INDIANAPOLIS: The Big Ten Championship game Saturday night between Ohio State and Michigan State has been characterized as a test of the Spartans’ immovable defense against the Buckeyes’ relentless running game.
But will that be the case?
Even OSU coach Urban Meyer talked about MSU’s nationally No. 1-ranked defense in glowing terms.
“I’ve faced some incredible defensive teams over the years,” he said. “This is one, two or three [in terms of those] I’ve coached against ever.”
The Spartans have been especially tough against the ground game. For example, they held Michigan to minus-41 yards rushing. By contrast, last week Ohio State allowed the Wolverines to rush for 135 yards, a modest total but no comparison to the job MSU did against Michigan.
Does that mean the Buckeyes will de-emphasize the bull rushes of Carlos Hyde, who has run for 1,163 yards the past seven games? Hyde has run for 1,295 gross yards for the season and been thrown for only five yards in losses.
Yet it is unlikely that the Ohio State offense can afford to be one dimensional against Michigan State, even though Hyde has turned himself into one of the top tailbacks in the nation.
“He has so far surpassed what he did a year ago or ever in his career,” Meyer said. “Last year, he was a good back. This year, he’s an exceptional back.
“His longest run [last year] — we charted it — he had a handful of carries over 12 yards. He’s lost 12 pounds. He’s in much greater shape. He’s stronger. ... Carlos Hyde is much leaner. You can see he’s much more explosive when he hits the second level. He’s a much different player than he was a year ago.”
Hyde also underwent a change of attitude after a suspension that cost him two games this season.
“For the past three months it certainly has,” Meyer said. “I’m hoping it will for the rest of his life. He’s a very humble young man who realized something was almost taken away from him.”
The other part of the Ohio State offensive equation is quarterback Braxton Miller, who has matured into an effective passer who can dismantle the best laid plans of a defense with his speed, shiftiness and even power when he elects to move the ball with his legs.
“Kenny Guiton had a real impact on Braxton,” Meyer said of his backup quarterback. “The greatest form of teaching [is] teaching a young player how to prepare.
“Right before [Miller] got here, there were a bunch of things that occurred, and he became the starting quarterback as a true freshman. He never truly learned how to properly prepare for a game. And certainly not last year, either. ... The last months, he is preparing like a big-time quarterback should.”
Playing indoors at Lucas Oil Stadium might be more of an advantage for the Buckeyes than the Spartans, because of OSU’s multidimensional offense that relies on speed and versatility.
When asked about that, Meyer turned the question around and focused on the fans.
“I think for the fans and for everybody, to celebrate the Big Ten, celebrate our conference championship, I think so [it’s preferable to play in a dome].”
If the Buckeyes prevail Saturday night, they almost surely will play the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 6 in the Rose Bowl. But Meyer insists that his players have not gotten ahead of themselves, inasmuch as what is immediately ahead is facing the obstacle that Michigan State presents.
“That’s been the message all week,” the coach said, “Anything beyond this game, we’ll worry about after the game. I like the focus. There has not been one peep about anything. ... We have a very smart team. Our focus is squarely on this one.”
However, keeping players away from the outside world of sports talk shows and Twitter is not guaranteed.
“You wish you could get your guys — and like raising children — put them away on a desert island until they’re ready to make the right decisions. On top of that, it’s been finals week at Ohio State.”
Win or lose, Meyer will learn more about his team having played an opponent whose strength is stopping what the Buckeyes have done best.
“It’s a toughness game,” he said. “It’s going to be a physical, hard, tough game. We’ll find out if the Buckeyes are a tough team tomorrow night.”