On Saturday at 8 p.m., it will be exactly 11 months and a day since the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
That game pitted the favorite — Ohio State — against Michigan State, but the Spartans dashed the Buckeyes’ hopes at competing for a BCS National Championship with a 34-24 victory. Now less then a year later, those two teams are scheduled to face off once again — at 8 p.m. on Saturday — in East Lansing, Mich., with similar title implications potentially on the line.
When the game kicks off, senior wide receiver Evan Spencer said he will be able to put 11 months and a day of thinking about last year’s loss behind him.
“This game, to me, means everything,” Spencer said Wednesday.
He added the significance has nothing to do with revenge, but said the loss to the Spartans has been on his mind ever since.
“It will be fun to get out there and play again against them, because I’ve been thinking about that game since the Big Ten championship last year,” he said.
This time around — while many of the players on each roster remain the same — the matchup will be different. Both teams carry the same 7-1 overall record and 4-0 mark in Big Ten play, but the No. 7 Spartans enter Saturday as the favorites against the No. 13 Buckeyes.
But regardless of national rankings, the two teams are tied atop the Big Ten’s East Division, meaning the winner will be in the driver’s seat toward an appearance in Indianapolis once again, while the loser will likely miss out on a chance to compete for a title.
With such implications on the line, OSU coach Urban Meyer said a matchup like this is exactly what the Buckeyes work for.
“This is why we train, for moments like this,” Meyer said Wednesday. “Compete for a championship in November.”
Senior cornerback Doran Grant said the game against Michigan State “means a lot,” and added it’s a make-or-break moment for the Buckeyes’ season going forward.
“Obviously this could make our season go one way, or make it go the other way,” Grant said Wednesday. “And plus what happened was they took something from us last year. They took it, so we gotta go get it back.”
With a win against the Spartans all but required for that chance to compete for a title next month, Meyer said the Buckeyes will have to find success against a team better than the one that beat them last December.
“This team is a better team,” he said. “They are more balanced offensively. I think they are dynamic and they develop their players.”
But Meyer recognized the strengths of his team as well, and during Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference, he compared the matchup to a showdown between two tools better suited for breaking down a wall.
“It’s gonna be, I like to use the term ‘two sledgehammers,’” Meyer said of the matchup between his Buckeyes and coach Mark Dantonio’s Spartans.
On paper, those two sledgehammers look evenly matched.
On offense, OSU averages 45.6 points per game. As for the Spartans? They average 45.5 points every time they take the field.
Defensively, the Buckeyes have the edge again when it comes to points on the board, as they’ve given up 19.9 points per game so far this year. But Michigan State is close by at 20.3 points allowed per outing.
Both teams have gained more than 2,000 yards on the ground, but less than 2,100, and neither has given up 1,000 yards rushing yet this season.
The Buckeyes have thrown for 1,967 yards, just 116 yards less than Michigan State. OSU has allowed 1,451 yards passing this season, while the Spartans have given up just 21 yards more than that.
Statistically, perhaps the Spartans’ biggest clear advantage comes in the form of rushing touchdowns, of which they have 28 compared to 20 for the Buckeyes. But OSU makes up most of that gap with its 25 passing touchdowns compared to the Spartans’ 19.
With the numbers themselves almost identical, the matchup might have to come down to something else. OSU senior linebacker Curtis Grant said he expects the key to the game to come from one specific side of the ball.
“Whoever’s defense plays the … hardest,” he said Wednesday. “That’s what I think.
“I’ve always been told that defense wins championships and I believe that.”
If Curtis Grant’s words hold true, the Buckeyes might have to find a way to slow down a three-headed attack from Michigan State that features redshirt-senior running back Jeremy Langford, redshirt-junior quarterback Connor Cook and redshirt-senior wide receiver Tony Lippett.
Langford has rushed for 841 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, while Cook has tossed 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions and Lippett has made 42 receptions for an average of 21.2 yards per catch and nine touchdowns.
Curtis Grant had high praise for Cook, and said he does anything he must to keep the Michigan State offense rolling.
“He’s a big leader,” Curtis Grant said. “He puts the offense on his back. He calls the plays … and gets the ball to who he needs to get the ball to.”
He added that the key to stopping Langford might be to stop him early instead of letting him gain momentum.
“If we let him get rolling, it’s gonna be a hard time,” Curtis Grant said. “But if we stop him … and not let him get his momentum, we’ll be all right.”
As for Lippett, Doran Grant — who will likely be going head-to-head with the top Spartan receiver on Saturday — had a basic plan in place to slow him down.
“Just fundamentals and playing ball,” he said. “At the end of the day, it don’t matter what stats is what.”
On the other side of the ball, senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said a big part of finding success against the Spartan defense will be getting the Buckeyes’ pass game going early on.
“I think you have to throw it effectively,” Heuerman said Wednesday. “Throwing it effectively will open up the run game and vice versa. Running it will open up the passing game.”
No matter which facet of the game — offense or defense — ends up being the key to whichever team comes out on top, Meyer said he simply wants his team to earn a victory and the perks that come with it.
Meyer is in his third season with OSU — having coached 34 games heading into Saturday — and he’s lost just three times overall.
“We have victory meals on Sundays and it’s been 31 out of 34 times they have got to go in and eat a nice meal on a Sunday,” he said Wednesday. “I want them to appreciate that and appreciate what they have done to do that.”
And in order to prepare his team as best he can so they can earn that nicer-than-normal meal, Meyer and the rest of the OSU coaching staff have ramped up practice heading into the weekend.
Doran Grant took just one word to describe what practices have been like with a showdown with the Spartans just around the corner.