By Jim Naveau
COLUMBUS – Urban Meyer says the deciding factor in today’s Ohio State-Michigan State game will be which team controls the line of scrimmage.
Maybe he said that with the number of times quarterback J.T. Barrett was under duress from Illinois’ pass rushers last Saturday in a 28-3 OSU win in mind.
Maybe it’s something coaches always say. He has probably said it hundreds of times in his career.
Whatever his reasons, Meyer knows a whole lot more about football than I do, so if he wants to put controlling the line of scrimmage at the top of the list, we’ll go with that.
But a quick look at recent history shows something else that has been a very important component of Ohio State’s wins over Michigan State in 2012 and last year and was missing when the Spartans beat the Buckeyes in the 2013 Big Ten championship game.
When OSU has been able to hit big pass plays, it has beaten Michigan State. When it didn’t, its national championship hopes were shattered.
In maybe the defining moment of Meyer’s first season, Ohio State won 17-16 at Michigan State to go 5-0. It was one of those games that seem to prove coaches are right when they say controlling the line of scrimmage is paramount.
“That was two sledge hammers going at each other,” Meyer said afterward.
But it was also a game where Ohio State took the lead on a huge pass play, when Braxton Miller connected with Devin Smith for a 63-yard score to put Ohio State ahead to stay late in the third quarter.
Last season, Ohio State went into its game at Michigan State as an underdog and fell behind early. But two long touchdown passes in the last three minutes, 16 seconds of the first half put OSU ahead to stay in a 49-37 win.
First, quarterback J.T. Barrett hit Michael Thomas for a 79-yard touchdown and then Smith grabbed a 44-yard TD pass.
Two years ago, missed opportunities on two deep throws by Miller from MSU’s 37-yard line with the game tied in the third quarter helped the Spartans win the Big Ten championship game 34-24.
If big pass plays are a key today, Ohio State will have to do things differently than it has so far this season.
A year ago, OSU averaged 2.8 passing touchdowns a game. This season, it is averaging 1.6 touchdowns a game in the air.
The biggest missing element has been the deep pass threat Smith provided. More than half of his catches last year went for 25 yards or more.
Thomas (45 catches, 651 yards, 8 TDs) has been productive, but inexperience, injuries and in some cases not living up to the hype has made many other OSU receivers less productive.
Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) has not appeared to be the same team it was when it dominated Wisconsin, held off Alabama, then took down Oregon in the national championship game last year.
The same could be said about Michigan State (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten), which has not been as dominant on defense as it has been in recent years.
Quarterback Connor Cook has been as indispensable to Michigan State’s offense as Ezekiel Elliott has been to Ohio State’s offense. But after he sat out the second half of the Spartans’ game against Maryland last Saturday because of a shoulder injury, there are questions about him, too.
Whoever comes out of this game will still be in the hunt for a place in the College Football Playoff. The loser almost certainly will fall out of that discussion.
“It’s make or break. Everything we want is right in front of us,” Ohio State offensive lineman Pat Elflein said earlier this week.
So, the Buckeyes know what is in front of them. But it would also help if their receivers could get behind the defense a few times today, too.
The prediction: Ohio State 31, Michigan State 24.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or follow him on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.