Big Ten football got underway last night with Michigan and Minnesota both losing to better teams, but neither game changed my outlook on theirs or the conference outlook. Should be another fun year of football in the Midwest and all over the nation, and I am excited to be covering the Big Ten for FOXSports.com this fall. I’ll still be writing for Buckeye Sports Bulletin as well. While those places are (at least mostly) for news, this is where you can find opinions and hopefully some further insight.
Here is my outlook on the conference. For my thoughts on Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, click here.
This week we turn to Thelonious Monk for inspiration as we examine what most impacted Ohio State’s 17-16 win at Michigan State last week and look ahead to the Buckeyes’ visit from Nebraska.
What we learned last week: The importance of dancing with the one you brought.
Ohio State’s surprisingly strong defensive performance was a result of two things: The Buckeyes playing better, and the Spartans frequent gear shifting.
Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar put far too much of the game in the lap of his unproven quarterback considering the score never got away from the home team and the Spartans’ identity is supposed to be built on being physical.
True, the Green and White offensive line is not an overpowering unit by any means, but Andrew Maxwell is five starts into his career and has not exactly lit the world on fire. Yet he threw 42 passes and the Big Ten’s leading rusher carried 17 times. Involving tailback Le’Veon Bell in the passing game was a nice wrinkle in the first half, but that is really not his forte at 244 pounds.
Protecting Maxwell and giving Bell every chance to soften up the Buckeyes and see how long they could hold their gaps and make their fits seems like the logical approach given how the Buckeyes pursued and tackled the past couple of weeks.
Instead, the Spartans bounced from power to spread sets, throwing the ball around with some success but never getting much of a rhythm. They scored one touchdown on a drive that consisted of three plays, one doubled in length by an Ohio State penalty and another that would have been a minimal gain if not for multiple Buckeyes forgetting how to tackle simultaneously.
One Ohio State defender said after the game he felt pregame studies left the Buckeyes prepared for Michigan State was going to do out of each formation it put out there, and that was certainly believable from observing how the game unfolded.
Meanwhile, the Buckeye offense had its share of fits and starts as well. A surprisingly easy 75-yard touchdown drive started off the game and then the sledding became much harder against a head-hunting Spartan defense, but head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman stayed the course.
There were times the Buckeyes looked, aside from formation, no different from the past decade as they kept the ball on the ground and probed for weaknesses in the Michigan State defense.
A plethora of screens to Corey “Philly” Brown did provide some constraint and incremental gains, but this was still largely the blood-and-guts offense Meyer promised the day he was hired. Even those screens can be looked upon as runs, safe passes designed to keep the defense honest and widen the creases just enough to squeeze out a few more yards here and there to keep the chains moving (The Buckeyes had 21 first downs, including 14 on the ground).
Then came the big strike. Ohio State’s commitment to run confirmed, Michigan State remained staunchly set on stopping it, and that assured the Spartan cornerbacks would continue to work without a net.
Finally, the Buckeyes went deep and everything went according to plan. Devin Smith ran past the best Michigan State cornerback, Johnny Adams, and Braxton Miller hit him in the hands in stride with a perfect pass. Smith fought off Adams’ last protestations and galloped into the end zone, stunning the Spartans and their crowd.
It felt a little like Terrelle Pryor’s bomb to DeVier Posey at Penn State in 2009, but this was different. That play was made possible by a bust in coverage. This was no mistake. The Spartans got what they wanted, but so did Ohio State. May the better man win, and Smith did with an assist from Miller.
And as the Buckeyes dialed up more pressure late, the Spartans wilted on both sides of the ball, unable to protect Maxwell when they had to throw and unable to stop Miller and Carlos Hyde when everyone in the stadium knew they would be running.
Just like they drew it up.
What we can expect to learn this week: How the Buckeyes tackle on the edge and in space.
Yes, I realize those have become ubiquitous terms in college football these days, but that is right where Nebraska will attack Ohio State. It’s where the Cornhuskers gashed the Buckeyes a year ago, too.
Coordinator Tim Beck’s unique option-based attack is an appropriate next challenge for the Ohio State defense after it mostly shut down the basic MSU attack. Think of it like moving from algebra to trigonometry.
Although how much remains to be seen, Taylor Martinez has improved both as a passer and a decision maker. He can stress defenses in numerous ways, and there will be no ganging up on the Huskers in any one area of the field.
With two talented running backs and an emerging receiver corps to go along with the dynamic quarterback, this is going to be by far the best offense Ohio State has faced this season. The line offers a different look, too, with a lot of cut blocking and movement up front.
On the flip side, Ohio State should bring some confidence back with it to Ohio Stadium on offense. The line handled a very good Michigan State front seven for most of the day, and Miller continued to prove he can handle just about anything thrown at him. Another week for Hyde to get re-acclimated to the offense should help, too, but it remains to be seen how available Jordan Hall will be.
The Blackshirts rose up when it matter last week against Wisconsin, but the Badgers have struggled on offense all year. This Nebraska defense remains a vulnerable unit until it proves otherwise.
Of course, that could come this week. Who knows in this league, where no one seems prepared to grab the reins.
Except maybe Ohio State after that big road win last week, or Nebraska if it can do the same this Saturday in Columbus.
Big Ten thoughts: One of the league’s unbeaten pretenders fell by the wayside, and let’s be honest, it was the one we probably should have expected to fold first.
I’m still not sure what to make of Iowa after a throttling of Minnesota, but good for the Hawkeyes to reclaim the Floyd of Rosedale, the coolest trophy in sports.
Wisconsin’s spiral continues as the Badgers are officially without a quarterback to rely on and Montee Ball continues to struggle behind an ineffective offensive line.
As I wrote on Twitteryesterday, this weekend might signal the beginning of the end for the programs that have topped the conference the past two seasons. Both Michigan State and Wisconsin benefitted significantly from the state of Michigan football the past seven or eight years, but Brady Hoke looks intent on closing off the recruiting loopholes the Wolverines provided them in the Midwest when Lloyd Carr was busier chasing national recruits and Rich Rodriguez was recruiting MAC players. Whether or not Bret Beilema can rebuild his staff to be as good as it was before Paul Chryst left to become head coach at Pitt remains to be seen, too.