- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas for the Buckeyes as they open up Big Ten play on the road against Michigan State on Saturday (TV: ABC, 3:30 p.m.).
Open it up: Urban Meyer hasn't had his full complement of weapons yet on offense, and that is obviously a factor in truly opening up his spread attack. But the Ohio State coach also hasn't faced a defense of the caliber of Michigan State, and he's almost certainly been keeping some tricks up his sleeve for when the degree of difficulty went up in conference play.
The Buckeyes seemingly went out of their way to be conservative with the football last week against UAB, particularly with quarterback Braxton Miller not rushing the ball even once until midway through the second quarter. There also wasn't all that much deception on the 23 combined carries for Jordan Hall and Rod Smith in the backfield, and Meyer's offenses have always shown plenty of creativity in the past.
Expect to see it on display for the first time against the Spartans.
Tighten it down: While the offense tries to spread the field against the Spartans, the defense might finally get to shrink back down and play a more traditional style in the box.
The Buckeyes have had issues tackling in space early in the season that has contributed to a surprisingly sloppy start in terms of yardage allowed, and the Spartans would be wise to incorporate a few things they've surely seen on film to move the ball -- mostly screens.
But Michigan State has had problems throwing the ball, its protection hasn't lived up to expectations and its got a potential awards candidate lining up in the backfield -- which would all seemingly play in Ohio State's favor as it gets back to old-school football with a dominant defensive line and skilled cover guys in the secondary.
Kicking it: The special teams didn't exactly require a complete overhaul, but Meyer looked long and hard at the lineups he was rolling out in the third phase and indicated changes were coming.
The freshmen involved in covering kickoffs have largely been productive, so that unit might not look all that different. But there will be more veterans involved on the punt teams against the Spartans to avoid the kind of disaster that put Ohio State in a hole early last week when it had an attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown.
Meyer is intimately involved with the specialists and has taken great pride in finding an edge in that aspect of the game throughout his career, and there have been a few reasons for him to be concerned during the non-conferenence schedule. How his subtle changes work against Michigan State could figure prominently in the field-position battle -- and ultimately the outcome on the scoreboard.
Health nuts: The Buckeyes haven't used injuries as an excuse so far, and they haven't really needed to since they still have a perfect record. But the guys that have been missing at times throughout the first month of the season all bring something important to the lineup, and getting them back in time for Big Ten play figures to provide a significant boost.
Carlos Hyde (knee strain) is the power rusher needed to complement the option game with Miller and Hall in the backfield. Bradley Roby (shoulder) is the top cornerback in coverage, and even without an interception yet, his athleticism and game-breaking ability has already been on display this season with a fumble recovery for a touchdown and a sack. Defensive end Michael Bennett (groin) might not be able to return to the starting lineup, and how much he might play remains unclear, but the Buckeyes can use his ability to rush the passer and shut down the run on the edge.
The chances to impact the game might vary for that handful of returning players, but Meyer is once again starting to have options again in putting together a rotation.
4dBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer
5dBrian Bennett and Austin Ward