COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State has lived the good life to this point in the season, going 5-0 and having all of its games at home.
For the first time, the Buckeyes will be packing their bags and heading out on a trip, to take on struggling Michigan State. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. Ohio State has won 15 of the last 18 meetings, including eight in a row in East Lansing.
The road can be paved with potholes
Even though the Buckeyes have been dominant against the Spartans (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten), coach Ryan Day isn’t taking anything for granted or leaving anything to chance.
He knows that life on the road in the Big Ten is never easy, no matter the record of your opponent.
“It’s hard to win up there,” he said. “It’s a new challenge for us, new test. We expect a top-10 team when we go to East Lansing. We know we got our hands full.”
Day admitted that it is “unique” that the Buckeyes haven’t ventured away from Ohio Stadium yet this season, but doesn’t expect preparation to be much different than any other week.
“It is a tough, tough place to play,” Day said. “Certainly a great stadium and a great environment. And it’s gonna be hard to win up there. It always is. And it was the first time we’re going on a road. You know, it’s been a unique year that we are in week six and we haven’t played a game on the road. It’s been great, but we’re going to a good rhythm. But now we’re gonna go get our first conference road game.
“We know that we got our hands full this week. So we’ve got to have a really good Tuesday and Wednesday practice to go on the road.”
The Buckeyes high-powered offense has not suffered much in road games, averaging 7.36 yards per play going back to 2019. That speaks to the talent and efficiency of the offense, and Day expects more of the same.
OSU should have running back TreVeyon Henderson, who missed last week’s game against Rutgers because of an injury suffered during warmups. In his place, Miyan Williams rushed for 189 yards and tied an Ohio State record with five touchdowns.
Michigan State is 115th nationally against the pass, so this could be a week for quarterback C.J. Stroud to reclaim his hold on the top spot in the Heisman Trophy race. The sophomore had just 154 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers, well below his usual video-game numbers.
Buckeyes have a man of Steele
It wasn’t all that long ago when Steele Chambers was trying to avoid being tackled. He came to Columbus to throw his hat into the crowded running back corps, and averaged over eight yards per carry in limited playing time during 2019 and 2020. Chambers is a competitor, so when the coaches approached him with the idea of moving to defense, he jumped at the chance.
Now he’s the one doing the tackling, and doing it well.
“He’s a full linebacker,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “Steele is. I didn’t know him when he was a running back, but Steele was in there. I’ve continued to see improvement, even through the season, in his tackling. He’s really starting to pick up how to tackle at this level.”
Chambers is second on the team in tackles with 30, and he’s been active in creating havoc, with 4.5 tackles for loss and an interception against Rutgers. He became a running back again after his interception but was ultimately tackled after a gain of 12 yards.
“I busted on Steele for that return,” Knowles said. “I said that’s why you’re not a running back anymore.”
The linebacker crew was a huge liability in 2021, but with Chambers and leading tackler Tommy Eichenberg, it has become a real strength.
Embracing a defensive mindset has been a big part of the smooth transition for Chambers.
“Just playing more,” Day said about why Chambers is better this season. “There’s so many different job descriptions for a linebacker, and the more he’s done them, the better he’s been.”
The defense has gone from a unit that ranked 59th in total defense in 2021 (5.33 yards per play) to one that’s 10th in 2022, allowing 4.52. The linebackers are playing faster and smarter, which made Knowles smile.
“I’m pleased,” he said. “We have seen some success, but defense is such a right-now proposition. We don’t have three of four years to put this system in to make it a premiere defense. It’s gotta happen right here, right now.
“Stopping people on the next play is a habit. So when it comes time when you need to stop them, you can’t just pull that out of your pocket.”
Spartans dealing with adversity
Less than a year removed from an 11-win season, Michigan State is limping into the game with the Buckeyes.
The defense suffered a blow early when linebacker Darius Snow was lost for the season and was hindered even more when All-America safety Xavier Henderson suffered a leg injury from which he has not returned. Even dynamic receiver Jayden Reed missed a game after cutting his leg on a metal bench sliding out of bounds.
To say things have not gone according to plan for coach Mel Tucker’s crew would be an understatement.
“You will always be defined on how you handle adversity, how you respond to adversity,” he said. “Not just on the football field, but beyond. Outside of football, in life, you’re going to be in adverse situations. It doesn’t get any easier as you go. If you’re sitting around waiting for the easy bus to come around, the easy bus isn’t coming.”
After opening 2-0, Michigan State has dropped three straight, allowing 100 points to Washington, Minnesota and Maryland.
And now the high-flying Buckeyes, owners of the top scoring offense and third-best total offense, come to town.
“The challenge is that they’re very balanced,” Tucker said of Ohio State’s offense. “They’re extraordinary in the run game and also in the pass game, and they have, arguably, the best quarterback in the country. Everyone’s at the point of attack on every play.”
Michigan State has yet to intercept a pass this season and has been bullied at the line of scrimmage against physical running teams. So pulling off an upset would seem like a monumental task. But it’s the mindset Tucker is presenting to his team.
“First of all, you have to believe. That’s one,” said Tucker, who was a Nick Saban assistant at Michigan State in 1998 when the Spartans knocked off the top-ranked Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. “And you have to strip the name off the jersey. You go to work and preparation and be willing to play the next play. Just take it from the meeting room to the practice field.”
One of the few bright spots has been transfer running back Jalen Berger, who leads the team with 301 yards and four touchdowns after coming over from Wisconsin. He’s averaging over five yards per carry and has shown explosiveness, breaking off nine runs of 10 yards or more.
Michigan State is 13th in the conference in allowing third down conversions, so they need to find more toughness and power against an opponent who makes a living out of converting third downs (second nationally at over 60 percent).
“The most important thing is what we do next,” Tucker said. “Anger, frustration, woulda-coulda-shoulda — all those things — they don’t really help you move forward, because it’s all about what we have to do right now. So you learn from the past, whether it’s good or bad, and you own it.”