckeyes a 16–6 lead that might as well have been a 35-point advantage given the Spartans’ offensive ineptitude.
Michigan State’s first six possessions of the game ended as follows: Punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, punt. That’s when Dantonio made the call to pull starter Brian Lewerke in favor of Lombardi in an effort to inject life into a moribund unit. It started promisingly enough—Lombardi guided the Spartans on a solid two-minute drill that resulted in their first points of the game, cutting Ohio State’s lead to 7–3 at the half.
The Spartans looked to have taken the lead in the third quarter on a perfectly executed double-pass, which was set up by two Lombardi runs totaling 60 yards. The play was called back for an ineligible man downfield—the replay suggested the play was a designed screen that wide receiver Cody White was forced to improvise into a downfield shot—and Michigan State had to settle for a field goal and a 7–6 deficit.
Those would be the last points Michigan State could muster, as the offense continued to sputter as the game moved into the fourth quarter. So much so that Dantonio made the switch back to Lewerke for the final drives of the game.
The Ohio State offense didn’t exactly light the world on fire, either. Former Heisman candidate Dwayne Haskins served mostly in a custodial role, avoiding mistakes above all else. Running back Mike Weber put forth a true workmanlike performance, grinding out 104 yards on 21 carries and a late touchdown. The Buckeyes showed extreme confidence in their punter—who validated that confidence, and then some—and their much-maligned defense, often going conservative on third down and punting whenever feasible.
Aesthetics aside, make no mistake about it: this was an important win for Ohio State, beating a top-20 conference foe on the road by 20 to remain in striking distance in the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes entered this game with work to do to get back in the playoff picture, but they could take solace in knowing two wins over the Michigan schools should do the trick. The first test has been passed. The second one will come after a road matchup against Maryland, in two weeks’ time at the Horseshoe, when the Wolverines come to town.