Spartans’ Opening Statement on Defense Proves Enough to Hold off Ohio St. 10-7 at the Horseshoe

Jonathan Schopp

It was supposed to be the first Tressel Bowl in Columbus since Mark Dantonio had completed his rebuilding project of the Spartan Football program. It was supposed to feature two Senior Quarterbacks who looked headed for an early round selection in next April’s NFL Draft. And it was supposed to be the potential “passing of the torch” from Tressel to Dantonio as each man looked to defend the Big Ten Title they claimed a share of in 2011. It was hardly any of the above, and it couldn’t have been much further from those projections as the Spartans outlasted the anemic and shorthanded Buckeyes 10-7 on the opening day of Big Ten play.

On a raw and slippery day in Columbus in front of the traditional 105,306 at Ohio Stadium, the play on the field early matched the conditions nicely. Both teams had difficulties snapping it clean and executing much of anything as they’d planned early on. That fact was highlighted on the Spartans' first possession through a crafty and critical punt that was somehow pulled off by Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P). After Le’Veon Bell (So. RB) hammered away at the Bucks early in the Spartans’ second drive of the day, Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB) looked for a shot to open things up.

On a 2nd and 2 from the OSU 33, Cousins scrambled across the pocket, got a terrific (and legal) block from Garrett Celek (Rs.-Sr. TE), and threw deep into the End Zone for a crossing B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR). As Cunningham jumped above two Buckeye defenders to pull in the Touchdown, MSU had its first big play of the game (if not season), and got off to the kind of start they needed to pull off their first win in Columbus since the Clinton administration.

OSU came out and tried to play to their strengths by going to the ground, but ran into a Spartan Defense that is now pretty well established at stopping the run. As a result, OSU was held to only 16 total yards on their first 3 possessions (42 for the Quarter) and didn’t pick up a 1st Down until the period’s final minute. The Buckeyes’ only managed a mere 2.7 yards per carry in the 1st, and thus the Spartan Defense led the way to a 7-0 MSU lead after one. They had effectively piggy-backed on the foul weather conditions to pretty much neutralize the Buckeye home crowd.

The Defense created havoc early and often for the Buckeye’s very green Braxton Miller (Fr. QB). On Pat Narduzzi’s most impressive effort as the Spartans’ Defensive Coordinator, his unit showed Miller, and later Joe Bauserman (Rs.-Sr. QB), looks and moves they haven’t seen in the first couple weeks after the Terrell Pryor era. Miller had trouble with the slippery snaps, swarming Spartans, and stacked box that MSU often featured. They were physically dominant from the start.

As the Spartans moved towards mid-field on their first drive of the 2nd Quarter, Cousins found Keith Nichol (Rs.-Sr. WR) on a chain moving 3rd and 6 to bring MSU to the Bucks’ 42. And after an incompletion, 0 yard rush, and MSU False Start, Cousins went back to Nichol for a big 11 on a 3rd and 15 to bring MSU to the 36. It was once again decision time for Mark Dantonio.

Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) had already been on fire punting, but OSU could barely move the ball to that point and showed no signs of life Offensively. Dan Conroy can make kicks, but conditions were far from perfect and 53-yards was simply too much to ask. So Dantonio went with the most logical and potentially momentum building call by going for it on 4th and 4.

As the Bucks brought a rush, Cousins threw from his back foot for Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Sr. TE), but OSU’s C.J. Barnett (Rs.-So. DB) looked to get just enough of a hand on it to keep Linthicum from picking up the 1st down. MSU had squandered a great chance to stretch the lead and gain the much needed edge on the road early. It wouldn't be the last time that happened on the day.

On the ensuing Buckeye possession, OSU struggled with penalties early (a theme all day: 9-82), but after an MSU Time Out before to a 3rd and 13, Miller somehow fooled Isaiah Lewis (So. DB) and found Chris Fields (Rs.-So. WR) wide open to extend the drive. After an Ohio St. Personal Foul penalty on the next snap, the fast starting William Gholston (So. DE) returned the favor and was flagged for a Personal Foul of his own to move the Bucks back up to the MSU 34. And if things weren’t herky-jerky enough in the prior three snaps, Miller took the 1st down and looked deep up the sideline for the big play.

Miller threw it up for grabs and into double coverage, however, and MSU’s Darqueze Dennard (So. CB) came down with one hand holding the ball at the MSU 6. What sputtering momentum the OSU Offense was trying to build was once again cut off as the Spartans took over deep in their end. Dennard is also fast becoming a force in the Defensive Backfield.

The Offense failed again to move the ball on the ground, and couldn’t get it past the 31, forcing an MSU punt for the third time in the Half. Good thing the punter was hot. Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) took the opportunity to build on his best game thus far as he sent a 51-yarder to set OSU all the way back to their 18 yard line to start. Sadler averaged 40-yards on his three 1st Half punts, and pinned OSU inside their 20 twice.

Braxton Miller again didn’t get much of a chance from there as big sacks from Jerel Worthy (Rs.-Jr. DT) and Max Bullough (So. LB) highlighted another dominant set for the Spartan Defense. The disconnect between the young Miller and his Offensive Line (if not entire Offense) became more evident by the play. The Spartans would have another chance to extend their lead before the Half.

Starting with 2:33 on the clock, MSU needed more points to complete a solid 1st Half. Cousins went into what appeared to be a 2:00 drill and drove MSU down to the Buckeye 32, but facing a key 3rd and 6. The Spartans’ All-Time Red Shirt connection clicked again as Cousins found Cunningham across the middle, and the Ohio native carried a couple Ohio St. defenders with him across the 26 for the 1st down. The Spartans looked assured of a good shot to extend their lead to 10. Cunningham was nearly the entire MSU Offense for the entire 1st Half.

Yet on the next snap, the conditions and possibly the situation got the best of Kirk Cousins at the worst time as the ball slipped out of his hand while he looked to throw up field. Unable to secure the loose ball, OSU’s Johnathan Hankins (So. DL) recovered at the 37 and cut off MSU’s shot to push the lead past one score. That turn of events truly kept a good chunk of hope in Ohio St. for any shot a comeback.

On the final play of the Half fitting the Buckeye’s Offensive struggles, Miller didn’t see Johnny Adams on a Corner Blitz, who buried him with an 8-yard sack to close out the Half. Though the Spartans led 7-0 and would get the ball to start the 3rd, they should’ve been up another 3 to 7 points, and were left only one play away from a tie game.

For the Half, the hungry Spartan Dawg Defense muted Ohio St. to only 87 total yards and a weak 1.5 yards per carry average on the ground. Yet, OSU held the Spartans to a just as poor 1.6 yards per carry, and did their part to hold MSU to a 2-6 effort on 3rd downs. Though MSU looked like the better team in the 1st Half, they didn’t execute well enough Offensively when it mattered most to build their lead past one score.

The Spartans needed to start the 3rd fast to once again snuff out the Ohio St. faithful. They also needed to push someone around at the Offensive front, which ultimately they were unable to do regularly. After Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) made a mental blunder on a 2nd down reception by going backwards to erase a probable 1st down, MSU faced a 3rd and 1 from the MSU 29.

The Spartan Offensive line would get their first chance to make a statement, and failed it badly as Edwin Baker (So. RB) was buried behind the line for a loss, and Sadler was forced to punt again. OSU’s Defense had clearly adjusted well from the early drive of the game where MSU saw a little daylight rushing and looked to be on the verge of breaking one. The Buckeye Offense, however, could hardly move the ball on MSU all day.

As the Spartans took back over on their own 14, they looked to open things up by getting the ball to Martin in space and pounding it straight ahead with Le’Veon Bell. After a few flat passes, and one fortunate bounce on a Martin fumble that went out of bounds, MSU took the ball down to the OSU 31 only to shoot itself in the foot with a holding call (Fou Fonoti (Jr. OT)) which backed them up to the 41.

After Cousins found Dion Sims (Rs.-So. TE) for 7 yards, MSU faced a 3rd and 9 from the 34. Once Cousins missed Larry Caper to bring up 4th down, Dantonio decided this time to send Dan Conroy out to try a 51-yarder into a pretty consistent wind. Conroy didn’t kick it poorly, but the kick looked a long shot before it was snapped, and the miss left OSU to start at their own 34. Another stalled Spartan drive and another possession that didn’t yield any points.

The Spartan Defense kept doing more than its part though, as Braxton Miller got continued to get pounded again and again by various members of the hungry Spartan Defense. MSU had 7 tackles for a loss before the end of the 3rd! And despite a foolish and costly 15-yard Personal Foul penalty on Johnny Adams (Rs.-Jr. CB) for hitting a defenseless receiver, the Spartans forced another punt to take possession again at their own 16. It was time for the Offense to once again measure up and close out the weak looking Buckeyes.

The play that broke things open for the MSU Offense came on that 3rd and 7 with less than 2:00 left in the 3rd when Cousins let it all hang out and threw deep over the OSU coverage to Cunningham for 52 yards down to the 17. After Baker ran it 12 yards and Chris McDonald was whistled for 5 on a False Start, Baker brought it back to the OSU 7 to close out the 3rd Quarter with MSU then set to start the final Quarter with a 2nd and Goal from the OSU 6.

MSU didn’t call a play action pass and didn’t look for a Tight End on 2nd down, but on 3rd down they brought in all three MSU Tight Ends for the game’s most important snap. It was time for Kirk Cousins and the MSU Offense to close the Buckeyes out. On 3rd down, Kirk Cousins appeared to misread the Corner Back on an attempted fade to Dion Sims, floated one too high, and was critically picked off the Bucks' C.J. Barnett thanks to some crafty footwork. The only thing Cousins could not do on that down was turn the ball over.

Yet, the Spartans turned it over with the Touchback, and couldn’t have looked much worse on the 4th Quarters’ opening two snaps. Again they failed to put points on the board, and though Cousins threw the pick, the play calling was extremely unimpressive when it mattered most. If not for the MSU Defense and Mike Sadler, this game would’ve probably been lost thanks to such a poor job by the Offense in closing out drives.

Thankfully, the MSU Defense was still coming, and though OSU flipped QBs and put Joe Bauserman (Rs.-Sr. QB) in for a try, the Bucks couldn’t move the ball much past the on-fire William Gholston and company. After the 8th Ohio St. punt of the day, the MSU Offense limped to the Bucks 32 setting up a much more promising 49-yard down-wind attempt for Conroy from the favored hash for a right-footer. Conroy came up money for the first time he was really counted on in 2011, and covered for the struggling Offense to finally stretch the MSU lead to 10. Who would’ve known those 3 points would be the difference in the end. The way the Buckeye’s had looked Offensively to that point, stretching the lead past one score looked like it would be more than enough to close out the final 10:35.

Ohio St. only moved the ball effectively after MSU had to protect by going softer underneath following the last Cousins INT. Cousins struggled for most of the day, and after the Bucks’ Bradley Roby (Rs.-Fr. DB) picked off a poor 3rd down pass at the OSU 20, the Spartan Defense had to go back in to bail out the Offense for good. Again the MSU Offense had brought the ball into Buckeye territory, and again come up with nothing.

All day, the MSU Defense continued to swarm, snarl, sack, and completely stifle the limited Buckeye Offense. In fact, one of the main highlights for the OSU Offense prior to the final Cousins pick was an MSU sack as Denicos Allen (Rs.-So. LB) leaped over a would-be Buckeye blocker to sack Bauserman on the doorstep of the Buckeye Goal Line. OSU had less than 100 total yards before the final Cousins' pick.

With an urgency not seen throughout the day, and more than protective (which was the smart play) Spartan Defense out to work overtime, Ohio St. moved the ball a little bit. But after turning it over on downs to MSU at the Spartan 43, the Defense again thought their work on the day was complete and they would be set to hang an impressive shutout in Columbus.

But the Offense struggled yet again, couldn’t move it anywhere on the ground, and went 3 and out and back to Sadler for one last punt. For his 6th and final effort, Sadler put the Bucks back to their 38 with 1:51 left on the clock. Only because the MSU Offense had failed to put more than 10 points on the board was this at all even a sniff of contest. At the same time, only because the MSU Defense had played out of its collective mind, was this still more than a one score lead for MSU.

Seven plays and 62 yards later, Bauserman had engineered the first scoring drive for the Bucks on the day to cut the lead to 10-7, and set up a long shot try for an onsides kick and last second Buckeye prayer. Flashbacks to Louisiana Tech '03, Michigan ’04, and CMU ‘09 might have been flying around a few Spartan fans heads, though it seemed hardly likely. Yet, OSU appeared to pull off a near perfect kick, and after one or two Buckeyes missed a grab at it, Trenton Robinson (Sr. DB) recovered the ball to wrap up the Spartans first win in defense of their Big Ten crown, and first win over the Ohio St. University during the Mark Dantonio era.

It was great team victory overall, certainly a program win, but also quite the shining day for the Michigan State Defense. The Spartan Defense made a strong statement to the whole Big Ten and entire nation today. Ohio St. was held to 35 yard rushing on 39 attempts. The Spartans racked up 9 sacks, and seemed to hit an OSU QB at least 20 times. The Bucks were muted to 4-16 on 3rd downs, and didn't really move the ball a lick until the final drive when MSU had clearly gone softer to protect against the big play. The Defense is the primary reason the Spartans are 4-1, and now 1-0 in the Big Ten headed into the very much needed bye week.

As we discussed in the CMU post game article last week, MSU had to get Ohio St. at the Horseshoe today. To their credit, they did. And though it doesn’t take the sting out of many in the Spartan Nation for stealing the Spartans’ Rose Bowl trip last year, it’s a pretty good start towards making a trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl of 2012.

Today's Top Three Stars

1. William Gholston

2. Mike Sadler

3. Darqueze Dennard