Breathe in. Breathe out. But make it quick.
That’s the mindset Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer had after his team topped Michigan State on Saturday night in East Lansing, Mich.
“We can’t exhale very long,” Meyer said after his Buckeyes won, 49-37, in a rematch of the 2013 Big Ten title game. “We go on the road next week against a team that whooped Iowa.”
The Buckeyes (8-1, 5-0) now sit alone atop the Big Ten East Division standings after breaking a tie with the Spartans, but are scheduled to travel to Minneapolis on Saturday to take on Minnesota. The Golden Gophers shellacked the Hawkeyes to the tune of a 51-14 win Saturday to move to 7-2 on the season.
Despite the implications the win against the Spartans has for the Buckeyes going forward, senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said the most important focus for OSU has to be put on the Golden Gophers.
“The biggest thing is making sure guys are ready for that game,” Bennett said after the win. “Minnesota is a really good opponent. They’ve been winning a lot of games.”
Going forward, redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett — who threw for 300 yards and ran for another 86 while scoring five total touchdowns against the Spartans — said preparation will be key for OSU going forward.
“One of the main things we need to do is just make sure we practice hard,” Barrett said after the game. “We’re going to enjoy this, but knowing that we still need to play better next week.”
After a run of four straight games starting at either 3:30 or 8 p.m., Bennett added it will be important to be ready to go for a noon kick against Minnesota.
“It’s gonna be the first noon game or whatever it is in like four weeks, so we’re gonna have to make sure that guys are mentally ready for it and can still get the juice up that we had tonight,” he said.
But even with Minnesota on the horizon, Bennett said the win against Michigan State keeps the Buckeyes’ long-term goals in the realm of possibility after the Spartans dashed OSU’s title hopes last year with a 34-24 win in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game.
“Like I said before, it’s not about revenge. It’s about accomplishing what we can accomplish this year,” he said. “And so by having that big win over a really good team, it really just keeps everything alive and starts putting us in the conversation.”
That conversation surrounds the College Football Playoff standings, with this season being the first year of the new championship format. Heading into Saturday, the Buckeyes were firmly on the outside looking in with a No. 14 ranking in the CFP poll, but they picked up a win against the Spartans — which are No. 8 in the poll — that few people expected them to have. When the new Associated Press top 25 was released Sunday, OSU was No. 8 while the Spartans fell to No. 12.
Sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott — who picked up 154 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns in the game — said OSU came in as the underdogs looking to make a national statement.
“We had no one behind our back except for Buckeye nation and ourselves,” Elliott said after the game. “We just had to come out and prove to the world that we’re ready.”
Meyer called the win “one for the ages,” and added he felt his team showed its worth under the lights at Spartan Stadium.
“We played a top-10 team and we really played our best and on the road,” he said.
When it comes to his team’s standing in the playoff picture, Meyer said he still doesn’t “know enough,” but made clear his feelings on where the Buckeyes should be.
“I think it is,” Meyer — who earned a $330,000 raise after the 2013 season — said as to whether OSU is a playoff-caliber team. “I love my team.”
While the CFP poll will decide who has a shot at a national championship come season’s end — the top four teams earn spots in the playoff — OSU co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner said the Buckeyes regained confidence in themselves with the win.
“I think we earned back the belief our players have in our program, belief in how we do things at Ohio State, how coach Meyer runs his program,” Warinner said after the game. “We just got our confidence back that we can win a big game, especially on the road.”
Barrett agreed with Warinner, and added the win helped to prove the Buckeyes’ doubters wrong.
“It really gave us confidence that we could play with the best of them because there was talk that we could only play well against very bad teams,” he said. “This was a very good team in Michigan State, and we came out and played well.”
Just like Warinner and Barrett, Bennett said the win gave OSU confidence, but he added that it showed the Buckeyes are the “real deal,” and said it should put them in consideration for a playoff spot moving forward.
“It just kind of gives us confidence; it makes other people just kind of turn their heads and start considering Ohio State for the top four,” he said.
But while a panel will vote the top four on, the Buckeyes can control their own destiny when it comes to the Big Ten. After sitting in a tie with Michigan State, the win firmly established OSU as tops in the conference for the time being.
Senior wide receiver Devin Smith — who Meyer said had his best game in an OSU uniform against the Spartans — said he was “angry” after last year’s loss, coupled with the Buckeyes’ image as underdogs, heading into East Lansing. He said the win showed the conference and the nation what kind of team OSU is.
“We came out here and (made) a statement,” Smith said after the game. “And then that shows that we are the best team in the Big Ten, and we try to play like that.”
Regardless of the Big Ten standing, or even the Buckeyes’ spot in the CFP poll, Meyer said he simply knows how well his team is playing right now, and added he’ll have to wait and see what that means going forward.
“This team right now is playing on a very, very high level,” Meyer said. “I’m not sure what all that means other than we got to get ready to play next week.”