Ohio State Buckeyes: 2013 Big Ten championship

Three lessons from the Big Ten championship game.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook, Mark Dantonio
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and the Spartans proved beyond a doubt that Michigan State was the best team in the Big Ten.
1. Michigan State is the Big Ten's best finisher: Many counted out the Spartans after Ohio State erased a 17-0 lead to take a 24-17 advantage midway through the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Buckeyes had finished off opponents throughout the season with their two-headed running attack and powerful line. But Michigan State also had been terrific late in games, outscoring opponents 185-56 in the second half and 91-27 in the fourth quarter. The Spartans made the necessary corrections, scoring 17 unanswered points to outlast Ohio State and secure a league championship. They limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter and mounted touchdown drives of 90 and 61 yards. And like they did in every regular-season Big Ten game, they won by double digits, leaving no doubt about the the league's best and most resilient team in 2013.

2. Ohio State's flaws finally caught up to it: Sure, it may sound weird to talk about the weaknesses of a team that won 24 straight times. But the Buckeyes never were a perfect team despite their amazing streak of perfection. For a heavyweight power, they were surprisingly light on star power at linebacker outside of Ryan Shazier. Safety Christian Bryant's midseason injury created major vulnerabilities in the secondary. The offense lacked consistent receiving threats other than Philly Brown. "We know what our weaknesses are," center Corey Linsely said. "They're obvious." The Michigan game and, to a lesser extent, the win at Illinois exposed some of those troubles. And when Ohio State finally played a powerhouse on its own level in Michigan State, its Achilles' heels caused it to stumble. The Buckeyes came out flat on the big stage in falling behind 17-0, and they only really played well for about a 20-minute stretch before letting the Spartans score the final 17 points. Ohio State deserves all respect for its winning streak, and this team is fully capable of winning a BCS game. But its flaws proved fatal in the quest for a national championship.

3. Connor Cook is the biggest surprise in the Big Ten and perhaps the country: If anyone pegged Cook to be the MVP of the Big Ten title game before the season -- his immediate family members excluded -- hop on the first flight to Vegas. Cook exceeded all expectations in guiding the Spartans to a perfect mark in Big Ten play, and he shined in the brightest lights Saturday night, passing for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns on 24 of 40 attempts. Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told ESPN.com that Cook's growth could be seen each week and that Cook's confidence in himself never wavered, even after low moments like a Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame. Michigan State hasn't simply found a serviceable game manager to complement its defense. It has found a championship quarterback who oozes moxie and doesn't back down from challenges. Cook began championship week by introducing himself on a conference call with reporters. Everyone knows who he is now.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Big Ten championship game:

Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He was the MVP of the title game, and his role can't possibly be understated. When the running game sputtered early, he was there to pick up the offense. And when the Spartans trailed in the second half, he was there once again. Cook finished 24-of-40 for a career-high 304 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. It was the best game of his career, and it couldn't have come at a better time for MSU.

Ohio State's offensive line: The running game took off for the Buckeyes, something which doesn't happen too often against Michigan State. Jack Mewhort and Co. outplayed MSU in the trenches for much of the game, as Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde combined for 260 yards on 39 carries. The Spartans entered Saturday allowing fewer than 65 rushing yards per game, but that seemed to be the only thing that really worked for OSU. Despite the loss, this offensive line deserves some recognition.

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford: The Buckeyes hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, but Langford ran harder as the game wore on and finished with 128 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. His 26-yard touchdown scamper late in the fourth quarter gave Michigan State a double-digit lead and put a damper on any OSU comeback hopes. He even added five catches for 21 yards.

Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: The Spartans' secondary limited Miller to 101 pass yards on 8 of 21 attempts, and Dennard was a big reason why. He recorded two pass breakups and a forced fumble and consistently blanketed Ohio State receivers, showing why he's one of the best cover corners in college football.

Week 15 helmet stickers

December, 8, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A closer look at a handful of standout performances in an otherwise disappointing night for No. 2 Ohio State, which dropped a 34-24 game to No. 10 Michigan State in the Big Ten championship.

QB Braxton Miller: The junior clearly was not at his best throwing the football, and with a chance to come back hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, he was stopped short on a critical carry on the ground as well. But there would have been no drama at all in Indianapolis if not for Miller's heroics during a prolific stretch in the middle of the game, as he dragged the Buckeyes into the lead on the way to 142 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. His 8-of-21 passing performance clearly won't do much for his draft stock if he decides to leave early, but Miller also was victimized a few times by drops from his receivers, as the Buckeyes ultimately came up short.

RB Carlos Hyde: The bulldozing running back couldn't call his own number to get the football more often, but the senior was every bit as effective as usual when he did get the chance to go to work. Hyde's final Big Ten game came against the toughest rush defense in the country, and he was more than up to the challenge, turning his 18 carries into 118 yards. The Buckeyes likely will look back and wonder why that load wasn't far heavier considering how successful Hyde was against the Spartans and his track record of wearing teams down with a large volume of attempts.

LB Ryan Shazier: After an uncharacteristically bad penalty early on to extend a Michigan State drive, it seemed like Shazier was doing everything in his power to atone for it for the rest of the evening. The star junior blocked a punt, made 12 tackles, including 1½ for a loss, and he also broke up two passes to add to his already impressive resume this season. Injuries clearly have taken a toll on an Ohio State defense that didn't have much depth to begin with this season, but Shazier has done an admirable job holding the unit together. He just needed a bit more help against a Michigan State offense that was balanced and more than capable of exploiting the Buckeyes.

Pregame ponderables: B1G title game

December, 7, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Greetings from Lucas Oil Stadium, where No. 10 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State will soon square off for the Big Ten championship.

I'm no weatherman, but I can safely predict it will be about 72 degrees at kickoff. Or about 50 degrees, at least, warmer than it is outside. By the way, temperatures are in the teens in Chicago right now.

From walking around Indy the past couple of days, it seems like Buckeyes fans outnumber Michigan State fans, and I'd expect there to be more scarlet and gray in the stands. But as one Spartans fan told us last night, "We're Michigan State. We always show up late."

One thing we know is lots of people are showing up for this one. No more jokes about seat fillers, like we had last year with Nebraska and Wisconsin. The game is sold out and tickets were tough to come by. There's a definite buzz around the event because of the national title implications; reporters from New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports, CBSSports.com and virtually every major national outlet you can imagine are here. There is so much interest, in fact, that the Big Ten is using an auxiliary media area in one of the end zones.

Let's hope the game lives up to the pregame hype, and I think it will. The Big Ten needs a good show after some image-busting results in the past few years. Ohio State needs to impress if it wants to stay ahead of the SEC champ. Of course, Michigan State didn't come here to lose, but even if the Spartans do fall, they're in great shape for the Rose Bowl -- unless it's a lopsided defeat.

But I don't think that will happen. This Michigan State team is by far the best team Ohio State will have played during its two-year unbeaten streak under Urban Meyer. A worthy champion will be crowned tonight.

We've broken down countless angles in this game. A few more areas to watch:

Michigan State's offensive line: This group hasn't gotten a lot of attention all year, but it has been very good. Meyer called the Spartans "rugged" up front on Friday. They have to have a great game tonight and keep guys like Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Ryan Shazier from crashing into the backfield and getting to Connor Cook.

Ohio State's linebackers not named Shazier: Curtis Grant is still a bit gimpy. Meyer says Joshua Perry is coming on. But there's little doubt that linebacker has been a sore spot outside of Shazier. No matter who you are, losing your starting middle linebacker to injury -- as the Buckeyes did with Grant -- is going to hurt the defense. The Spartans want to be physical in the run game with Jeremy Langford. The Buckeyes' linebackers have to be ready.

Michigan State's receivers: The Spartans wideouts have made a major improvement from a year ago, particularly guys like Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett. But they still suffer from the occasional drops. That can't happen tonight. Ohio State is still vulnerable in the back end, and there will be plays for the receivers to make. They need to make them, because you don't beat the Buckeyes by missing opportunities.

Those are a few more story lines for the game. Much, much more to come …
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A closer look at the critical areas and key players as No. 2 Ohio State takes on No. 10 Michigan State for the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis.

Take it easy: The Buckeyes were clearly amped up emotionally against rival Michigan last week, and they paid a pretty steep price for losing focus when right guard Marcus Hall and hybrid offensive weapon Dontre Wilson were ejected. While Michigan State might not get the blood boiling like the Wolverines, there is even more on the line this week for Ohio State, which could mean even more potential for distraction. Obviously the conference title is up for grabs, but after moving into position to play for the national championship last weekend, the Buckeyes know they control their own destiny for a shot at the crystal football. It could slip away easily against the Spartans, who nearly knocked them off a year ago.

Ride Hyde: For all the emphasis Urban Meyer has placed on balancing out his spread attack this season between the run and the pass, one is clearly more effective than the other. And with Carlos Hyde rolling the way he has since Big Ten play opened, unless Michigan State's top-ranked rushing defense can shut him down, the Buckeyes would be best served handing him the ball as often as possible. It doesn't hurt to have Braxton Miller in the backfield with Hyde, and the two have formed perhaps the best tandem in the country this season. Ohio State has been more dangerous throwing the football this year, and Miller's development as a passer does make the offense more difficult to defend. But the rushing game alone has essentially been unstoppable, and if the Spartans don't have an answer early, Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman would be wise to just keep pounding away on the ground.

Talk it out: When they absolutely had to understand each other on the deciding defensive snap against the Wolverines, the Buckeyes made their voices clear and came up with a season-saving stop. But too often before that, communication breakdowns combined with an overeager, individualistic approach to open up holes on misdirection plays and screens that burned the Buckeyes for big plays. Ohio State will have to stick to the script against the Spartans, because assignment errors get magnified as the stage gets larger and the opponents tougher. And Michigan State has been known to pull a few tricks out of its sleeve.

Downtown Devin: While the rushing attack figures to again get more use, the Buckeyes are almost certainly going to need to mix in some deep shots at some point. Devin Smith has already burned the Spartans once for a game-winning, 63-yard touchdown reception, and Ohio State's best threat down the field really needs to make only one play to loosen up a defense that figures to load up the box against the run. The junior now has 18 career touchdown grabs after adding one last week against Michigan, and they've covered a staggering 39.6 yards per score. With better weather conditions inside at Lucas Oil Stadium than the Buckeyes have seen during a cold, windy November in the Big Ten, Smith could sneak behind the secondary a few times.

Award-winning performance: Ryan Shazier didn't hide from the fact he was motivated by perceived snubs at awards season last year, but he didn't have a chance to make his case in the postseason after the hardware was handed out. The junior came up short in both the linebacker and defensive player of the year categories in the Big Ten earlier this week, and while he's a team-first guy, that could provide a bit of extra fuel for somebody who has already been on epic tear statistically. Shazier led the conference in both tackles and tackles for loss and forced four fumbles this season, and he was going to need to add to those numbers regardless of how the balloting went down last week. But another productive outing from Shazier might make a few voters wish they had a chance to do it over again.

Notes from Urban Meyer in Indy

December, 6, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Ohio State coach Urban Meyer dropped the newsiest item of the Big Ten championship game coaches' press conferences when he told the media that offensive lineman Marcus Hall would not start Saturday night's game.

The Buckeyes' second-year coach also had some other interesting things to say on the eve of the title game. Here are some highlights from Meyer's session:

• Middle linebacker Curtis Grant played sparingly against Michigan and missed the previous two games because of ankle and back injuries. Meyer said Grant "still has a little bit of a wobble" but that he practiced all week and should play Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Sandra Dukes/USA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer said Friday he was impressed with his defense's response to its performance vs. Michigan.
• Wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown has a small stress fracture in his leg, which has contributed to him recording only two catches for six yards the past two games. Meyer said Brown is not 100 percent but should be close to it for Michigan State. Earlier this week, Brown tweeted a response to the Spartans' "No-Fly Zone" nickname for their secondary, saying, "We fly whenever we please."

• Meyer said he didn't see any ill aftereffects for his defense following the performance at Michigan in which the Buckeyes gave up 41 points and 603 total yards. Sunday, he said, was tough when players had to watch the film from that game. But he said nobody hung their head during the week, and "I saw a team that went to work. ... I was impressed with how our defense responded."

• For the first time in two years under Meyer, Ohio State is actually in position to play for the national title since the Buckeyes are ranked No. 2 in the BCS this week. Win Saturday, and there's a great chance they will be in the championship game. But Meyer said "there has not been one peep" from his team about the BCS title implications.

"You wish you could get your guys, like raising your children, put them away on a desert island until they're ready to make the right decisions and focus," he said. "On top of that, it's been finals week at Ohio State. A lot of things going on. I like the maturity of our team. You lean on the coaches and the leaders on your team to stay focused. We'll see how we play. "

• How's this for respect: Meyer said Michigan State's defense is among the top three he's ever faced, including his time in the SEC.

Meyer said he and his coaching staff spent time studying the film of last year's 17-16 win in East Lansing even though it happened way back in September 2012. That was the fewest points the Buckeyes have scored in two years under Meyer. "We did not play great," he said. "We had two good drives. Other than that, it was not a very good performance by the Ohio State offense. "

• A reporter began his question noting that Meyer, who is 24-0 at Ohio State, would have to lose a game eventually. Meyer smiled and said, "[I] appreciate that."
After nearly two full seasons always knowing exactly who was on his right, the familiarity was suddenly gone for Corey Linsley.

With almost no warning and without an injury to perhaps brace for what was coming, the chemistry between the Ohio State center and right guard Marcus Hall was gone thanks to an ejection for fighting, a senior replaced with a redshirt freshman who certainly, and perhaps justifiably, looked a bit overwhelmed with the situation.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller and the Ohio State offense didn't slow down with redshirt freshman Pat Elflein (left) in the game at Michigan.
But any nerves in Pat Elflein seemingly disappeared quickly at Michigan. And any concern Linsley might have had about a new partnership in the trenches vanished with it. The No. 2 Buckeyes will need Linsley and Elflein to team up again with Hall sidelined for an indefinite period of time by the coaching staff for Saturday's Big Ten championship game against No. 10 Michigan State.

"It was kind of fun," Linsley said. "Marcus and I have a really good relationship, but I have a really good relationship with Pat, too. When Pat came in, he was a little wide-eyed there at first, but I kept looking over to my right just on pass [protection] to make sure that was OK, and he was fine.

"That was pretty fun, and, after a couple series in the game, I didn’t have to think about him anymore. He did a heck of a job, and he’s going to be one heck of a player."

Elflein might already be one for the Buckeyes, although the sample size is obviously still small.

Given the stakes in a rivalry game, the stout defense Ohio State was facing, the bizarre circumstances that put him on the field in a hostile environment and, of course, the national implications for a team in the thick of the national championship race, it would have been understandable for there to be some drop-off between Hall and his replacement.

But the Buckeyes didn't miss a beat in the final three quarters, and the rushing game was every bit as dominant with Elflein on the field as it had been with Hall and the normal collection of starters. In fact, after rushing for 125 yards on 15 carries in the first quarter with Hall in the lineup, Ohio State's production actually slightly improved -- 8.6 yards per rush -- for the rest of the afternoon as Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller kept taking advantage of huge holes up front to gain 268 more yards on 31 attempts.

That doesn't mean the Buckeyes won't welcome Hall back when his punishment from coach Urban Meyer for a pair of obscene gestures and a bench-kicking, helmet-throwing incident expires at some point Saturday. But the coaching staff knows it has some depth and a more-than-serviceable option to fill the void.

"Pat played really well against a very good defensive line, and I’m excited about his future at Ohio State," Meyer said. "For a redshirt freshman coming into that situation, he actually played, like, really good at times.

"I'm very impressed with him and very comfortable with him."

After maybe a few uncertain moments, Linsley didn't need much time to get comfortable working with Elflein, either.

Video: Big Ten championship preview

December, 6, 2013
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Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett preview the Big Ten championship game from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Big Ten Week 15: Did you know?

December, 6, 2013
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There's no doubt that Michigan State and Ohio State match up well, so here's a closer look at the facts and figures surrounding the Big Ten title game:
  • Ohio State's rushing attack is among the best in the nation, as it's ranked second in rushing yards per game (321.3) but first in both yards per rush (7.1) and rushes that have gained 10 yards or more (130). The Buckeyes lead all BCS schools with 1,502 rushing yards after contact. And they're closing in on the 1973 school record of 4,199 rushing yards in one season. (They currently stand at 3,855.)
  • On the other end, Michigan State's defense matches up well -- very well. The Buckeyes had four rushing touchdowns last week against Michigan, which is one fewer than Michigan State allowed all season. The Spartans lead the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (64.8), yards per rush against (2.2) and the fewest carries that have gained 10 or more yards (19).
  • Let's compare that matchup a little more. In the last four games, Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde has rushed for 700 yards and seven touchdowns on 77 carries. In the last 12 games, Michigan State has allowed just 777 rushing yards (and five touchdowns). That's a lot of 7s.
  • Braxton Miller started off slowly this season when it came to running the ball, but he's certainly made up for lost time. In the first seven games, he rushed for 410 yards (4.7 ypc), two touchdowns and had just two carries that went for at least 20 yards. In the last three games, he rushed for 481 yards (10.7 ypc), six touchdowns and had nine carries that went for at least 20 yards. His 481 yards are the fifth-most in the FBS since Week 12.
  • The key to Miller's improvement at running the ball has been his improvement on zone-read plays. In those first seven games, he attempted 24 zone reads and gained just 87 yards and no touchdowns. In the past three games, he recorded 21 such rushes for 276 yards and three TDs.
  • But one of the keys for Michigan State? Quarterbacks have not rushed for much against it. The Spartans have allowed an FBS-low minus-19 yards on 92 carries by opposing QBs this season. They're the lone team that hasn't allowed a quarterback to have a single carry longer than 12 yards, and they're one of just four teams that haven't allowed a quarterback to score a rushing touchdown.
  • Both Hyde and Miller are closing in on big career milestones. Hyde needs 33 yards to reach 3,000 rushing yards while Miller needs just 133 to reach that same mark. Only six other Buckeyes have reached that career milestone. Miller also needs just 43 passing yards to top 5,000 yards for his career -- and needs just 166 total yards to reach the 8,000 combined yards mark. Only Art Schlichter has ever reached that 8,000-yard passing/rushing plateau.
  • Plenty of talented defensive players will be showcased Saturday. Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier leads the Big Ten in tackles-for-loss with 21 and has amassed 50 tackles in his last three games. MSU DB Darqueze Dennard was named the conference defensive back of the year and is third in the conference with four interceptions.
  • The Spartans are the first Big Ten team to win all eight of their conference games by double-digits since the league went to the eight-game schedule in 1971. The last team to win all of its Big Ten games by double-digits was Michigan back in 1943 when it went 6-0 in conference play.

Recruits watching: Big Ten title game 

December, 6, 2013
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The Big Ten championship game has plenty of implications for both Ohio State and Michigan State. The Buckeyes could end up in the national championship game, and the Spartans could land in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988.

There won't be visiting recruits in Indianapolis for the game, per se, but here are 10 prospects who will be impacted by this game on Saturday.

LB Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County): The No. 12 prospect in the country makes his decision Dec. 16. That will be only nine days after Ohio State plays in the Big Ten championship game. If the Buckeyes win, there is a good chance they end up in the national championship game, which could be a point of emphasis for McMillan. If he knows he can win championships at Ohio State, it might make it easier for him to head North away from home.

Video: Big Ten Game of the Week

December, 5, 2013
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Brian Bennett looks at some keys in the Ohio State-Michigan State game.

We complete our look, from the opposing-coach perspective, at the Big Ten championship game with second-ranked Ohio State.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wrapped our report on Michigan State, so let’s give him the floor to open the discussion about the Buckeyes, who beat Iowa 34-24 on Oct. 19 -- Ohio State’s second-closest game of the year before its one-point escape last week at Michigan.

While the Buckeyes’ opponent Saturday night relies on its defense to carry the load, coach Urban Meyer’s team leans on an offense that leads the Big Ten in most statistical categories and tops the nation in yards per rush and red-zone efficiency.

“There's really not a weakness,” Ferentz said. “Their line is veteran, they've got four seniors up front. They're very good, very well coordinated. The whole scheme and concept is well-coordinated.

“The thing that makes them a challenge offensively is they've got a good receiving corps. They've got, if not the best back, one of the best backs in our conference, and they've got a quarterback who can run and throw. It's like a team that has 12 guys."

And with that, here are excerpts from our conversations with Big Ten coordinators and assistant coaches who played -- and lost to -- the Buckeyes this year. As with the Michigan State report, we granted anonymity to the coaches to ensure the most candid responses.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesCan Michigan State contain Braxton Miller?
ESPN.com: Ohio State has scored at least 42 points in its past five games, while Michigan State has allowed fewer than seven points in five of its past six outings. What must the Buckeyes and quarterback Braxton Miller do to maintain their momentum?

Coach:
I think Braxton Miller must have a good game for Ohio State. Quarterback run is something that Michigan State may struggle with, and obviously, Braxton is a good ace to have up your sleeve. One thing that's interesting about Ohio State is that I don't know if they're really the best technique-wise up front. There's things that Michigan State could really exploit. If you go back and watch a lot of Ohio State's big plays, it's not great execution. It's more athleticism. People freak out because of Braxton Miller, and all of a sudden Carlos Hyde has it. I feel like at times, Ohio State gets by because of their physical ability. Those kids up front are phenomenal, big athletes, but this is a team that will make them pay if Ohio State is not on their marks.

ESPN.com: We knew Hyde was good. But he’s rushed 1,164 yards in his past seven games. That’s ridiculous. What kind of an impact might he have on the players around him in this game?

Coach:
He's a physical, downhill runner that will align hard and run through tackles and make a 3-yard gain into a 6-yard gain or a 3-yard gain into an 18-, 20-yard gain. … We felt if we could deny that and make them earn everything, we'd be in the game. Michigan State is physical up front and they've got a chance to match up and deny some of those Hyde runs, but the key is Braxton Miller -- how much they run him and if he gets loose on a scramble.

ESPN.com: Michigan State is going to sell out to stop Hyde and Miller in the run game, but can Ohio State beat the Spartans through the air?

Coach:
We felt like that was their strength, throwing it over the top. We thought [Kenny Guiton] threw the ball pretty well on the drop-back, intermediate game. Miller hit us on some deeper crossing routes, but we didn't think he was going to beat us dropping back and throwing it play after play after play. We felt like we couldn't give up the home run over our head. We felt like the receivers had good speed.

ESPN.com: Clearly, Ohio State had an off day on defense last week against Michigan. But it’s happened a few other times, too. What’s the key to moving the football against the Buckeyes?

Coach:
You've got to put together a mix. You're going to have to get downhill on them and create some running lanes. Probably the one area that's not as hard to attack is the secondary. They have a really solid corner in [Bradley] Roby, but overall, you have some plays out there a little bit easier than you do against Michigan State.

ESPN.com: Despite some of the defensive issues, OSU remained stout against the run. How do you see Michigan State attacking that front seven?

Coach:
The guys up front are good, solid players. I don't know if there's anyone one that stands out. The one kid inside, [Michael Bennett], he can create some things. He was a big, strong guy, got after it a little bit. [Ryan] Shazier, linebacker-wise, he's a heck of a player. That's going to be the interesting matchup, Michigan State's offense against Ohio State's defense, and how well they can run the football. The one thing that's happened with Michigan State is their quarterback's been playing really well, and they're going to run the football. That's the one strength that Ohio State has. They can defend the run, where in the passing game, they'll have a little bit more trouble. So Michigan State, how well they throw the ball, will be interesting to see.
There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a very big one. Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State:

1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
2. Buckeyes back on the big stage: It has been a while since Ohio State played a game of this significance on a stage as big as Lucas Oil Stadium. Miller has been brilliant the past two seasons, but he has yet to play in the postseason with a spot in the national championship on the line. Nebraska came into last year's title game tight and it showed in a disastrous performance against Wisconsin, which played loose and ran the Huskers up and down the field. Although no one expects Ohio State to lay an egg, Michigan State has been here before, and the Spartans are likely heading to the Rose Bowl no matter what happens in the game. MSU is the first top-15 team Ohio State will play since its win streak began under Meyer. Are Miller and the Buckeyes ready for the challenge?

3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.

4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.

How Michigan State, Ohio State were built 

December, 5, 2013
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Michigan State and Ohio State are inherently different teams, both on the field and how they were put together. Ohio State is known for its offense, while Michigan State is ranked No. 1 in total defense.

The 11-1 Spartans and the undefeated Buckeyes will meet in Big Ten championship game on Saturday, but have taken very different paths to get there.

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Dinner is on Adam in Indianapolis on Friday night, thanks to Brian's nailbiter of a win in the regular-season picks contest. But we all know the main course arrives Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

We've got a bona fide heavyweight tilt in the Big Ten championship game, with national title implications at stake. It's time to crown a champion, and we need to be in championship form with these predictions ...

No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE (11-1, 8-0) versus No. 2 OHIO STATE (12-0, 8-0)

Brian Bennett: What a matchup this is, with the unstoppable force that is the Buckeyes' offense colliding with the immovable object of the Spartans' defense. I expect Ohio State to put up its lowest point total of the season as the "No-Fly Zone" led by Darqueze Dennard keeps the Buckeyes' air attack mostly grounded. And I expect the Spartans to make some plays on offense with Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford as they exploit some of the weaknesses of Urban Meyer's defense.

To me, this game comes down to one guy: Braxton Miller. He always seems to rise to the occasion in big spots, and this is the biggest game of his career. As good as Michigan State's defense is, it will have a hard time containing Miller and Carlos Hyde for 60 minutes, and Miller can flummox the best of defenses with his open-field running ability.

The Spartans take the lead into halftime as Cook is sharp early on, but Miller gets loose for a 60-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to give Ohio State the lead. Then he and Hyde grind out first downs in the fourth quarter to protect it. Still, both teams can bite down on some roses, because they're both headed to Pasadena. ... Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24

Adam Rittenberg: This is the matchup we've been waiting to see, and I can't wait for kickoff Saturday night. As I often do, I've changed my mind several times during the week. Michigan State should handle Ohio State's offense better than any defense has all season. Then again, Big Ten championship games are high scoring since teams no longer have to deal with the weather. Cook has never been on a stage like this and could show his inexperience. Then again, he has answered every challenge to date. And Miller hasn't played in a game of this magnitude, either.

I keep thinking back to last year's title game, where Nebraska came in as a favorite but clearly looked intimidated by the setting and the stakes. Wisconsin was the much looser team, played like it and spanked the Huskers. These are two different teams -- I think Michigan State will be the looser one, as the Spartans are likely headed to the Rose Bowl either way. Ohio State finally has the national title game in its sights. How will the Buckeyes hold up against the best team they've faced since 2011?

Ohio State jumps ahead early, as it almost always does, but the Spartans settle down and force two turnovers midway through the game. Cook attacks the secondary with the play-action and fires touchdown passes to Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Miller puts Ohio State in front midway through the fourth quarter with a touchdown run, but the Spartans answer behind Cook and Jeremy Langford, who finds some running room late. Michigan State ends this title game on the right side of a special-teams play, as Michael Geiger kicks his third field goal for the win. And the SEC rejoices. ... Michigan State 30, Ohio State 28

As you probably know, we've selected a guest picker each week this season to compete with us. For a game this big, we thought we needed to do something special. So we reached out to a couple of celebrity guest pickers from each side who have ties to Indianapolis as well.

First up is former Ohio State running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, who's now with the Indianapolis Colts. Herron picks the Buckeyes to win 31-17, saying, "I have confidence in my team and coaching staff. I haven't really watched [Michigan State], but I don't think they can stop our offense, and our defense will get the job done."

Our second guest picker is former Michigan State center Jason Strayhorn, an Indianapolis native who's now an analyst for the Spartans' radio network. Strayhorn says, "I think the game will come down to not only red zone defense, but also whose weakness is stronger: Michigan State's passing game versus Ohio State's pass defense. I say Connor Cook throws for 270 yards and Michigan State wins 28-24. I say that because that was the score we had when we went to Columbus and beat the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes in 1998."

Thanks to Boom and Jason for their picks. We'll find out who's right Saturday night.

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 80-16
Adam Rittenberg: 79-17
Guest pickers: 75-21

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