A trip to a BCS bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., will be on the line when the Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) and Michigan State (11-1, 8-0) football teams meet at the Big Ten Championship Game.
Saturday’s winner is guaranteed to at least receive a berth in the Rose Bowl Game, but for No. 2-ranked OSU, a projected selection to the BCS National Championship Game hangs in the balance pending the game’s outcome.
Even so, OSU players insist their focus this week is on winning Saturday rather than the later implications of that potential win.
“You have to take it one week at a time, one day at a time,” junior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said Monday. “All we can do is win each and every week. If we do that … things will work out for themselves.”
Although he acknowledged the Buckeyes were excited to move up to No. 2 in the BCS standings after then-No. 1 ranked Alabama lost to then-No. 4 Auburn, junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said the team has kept its attention on Michigan State.
“We don’t really have to do much refocusing because everybody still understands what’s at task right now and understands how important this game is,” Shazier said. “We got to take care of business with (Michigan State) first, then we can move on and be excited about the next team to come up.”
OSU coach Urban Meyer said his players have the right mindset going into the championship game.
“They’re a very purpose-driven team and a very intelligent team so I don’t anticipate a problem (with focus),” Meyer said. “The biggest problem is we’re going to be facing an excellent team in Michigan State with great players.”
The Buckeyes, though, seem to realize winning against the No. 10-ranked Spartans is no easy task.
OSU has been led this season by the strength of its offense, which ranks third in scoring offense (48.2 points per game) and sixth in total offense (530.5 yards per game).
The Buckeyes’ offense has been especially strong on the ground, ranking second nationally with 321.3 rushing yards behind the all-Big Ten play of senior running back Carlos Hyde and junior quarterback Braxton Miller.
That offense, however, might face its toughest test of the season in the Spartans. Michigan State’s defense leads the nation with only 237.7 total yards allowed per game and 64.8 rushing yards allowed per game, and also ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense with only 11.8 points allowed per game.
Meyer said the success of Michigan State’s defense starts with its players’ talent.
“It always starts with players,” Meyer said. “They have very skilled players that are tough.”
Redshirt-senior left tackle Jack Mewhort said the Michigan State defense likes to “just play you and see if their guys are better than yours.”
“They don’t do a ton of different stuff,” Mewhort said in regards to Michigan State’s defensive scheme. “I respect them for that because they have good players and are able to do that a lot.”
Mewhort pointed specifically to redshirt-sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun, redshirt-senior defensive tackle Micajah Reynolds and senior middle linebacker Max Bullough as players in Michigan State’s defensive front seven who could present a challenge to the OSU offense.
“They’re a physical group,” Mewhort said. “Good players everywhere.
“The game’s going to be won in the trenches, so it’s going to be us (OSU offensive line) vs. them (Michigan State defensive front),” Mewhort added. “It’s going to be one of those classic, smashmouth Big Ten football games. I think we’re going to really embrace that on our offensive line, and we’re looking forward to it.”
While the OSU offense is preparing for its toughest challenge of the season, the Michigan State defense is doing the same.
“For me to sit here and tell you (OSU is) not our biggest challenge that we’ve faced so far, they’re not our biggest test, would just be lying to you,” Bullough said Monday.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Miller’s dual-threat ability to both pass and run the ball makes OSU’s offense particularly tough to defend.
“The quarterback is a game-breaker,” Dantonio said. “He’s going to be able to create, take a bad play and make it a good one.”
But even with the variety of challenges the OSU offense could present to its opponent, Michigan State senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said he does not expect the Spartans to change the way they play.
“We’re going to play our game of football,” Dennard said. “We’re going to make those guys play our game. And that’s the way we look at it every game.”
Michigan State redshirt-sophomore quarterback Connor Cook said OSU’s defensive struggles against Michigan Saturday gave his offense confidence, but said he and his teammates aren’t getting their hopes up for the Buckeyes to give up that many points and yards again.
“Any time you see your opponent give up that many yards … quite honestly, you’re licking your chops,” Cook said. “But you just got to treat it like any other game that we’ve had all year.”
Michigan State’s offense has had its share of struggles this season, ranking just 85th nationally in total offense (380.2 yards per game) and 63rd in scoring offense (29.4 points per game).
Meyer said it is “very clear” what the Spartans, which have 502 rushing attempts and 354 passing attempts this season, want to do when they are on offense.
“They’re balanced, but they’re going to run the football on you,” Meyer said. “So we’ve been decent against the run and we need to continue to be decent against the run.”
Shazier said Michigan State is “really good” at running the ball. He also thinks Cook is a smart leader of the offense.
“They have a really good O-line,” Shazier said. “And they have playmakers, and the quarterback, he’s a really good decision-maker. He doesn’t really make a lot of dumb decisions and make decisions that would hurt the team.”
OSU’s defense versus Michigan State’s offense will be just as important to the game’s outcome, Meyer said.
“The best defense is our offense hanging onto the ball moving the ball … but the way I feel, there’s no shortcutting Michigan State’s offense,” Meyer said. “As far as winning a game, we have to play excellent defense against this offense.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:17 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.