It Doesn’t Have To Be A Sour Orange

By Jeff Rapp, December 9th, 2013

The moment the lengthy and highly entertaining Big Ten Football Championship Game ended, a joyous celebration ensued on the Lucas Oil Stadium playing field – only it wasn’t the scene most fans and analysts envisioned.

Michigan State, cast aside most of the season by pundits and computers, rose up in the fourth quarter of its primetime battle with mighty Ohio State on Saturday night in Indianapolis and emerged a 34-24 victor.

The No. 10 Spartans (12-1, 8-0 in Big Ten regular-season play) had punched a ticket to Pasadena and proved they were very much a worthy combatant against the No. 2 Buckeyes (12, 8-0), who were on the brink of qualifying for the BCS National Championship Game.

Certainly, it’s easy to paint the result as a disaster for the Buckeyes and their fans, who were getting quite used to this never losing thing with Urban Meyer as head coach.

OSU worked its way out of a 17-0 hole, owned the second and third quarters and somehow managed to forge a 24-17 lead behind the usual hard running of Carlos Hyde and the typical derring-do of quarterback Braxton Miller.

But despite already having a Rose Bowl berth virtually clinched, Mark Dantonio’s Spartans looked like the team that wanted it more and seized the fourth quarter.

After OSU took the lead, Michigan State responded and showed patience at the same time, methodically putting together a nine-play, 44-yard drive that resulted in a field goal late in the third.

The final period was a collection of missed opportunities by the Buckeyes and clutch plays by Michigan State, which was undervalued much of the year after losing 17-13 at Notre Dame in September.

The truth is that wasn’t the MSU team that was on display in Indy. Connor Cook was just being handed the reins of the offense at ND; in the Big Ten title game the Ohio product was a confident and competent QB, one capable of making enough good reads and good throws, many of them from outside the pocket, to burn the Buckeyes.

The way the Green and White consistently defended, emerged late and showed it had worn down OSU with Jeremy Langford’s 26-yard, game-clinching touchdown run, I was left with only one conclusion – the better team won the football game. I even let the words come out of my mouth during my postgame analysis on WTVN (610 AM) radio.

This, of course, is blasphemy back in Columbus. Ohio State was higher ranked all year and hadn’t lost since the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day of 2012. But I honestly think it is the truth – and as soon as Buckeye fans accept it they can see all the good of what just happened and what lies ahead.

If not, bitter feelings will continue to swell and we’ll continue to hear drum beats for coordinators Luke Fickell and Tom Herman to be offed. Meyer looked so incensed after the game that it’s possible changes are coming, but allow me to make a few points.

First, Ohio State is still No. 7 in the BCS and is headed to a BCS bowl. The Buckeyes will get to take their frustrations out on Clemson in Miami, Fla., and a win there likely allow them to jump back up into the top five (presumably over Baylor and the loser of the Rose Bowl).

Michigan State, by the way, is No. 4 in the BCS standings and could move up to No. 2 with a win over Stanford, so spare me the “they suck” analysis.

Far from it, in fact.

Yes, Miller set a Big Ten Championship Game record for a QB with 142 yards rushing and Hyde added a healthy 118, but the Spartans still showed why their defense is so effective. They are almost always in the proper position and make the tackle. And they get stronger as the game goes forward.

The Buckeyes averaged a pedestrian 5.9 yards per play and converted only 1 of 10 third-down plays. They were outgained 438 to 374 in yardage. Also, Miller managed to complete only 8 of 21 passes for 101 yards. That usually doesn’t get you to the winner’s circle in a big college football contest.

Cook, meanwhile, was 24 of 40 for 304 yards and three TDs with only one interception. He was sacked just once.

Miller made five connections to Philly Brown and one each to Jeff Heuerman, Devin Smith and Hyde. Meanwhile, Cook spread the ball around to eight different Spartan receivers including at least twice to six of them. That was set up by 128 yards rushing by Langford.

Still, it was an aggressive game plan. Dantonio, who also called for an onside kick at one point, knew he couldn’t just sit on the ball. But before you assume that is entirely the fault of Fickell and his defense, think again.

After taking a 24-17 lead, the Buckeyes put together the following “drives” on offense: five plays for 21 yards, three for 4, four for 9, and five for 12. That allowed the Spartans to regain confidence and momentum and take advantage of a tired OSU defense.

And speaking of Ohio State’s defense, it’s time we simply consider that it is not an elite unit. Curtis Grant couldn’t stay healthy and OSU went much of the season without a Mike linebacker. Josh Perry didn’t have much impact at the strongside spot and often left the field when the Buckeyes were in nickel.

Ryan Shazier covered up much of the hole by playing like an All-American – he was a beast again in the Big Ten title game – but he can’t cover the entire middle of the field by himself.

The secondary showed poor technique at times and Bradley Roby endured a somewhat spotty season after returning and receiving preseason All-American designation. Doran Grant actually had a very good year at the other corner spot but was a little too soft in zone coverage and twice was flagged for interference when he pressed up against the Spartans.

C.J. Barnett was a solid safety but began the year with a sore ankle and looked confused at times, including Josiah Price’s go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter when coverage broke down. Corey “Pitt” Brown also played with good effort but simply couldn’t salve the wound left in the defense when Christian Bryant broke his ankle midseason.

The defensive line showed intensity and depth. Noah Spence became a force, Michael Bennett was outstanding and Joey Bosa proved to be one of the most impactful freshmen linemen in the country. Still, the unit slowed down late in several games and never was able to rattle Cook. It also had trouble getting to Michigan QB Devin Gardner, who essentially was playing on one leg.

Some of the lack of development of the defense does fall on the coaches. And the fact that the linebacking corps was paper thin also goes to the top.

However, the truth is this was never a championship defense. I covered OSU teams that had players such as James Laurinaitis, A.J. Hawk, Malcolm Jenkins, Shawn Springs, Antoine Winfield, Mike Vrabel, Na’il Diggs, Dan Wilkinson, Ahmed Plummer, Andy Katzenmoyer and many others that never won a national title.

The only member of the current unit that could even be mentioned with those players is Shazier.

Ohio State has lost one game in two seasons and now we need to fire coordinators. Shaking my head.

I wouldn’t trade rosters with Michigan State if I were the OSU coaches, but, again, the better team won the game. The Spartans were more polished and more cohesive, and they played with a chip on their shoulder.

The Buckeyes were sketchy early after being taken to the limit the previous week by their archrival and they couldn’t muster the same will as Michigan State, even after they got their act together.

And even if the Buckeyes had figured out a way to win, of course, there is far from a guarantee they would have toppled Florida State.

A couple weeks ago a caller was upset after the Michigan game and said, “If Luke Fickell coaches the defense like this against Alabama, we’re going to lose.” That led me to point out that perhaps the Buckeyes simply aren’t good enough to beat Alabama.

They probably are good enough to beat Michigan State, but they couldn’t do it on a neutral field.

So in the weeks ahead the Buckeyes and their fans need to come to grips with that and realize this has still been a special season and a very memorable run. Someone else will be crowned on Jan. 6 and, to quote Stuart Smalley, that’s OK.

Good coaching and great players alone don’t win a national championship. It also takes a lot of good fortune. Ask Auburn, which appears on the brink – or get out your videotapes from the 2002 season.