After handling Illinois, 55-14, redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett said the Ohio State football team has no problem taking things one step at a time.
“I think we as an organization did a pretty good job of just focusing on the task at hand, and tonight that was Illinois,” Barrett said.
But as soon as the clock hit zero Saturday night at Ohio Stadium, the task at hand shifted from the Fighting Illini to the No. 7 Michigan State Spartans (7-1, 4-0). The No. 13 Buckeyes (7-1, 4-0) are scheduled to play the Spartans in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday at 8 p.m.
“This is huge,” senior wide receiver Devin Smith said of the matchup with Michigan State. “We checked this on our calendar just because what happened last year.”
The last time the two teams faced-off was the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Michigan State came away with a 34-24 win, effectively ending OSU’s hopes of making an appearance in the last-ever BCS National Championship game and snapping the Buckeyes’ 24-game win streak.
“I’m not gonna lie to you, I cried for like two days,” Smith said Saturday. “It was tough, and the whole team, it seemed like after we took that loss it took the whole soul out of the team.”
Co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said the Buckeyes put emphasis on that loss during the offseason, but added that their focus came week by week once fall rolled around.
“You try to use that loss as motivation but, once the season hits, not to sound clichéd, but I mean it’s literally one game at a time,” Herman said after the win against Illinois.
While the Spartans are a top-10 team once again, the Buckeyes fielded a new-look lineup that included Barrett in place of injured senior quarterback Braxton Miller and a few fresh faces on defense. One of those fresh faces — redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee — said he knows what the upcoming game means even though he wasn’t at Lucas Oil Stadium last December.
“I wasn’t really in the locker room for that, but watching on TV, I mean, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt a lot,” Lee said after the Illinois game. “We feel like these guys took something from us and it’s full metal jacket now and we’re trying to go win this game.”
Lee added that the Buckeyes are planning to return the favor when they make the trip to East Lansing next weekend.
“Everybody is focusing on how this week is here upon us now and we’re just gonna get ready to go and take it,” he said.
Barrett agreed that OSU is only focused on the Spartans coming out of the win, but made clear he feels that way because it’s the next game on the schedule, not for any other reason.
“As far as our program here at Ohio State football, we’ve just been working on the next game,” he said. “And that’s it.”
But as their focus shifts toward Michigan State, the Buckeyes have room to grow despite coming off a 41-point victory.
While the starting defense pitched a shutout — the two Illinois touchdowns came with backups in the game for OSU — the Buckeye offense misfired on a few occasions on its way to a 31-0 halftime lead. Barrett in particular missed open receivers more than once in his half of play.
While the Wichita Falls, Texas, native sat out the second half — he’s nursing a sprained MCL — he still managed to finish 15-of-24 for 167 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
Herman said he wants to see Barrett correct some of the misfires, but added his ability to fight back from adversity can be a positive going forward.
“(Barrett) missed some open throws that we would have liked to have completed,” Herman said. “We will figure that part out, I don’t have any hesitation there. The fact that it happened the way that it happened can only add some confidence and some toughness to him as he heads into this week.”
But outside of Barrett’s early misses and a couple of big plays given up on defense, the overall performance from OSU was one of domination. The Buckeyes totaled 545 yards on offense while allowing just 243 from the Fighting Illini, and won the turnover battle, 4-1. Sophomore punter Cameron Johnston kicked the ball away just once, while Illinois was forced to punt four times and failed on two attempted fourth-down conversions.
Sophomore safety Vonn Bell said OSU took Illinois seriously, but simply wanted to prove it was the better team by sticking to the game plan.
“That wasn’t a sleeper team, they had good athletes,” Bell said of Illinois. “So we just had to do what we had to do. We had to execute, so it showed.”
Lee said that execution, in addition to “heart,” will be important in the matchup with the Spartans.
“They’re a good team without a doubt, and they’re a tough team and they’re a well-coached team,” he said. “But it’s just gonna come down to executing our game plan … on all phases. Special teams, offense and defense. We know what’s at stake here, and that’s about it.”
As the preparation started just moments after the win against Illinois, OSU coach Urban Meyer said the “most prepared team will win it” when his Buckeyes visit Spartan Stadium.
“That’s what’s going to win this game,” he said.
With preparation in mind, Lee had one simple plan for the Buckeyes after leaving the Ohio Stadium turf and putting the 55-14 win against Illinois in the rearview mirror.
“It’s time to work.”