I walked out of Spartan Stadium on Saturday puzzled by a lot of the things Michigan State tried to do in a 17-16 loss to Ohio State. A second look indicates the Buckeye coaches might just have been a step ahead of them most of the day.
First of all, Michigan State could not block Ohio State straight up. This probably came as little surprise to either staff as it is consistent with what both sides have shown this season. However, I think the Spartans capitulated too quickly and easily.
Michigan State tried a variety of ways to move it on the ground, and what worked they stopped trying as soon as Ohio State made one adjustment, if any.
They had a nice gain on outside zone run out of a two-tight end set once, and they managed to get a numbers and personnel advantage by aligning two receivers and the tight end to the field and then running to the boundary another time. Both times it was because they were finally able to run away from Johnathan Hankins, who usually lines up to the formation’s strength. Ohio State responded to that by putting Hankins back in the boundary when it saw the two-tight end look again and you can imagine what happened. Hankins beat a block and blew up the play.
Otherwise, Hankins generally could be found on the tight end side making life very difficult for whichever guard was trying to block him. He got more help this week from John Simon, who is probably getting healthier because he seemed more able to shed blocks against the run than he has the past couple of weeks. Garrett Goebel continued his stellar play at nose guard, and the linebackers all looked better when challenged.
Eteinne Sabino in particular was all over the field, flowing to the ball carrier more quickly than he often has in the past and finishing plays (aside from the MSU touchdown when the defense collectively lost its wits).
When the Spartans went back to the “tight end trips” look, Ohio State kept Hankins on the strong side and merely played the run better as Goebel and Simon beat single blocks, linebacker Ryan Shazier stuffed the guard and Sabino cleaned it up. I’m not sure we would have seen all of those things happen in previous weeks, but that was the different in East Lansing. Getting the middle linebacker Sabino to make a play going inside out like that was a huge difference, but one wonders if the Spartans would have been wise to make him prove more than once he was capable of doing it. Ditto regarding Shazier, who makes a lot of plays because of his athleticism but is still developing consistency.
Andrew Maxwell flashed some potential at quarterback, but he isn’t there yet, and his receivers are probably farther away. If experience breeds toughness, there were a handful of catches the Spartans probably make later in their careers. They could have had a big impact Saturday, but credit the Buckeyes for bringing the wood when they had the chance downfield. I do like Maxwell’s arm, and he avoided bad decisions. He still hasn’t thrown an interception since the Spartans’ opener, when he had three and looked kind of overwhelmed.
I thought Christian Bryant played a clean game, and Orhian Johnson provided help over the top several times when there was potential for a big play. The secondary continued to make some mistakes as both cornerbacks committed costly penalties, and Maxwell found some holes in coverage that might have been a result of people being on different pages.
While Michigan State was kind of all over the map, I thought the Ohio State staff brought a relatively concise plan on both sides of the ball.
They gave Maxwell some different looks in coverage but pretty much played the run straight up. Blitzes seemed well-timed, too, even though they only sacked him twice and those were probably both coverage sacks.
Offensively, the wide receiver screens did not yield any huge gains, but they probably played a role in running out the clock at the end because Michigan State was still respecting the slot receiver with the Sam linebacker even in an obvious running situation.
That provided some extra room for Miller and Hyde to pick up the initial first down of the last drive on two plays. They brought a safety down over the slot to free up the linebacker on the third play of the drive, but Ohio State maintained a numbers advantage by using Hyde as a lead blocker on a quarterback sweep. Zach Boren kicked out linebacker and Hyde hit the safety to give Miller and extra five yards.
On the last third down, they brought a cornerback in case Miller wanted to keep it and sent the middle linebacker up the middle, but Hyde sidestepped him and the outside linebacker got there a couple of steps too late to prevent him from finishing the run with power and making the line to gain. Why was he late? Because he lined up splitting the difference between the tackle and the slot receiver. Right tackle Reid Fragel had a key block, pancaking the tackle on that side, and Zach Boren held off the end long enough to create the crease for Hyde. Then the Buckeyes ran out the clock and started looking forward to a visit from Nebraska.