No. 10 Ohio State was able to keep its Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes alive with a 26-6 win over No. 18 Michigan State on Saturday, but the final score is misleading. Ohio State may have won by 20, but the truth is the Buckeyes offense didn't do most of the work scoring those points, and the outcome of the game swung on an unorthodox decision by Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. One that backfired on the coach and his team.
Trailing 7-6 in the third quarter, the Spartans were buried in their end zone. A punt had pinned them at the 1-yard line, and after going nowhere on three plays, the punt team came out. And that's when Dantonio told them to do something strange. Michigan State intentionally snapped the ball over the punter's head and out of bounds for a safety. It gave Ohio State a 9-6 lead, but while the Spartans surrendered two points, it was a ploy to flip the field position.
Both defenses had been dominating the game, and Ohio State pinned Michigan State inside the 20-yard line six different times, making it nearly impossible for Michigan State to move the ball and get points on the board. So Dantonio took the risk of giving up points because he trusted his defense to stop Ohio State and get the ball back in better field position.
The problem is after the safety, Michigan State's kicker kicked the ball out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff, giving Ohio State the ball at midfield. The Michigan State defense did its job and forced a punt, and again Ohio State pinned Michigan State inside its 5-yard line. A bad snap into the end zone resulted in Ohio State recovering the ball in the end zone for a touchdown, and that was game over.
Here are four takeaways from this game.
1. Dantonio's decision was a smart one. I know that it's easy to judge decisions based on the results and make no doubt about it, the results for Michigan State were disastrous. It went from a one-point deficit to game over in the blink of an eye, but it wasn't because of the decision. It was because of Michigan State's execution following the decision to take the safety.
If the kickoff doesn't go out of bounds and Michigan State's defense gets the same stop, that bad snap doesn't result in an Ohio State touchdown.
If Michigan State's center doesn't snap the ball directly into a motioning receiver, etc.
The decision was fine. The results and everything that happened afterward was not.
2. Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman was the best player on the field today. His day got off to an awful start, too. Chrisman's first punt was shanked so badly it ended up in the 15th row behind the Michigan State bench. And it only went five yards before doing so.
But he recovered quite well, and absolutely dominated the game as much as a punter can. Chrisman punted nine times for 340 yards. That's only an average of 37.8 yards per punt, but it's not the average that mattered, it was the placement. Chrisman placed six of his nine punts inside the Michigan State 10-yard line.
The Spartans had nine possessions in the second half on Saturday, and their average starting field position was the 9-yard line. Chrisman placed five consecutive punts at the MSU 5-, MSU 6-, MSU 3-, MSU 1- and MSU 2-yard lines. It was that kind of punting clinic -- and let's not overlook Ohio State's gunners getting downfield to down the ball -- that led to Dantonio deciding to take a safety to improve his team's chances.
3. I don't think this game means Ohio State's defense is fixed. The Buckeyes held Michigan State to 274 yards and 6 points, and that's great, but I don't think it means anything. I felt before the game started that Ohio State would win this game comfortably simply because the flaws in its defense aren't the kind of things this Michigan State offense is built to take advantage of.
Truthfully, I'm not sure if there's an defense that exists that this Michigan State offense can take advantage of. Brian Lewerke is banged up and can't throw. Rocky Lombardi offers mobility, but his accuracy is shaky on any pass further than 10 yards. The Spartans also have no rushing attack to speak of. Seriously, Michigan State finished with 54 yards rushing on the day, and 47 of them came on one Lombardi draw.
So while this performance might help Ohio State's confidence on defense -- and that can be a valuable thing itself -- I wouldn't declare the problem solved just yet.
4. Ohio State needs to figure out how to run the ball without a mobile QB. I don't think it was a coincidence that J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber found more room to run when Tate Martell came in for a few snaps than when Dwayne Haskins was in. Ohio State's run game still seems centered on the read option even though defenses don't feel the need to respect Haskins' ability as a runner. So they key on the back and crash from the outside and slow things down.
Yet Ohio State keeps going to it. I'm not sure why the Buckeyes are so stubborn about just lining up and running the ball, but they are. So they either need to figure out if they want to have a more explosive passing attack with Haskins, or go back to what they seem to be more comfortable with by using Martell, who is more of a J.T. Barrett type of QB than Haskins can be.
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