Spartan Football Essentials: Buckeyes Again, By Far

Spartan Nation senior writer Jon Schopp is here to discuss Michigan State's 52-12 loss to Ohio State.
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OFFENSE

The Spartans could not compete very well with the Buckeyes up front. That's been a serious struggle each of the last four years, and that's where success begins for the Spartan Offense against better opponents in the future. As we discussed over the past few years, when you can't compete up front, you can't win up front. When you can't compete up front, you won't run the ball well, pass the ball well, or score many points. Mel Tucker knew he had a lot of ground to make up when he took the Michigan State job in February; now, he's got first-hand evidence of how far his Offensive Line must come to compete with the likes of Ohio State.

Most around the vast Spartan Nation knew it would be tough sledding for the Offense today. Ohio State has a pretty good Defense, fantastic and athletic depth, and the Spartans came in a bit shorthanded once again. Not surprisingly, it was not pretty from the start. The Offense sorely needed an early boost but instead looked to get in their own way with play calls that did not feature much of an upside. That's also how an Offense tends to look when its line is so firmly overmatched.

It's going to be a day by day climb for Michigan State Football to get there again, but as we saw little more than four years in this game, it is possible. It will not happen without the type of long term commitment Mel Tucker has started to put in place, and it will not happen without enough Spartan players who are willing to put in the time and grind to get there. No need to panic, it's rarely a quick fix to rebuild an Offensive Line at this level, but it can be a pretty quick decline if you let things go a bit. That's very clearly what happened to the Spartan Offensive Line in the final years of the Mark Dantonio era, and Mel Tucker's top task is to find a way back from it.

Rocky Lombardi's injury makes the lineup even more interesting next week. There's a better chance that Peyton Thorne starts the finale at Penn State, but unless the Spartans can compete much better at the point of attack, it probably won't matter much. The Spartan Offense will continue to struggle as long as they are intensely rebuilding their protection up front.

DEFENSE

Once upon a time, the state of Georgia had a bunch of good looking High School Quarterbacks. The best of the bunch included Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Every big-name program, including MSU, wanted one of those guys. Lawrence committed to Clemson petty early on; Fields took the long road to get to Ohio State. Both players now sit atop the world of College Football, and today Fields finely carved the Spartan Defense up all across the field. Fields may not be as good as Lawrence, but he is without question a complete Quarterback talent in the year 2020. He made this one look like easy work. And Fields looks simply like the best Quarterback Ohio State has had in a very long time.

It's not that the Spartan Defense couldn't compete with Fields; it's that they had to compete with Fields plus ten other Buckeyes with as much speed, size, and skill as the very best programs in the country. The Bucks did not look much like a team down almost a quarter of their roster. There was a time that an MSU Defense could match up well with an Ohio State Offense, but the programmatic decay that hit Spartan Football in past years has created a pretty wide gap between the two programs. One need only look at the Buckeye's 1st Half numbers for confirmation of that reality: 28-points, 16-1st Downs, and 153-yards rushing stood out most. Fields accounted for 192 of Ohio State's 270-total yards and 3 of their 4-Touchdowns in the first 30-minutes.

It should not take Mel Tucker anywhere near as long as it took Mark Dantonio to rebuild the Spartan Defense to a competitive level in the Big Ten, but it won't happen in a flash, and it might not happen before the Spartans and Buckeyes meet again next fall. That trip to Columbus will serve as a measuring stick against today's performance, to gauge how far the Spartan Defense progressed from this 52-12 beating. Scottie Hazelton and staff begin their final week of game prep with a fresh reminder and understanding of exactly how much work they have to do to become competitive with an Ohio State Offense again.

SPECIAL TEAMS

It was interesting to see Bryce Baringer regain his starting slot as the MSU Punter. Baringer was lifted last week after his first two punts last week went badly. A bunch of big kicks made the difference last week when the Spartans had a shot to knock off Northwestern, but they didn't get much more than game-reps of out this blowout by Ohio State. The season finale with Penn State should be more competitive, and this unit's role in that final outcome a lot more significant.

INTANGIBLES

Down more than 20 players, it was honestly a bit surprising that Ohio State could field a team today. They had to be pretty close to the cutoff number. You have to credit the Buckeyes for surviving and advancing through a difficult week in order to keep hope alive for a College Football Playoff berth. They came out with a purpose from the opening snap and took care of their business by Halftime. Beyond that, the Buckeyes competed for the full 60-minutes. They didn't relax or take the air out of the ball like some teams do, proving again that Ohio State is truly one of the elite programs in College Football. That's what Mel Tucker and company are shooting for, and that's what this looks like.

The Buckeyes didn't miss a beat when transitioning their football program from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day. Spartan Football, by contrast, couldn't figure out how to wrap up the Mark Dantonio era. As a result, Spartan Football got way off track, and that difference stood out in bold today via the 40-point difference in the final score. The past handful of years weren't tough for Spartan Football; they were worse. They did real damage to the foundation Mark Dantonio skillfully built over many years, and those recent down years have carried over.

They lean years not only carried over to 2020, they will carry over into '21 a good bit, and even into '22. That's how it works when you're trying to compete in the biggest division in the sport, at the top end of major College Football. We're not talking about setting the bar at making a mid-level bowl game; we're talking about competing for championships again. Mel Tucker knew there would be a good-sized road back when he took the job at MSU, and he knew there would be some days like this when Michigan State would be flat overmatched by the best program in the league.

EXTRA POINT

Four years ago, the Spartans came up one-point short of the 2nd ranked Buckeyes in Spartan Stadium. Mark Dantonio decided to go for two, with less than five minutes to go, rather than kick it for the tie at 17. Michigan State hasn't been close to Ohio State since, but this 2020 team still has something to play for.

The 2020 Spartans have an outside shot to finish as a .500 team. They can't earn that chance without a win against Penn State next week. That has to be job one for this team in what will be a different week than any they've worked all season. There may be mounting distractions inside the halls of Spartan Football this week, and it's up to Mel Tucker and team leaders to keep the focus on what's immediately in front of them, what's possible from here.

Who knows what bowl games will be played and which ones will be called off in the coming weeks, that's out of this team's control. The Spartans should only be focused on playing their best 60-minutes of the year next week. There's sure to be a lot of change to coming to Spartan Football after next week, and though some may want to sneak an early peak or speculate about what might happen, there's plenty of time for that after the final game of the regular season. They all count one.

This week Mel Tucker and staff have a chance to show the Spartan Nation that they can keep their player's attention on the next game and off any shiny objects or rumor mills. That hasn't been easy since the pandemic around the world took over, but it would be a decent accomplishment to cap off Tucker's year one if the Spartans can pull it all together for the final week.

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