Buckeyes’ 17-16 win wasn’t pretty, but they stayed in the playoff race with a 10-1 record … Barrett and passing game leave a lot to be desired … Balance will be a necessity in season-finale against Michigan.
Anybody watching the Ohio State do battle with Michigan State on Saturday probably had an eerie feeling that they were seeing a replay of the uninspiring performance from the Buckeyes in teeth-chattering cold in this game last year.
Nasty weather, conservative play-calling and a couple of defensive breakdowns in 2015 added up to a soul-crushing, 17-14 loss in Columbus. And all of those factors combined to nearly derail the Buckeyes again with just as much riding on the outcome.
Yep, that nightmare scenario that ended their playoff hopes a year ago almost repeated itself.
The Buckeyes pulled out a 17-16 victory, but they needed a failed two-point conversion by the Spartans with 4:41 to go to hang on.
After getting the ball back with a chance for a game-clinching drive, they picked up one first down and then went backward, thanks to their leaky offensive line. But Gareon Conley’s interception on the Spartans’ last-gasp drive ended the suspense.
What to make of the long-term ramifications from this struggle against a 3-7 team? The 10-1 Buckeyes were No. 2 nationally and certainly didn’t look worthy of that rating for much of the day. But we’re at the point in the season where style points matter less and the mantra of every playoff contender becomes, “Survive and advance.”
If they beat Michigan at home Saturday, they’ll have a glistening résumé that certainly stacks up with those of the other top teams, even if they don’t get a chance to play for the Big Ten title.
The close call certainly doesn’t help. But don’t forget, every potential candidate for the final four has had unimpressive games.
Unbeaten Alabama trailed by 21 points to Mississippi. One-loss Clemson needed a miracle to get past North Carolina State in overtime when the Wolfpack’s kicker missed a chip-shot field goal at the end of regulation.
One-loss Michigan only beat Wisconsin by seven points and Michigan State by nine. One-loss Washington won at two-win Arizona in overtime.
There will be some gloom and day about the Buckeyes from commentators, but the playoff committee will examine their entire body of work and likely keep them in the top four.
What’s more pressing is that the offense seemed to revert to its lackluster efforts prior to the back-to-back 62-3 wins.
The weather, of course, was abysmal. The wind-chill was 23 degrees with wind gusts over 30 mph — not exactly conducive to a crisp passing attack.
But J.T. Barrett misfired frequently, even on short-range throws. He finished 10-for-22 for 86 yards and one TD, and that dismal showing can’t be blamed completely on the weather.
The offensive line gave up three sacks to a team that had a measly seven in its first 10 games and was playing without All-Big Ten defensive tackle Malik McDowell.
And the tone was set early — on both sides of the ball.
The Spartans rattled the Buckeyes on the second play of the game, taking advantage of all that speed and dogged pursuit with a throw-back pass to L.J. Scott, who scampered 64 yards for a TD.
It was a great call. They caught cornerback Marshon Lattimore in a blitz for the longest pass play by an opponent this year.
Scott also had a 61-yard run in the second quarter to set up a field goal. He was a high-priority recruiting target for the Buckeyes, and he showed why by producing two of the three longest plays against that stout defense all season.
Ohio State had produced TDs on their opening possessions in its last three games, but a scoring chance on the first series ended with a third-down sack in Spartan territory, pushing the Buckeyes out of field-goal range. The line whiffed on a defensive-line stunt.
Barrett had a nifty pass to Curtis Samuel for a 24-yard TD, but tight spirals were infrequent, and Samuel sightings were even more rare.
Not counting punt returns, he had eight touches — four carries for 13 yards and four receptions for 40 yards. That’s not nearly enough activity for one of the most dynamic players in the country.
Coach Urban Meyer and Barrett are quick to point out that opponents dictate where the ball goes by who they leave uncovered. But eight touches? In a 17-16 game? He’s the team’s lone home-run threat, and you want to put him in position to swing for the fences on a regular basis.
With the passing attack almost non-existent, the Buckeyes were fortunate to pound out yards on the ground. Mike Weber finished with 14 carries for 111 yards, giving him 1,046 for the season. He joins Robert Smith and Maurice Clarett as only Ohio State freshmen tailbacks to top 1,000 yards.
He scored on a four-yard run to make it 17-10 midway through the third quarter. He set the TD up with a 52-yard scamper. He did have a fumble in the red zone, and he doesn’t have the breakaway speed of Ezekiel Elliott, but he’s going to be a big-time back for the next few years.
The biggest takeaway for me, though, was that Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio went for two after Scott’s TD made it a one-point game with 4:41 to go.
The play had no chance. Every receiver was covered, and the pass by Tyler O’Connor could have been intercepted by two Buckeyes (Conley was credited with the pick).
The Buckeyes’ offense was looking lame, and the defense was tiring. Why not play for overtime? Or better yet, why not give it to Scott, who had 160 yards on 16 carries? Gotta like the go-for-broke mindset, but it was too early for that.
The Buckeyes did well to get out of East Lansing with a victory, especially facing a team with 28 Ohio natives on the roster. It’s not quite a rivalry game, but it’s definitely meaningful to the Spartans with so many players wanting to make a point to the home-state school that overlooked them.
The Buckeyes had only 310 yards, about 200 below their average, and 224 of those came on the ground. That lack of balance will never do against Michigan.
Barrett will have to be sharper, the line will need to display a mean streak again and the coaches can’t get away with treating Samuel like just another player if they want to finish 11-1 and be considered, as the playoff committee likes to say, “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country.
The Wolverines will be playing for a spot in the Big Ten title game, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have an edge in the motivation department.
A win over Michigan would not only be a season-maker for the Buckeyes, but it likely would mean they’re looking at even bigger games to come.