By Rusty Miller
COLUMBUS: There was a time when Ohio State players could look forward to a break after trading bruises with archrival Michigan.
Not anymore. At least, not this year.
No sooner did the second-ranked Buckeyes escape Michigan Stadium with a 42-41 victory — thanks to Tyvis Powell’s last-minute interception on a 2-point conversion pass at the goal line — than they were already immersing themselves in preparation for yet another make-or-break game.
The Big Ten championship game against No. 10 Michigan State — the only top-15 team Ohio State has played in a school-record 24-game winning streak under coach Urban Meyer — looms on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Buckeyes are beaten up, physically and mentally. But this is no time to reflect on what’s been accomplished so far.
“I think they are sore,” Meyer said on Monday. “I have got to be smart this week in what we do. As far as energy and focus — and throw in the fact that it’s finals week at Ohio State — we have to be really efficient with these guys.”
Now No. 2 in the BCS standings, the Buckeyes need to win to hang on to their spot in the BCS National Championship Game.
Since 1943, Ohio State has not had an opponent between Michigan and a bowl game. But with the Big Ten going to a two-division format three years ago, it was only a matter of time until the Buckeyes were busy again the week after their annual grudge match with Michigan.
A year ago, the Buckeyes also went 12-0, but were not permitted to play in the Big Ten title game or a bowl because of NCAA sanctions from violations that occurred on former coach Jim Tressel’s watch.
It’s not as if they don’t have some things to work on this week.
The defense was overwhelmed by Michigan’s previously erratic offense. The Wolverines’ Devin Gardner completed 32-of-45 passes for 451 yards and four touchdowns — including three in the fourth quarter as Michigan pulled even after trailing by 14 points.
The Buckeyes surrendered 603 yards.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was displeased with the stats but couldn’t have been happier that the Buckeyes’ offense did enough to bail out his side of the ball.
“Did we win? Did we win?” he repeated when asked about the failures of his defense. “Because I’ve been up there quite a few times in my 18-year career [as a player and coach] here and have not always been able to come away with the win. Momentum and things happen and we didn’t play great on the defensive side of the ball. So there’s a lot of things to correct.”
Ohio State’s running game doesn’t have a lot of flaws right now. Carlos Hyde, the first running back in Meyer’s 12 years as a head coach to top 1,000 yards, rumbled for 226 yards on 27 carries and scored once at the Big House, and quarterback Braxton Miller rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
But the Buckeyes will be up against a Michigan State defense that is ranked No. 1 among all major colleges against the run (allowing just 64.8 yards per game), in passing efficiency defense and also in total defense (giving up just 238 yards a game).
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said the Spartans do not have an apparent weakness.
“I don’t know if there is a first-team All American on that defense,” he said. “But they have 11 guys that know exactly what they are doing and they do it really well and they tackle well and they are always in the right spot. They are about as sound a defense as you’ll see.”
As has been the case throughout the season, Meyer won’t discuss BCS rankings or the potential of playing in the national championship game.
The Buckeyes, by virtue of two-time defending national champion Alabama’s quirky loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Saturday night, moved up a spot to No. 2 in the BCS rankings.
If they beat Michigan State they will most likely play in the title game on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif.
Meyer declined to get involved in the verbal skirmishing over whether a Southeastern Conference champion with one loss deserves a spot in the title game, and also refused to defend his own team’s claim. Yet.
“We play a game,” he said of the Big Ten championship. “And for someone to ask about something [that might happen] after this game, I mean, that’s cheating my football team. There will be no conversation about what happens after this game until after the game.”