As the first ranked opponent of No. 4 Ohio State’s season, No. 25 Michigan State and the nation’s fourth-best rush defense was the toughest test yet for the Buckeyes.
That didn’t stop them from securing a sixth straight 24-plus point win, but it did expose rarely seen fallacies from an Ohio State team that has looked like a juggernaut to this point.
Ohio State fell victim to unforced errors in the form of penalties, turnovers, misfires and a missed field goal that prevented a wider margin of victory, but also showed that the Buckeyes are not invincible.
“We just started out rough,” sophomore quarterback Justin Fields said. “The offense, we were kind of killing ourselves. We kind of got back together in the second quarter and did what we were supposed to do.”
That start was a three-and-out, one of three consecutive for the Buckeyes.
On Fields’ first dropback, the Georgia native didn’t properly set his feet for a pass and badly missed wide open redshirt junior tight end Luke Farrell. The inaccurate throw was atypical of Fields’ usually precise passing, and gave an early indication that the offense was out of sorts.
The very next play, Fields was sacked for a loss of 18 by Michigan State senior linebacker Joe Bachie.
Fields and the Buckeye offense were bailed out by the defense twice early, as they forced and recovered two Spartan fumbles deep in their own territory, which should’ve set up easy scores to get the engine running.
Instead, Ohio State generated just three points on the turnovers, despite being given the ball at the Michigan State 27 and 22. The Buckeyes could not pick up a first down on either possession.
A false start call on redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Wyatt Davis stalled the offense following the first fumble, leading to a 37-yard field goal attempt by junior kicker Blake Haubeil, but he missed it wide right.
It wasn’t the only flag for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State was averaging 4.4 penalties per contest entering Saturday, but by game’s end, the Buckeyes had racked up 10 flags for 85 yards.
“I feel like with all the pressure, you got people jumping because they’re anxious,” redshirt senior wide receiver K.J. Hill said. “They’re coming off the ball hard.”
Senior safety Jordan Fuller returned a fourth quarter interception for a touchdown, but it was called back on an illegal block call by junior linebacker Baron Browning, which Fuller said he was “bummed” about.
On the fourth Buckeye drive of the first quarter, senior wide receiver Binjimen Victor beat his man downfield, and Fields threaded the needle on what would’ve been a big gain, if not a touchdown, but Victor dropped it.
“Those drives weren’t good,” head coach Ryan Day said. “We didn’t do a good job on third down. It wasn’t Justin. It was everybody up front. Some guys on the perimeter not doing a great job. And we were kind of just moping around a little bit.”
With a 24-point, 296-yard second-quarter explosion, the Buckeyes turned their early misfortunes around, but uncharacteristic mistakes continued to pile up.
Carrying a 27-10 lead into the third quarter, the Buckeyes were threatening to score again, but an ill-advised pass from Fields sailed over Hill’s head and landed right in the lap of Michigan State junior cornerback Josiah Scott.
It was the first interception of Fields’ collegiate career.
“The look was not the one we wanted in that look,” Day said. “And then I told him, ‘I’m not always going to be right. You gotta make me right. And when the look isn’t right, you gotta throw the ball in the stands and live to see another down.’”
Fields turned the ball over again on a fourth quarter strip sack by Michigan State senior defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk. The Spartan pass rush sacked Fields three times, and with 11 rush attempts, he said he’s the most banged up he’s been after a game.
Redshirt senior offensive tackle Branden Bowen said his pass blocking was “nowhere near where I know I can be.”
“I don’t think I played very well. Like at all,” Bowen said.
Even after a 34-10 win, Bowen said Ohio State will need the bye week to lick its wounds and tighten up its play.
For Fields, reducing errors come Northwestern on Oct. 18 and beyond will depend on heeding Day’s advice.
“When that stuff happens you have to just really forget about it,” Fields said. “Coach says, ‘Move onto the next play, settle down, settle down.’ He reminds me to keep settling down and play the game like it’s practice because when the game comes on you go back to your training.”