By Jim Naveau
COLUMBUS – A year ago, Ohio State’s 49-37 win at Michigan State in early November was the game that proved the Buckeyes were the team they thought they were even after a loss to Virginia Tech.
Now, a year later, OSU will still be looking for validation, though it is a different type of confirmation, when Michigan State comes to Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
Last year’s win proved that Ohio State deserved to climb in the College Football Playoff rankings. This year the desired proof is that it belongs where it is now, among the four teams who would qualify for the playoff.
Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) was No. 3 in last week’s College Football rankings and Michigan State (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) was No. 13. OSU will finish its schedule against Michigan, which was one spot behind MSU in the playoff rankings.
No other team on Ohio State’s schedule was in the top 25 of the playoff rankings. So, if style points count, this week and next week are big for Ohio State.
If Ohio State wins this week, it can win the Big Ten East Division and a return trip to the College Football Playoff with a win at Michigan. If Michigan State wins, it would hold tie-breaker advantages over OSU and Michigan for the East title, but would be a long shot to get into the playoff.
“Pretty much everything is at stake in this game,” Ohio State offensive lineman Pat Elflein said. “We have to rise up to the challenge. We know we have a really good opponent coming into our house. I think, as a team, we have to raise up our level of play to get the win.”
Ohio State’s level of play has been questioned many times this season, such as in close wins over Northern Illinois and Indiana.
Coach Urban Meyer said on Monday that sort of thing has been a little overdone, but that it is expected at Ohio State.
“There’s probably ten places like this in America where you keep building a beast and you’ve got to feed it,” Meyer said.
“The really good thing about myself, our staff and our players is the focus is not on anything. We know there are issues. This is not a perfect team. I’ve never seen a perfect team. As a matter of fact, we’ve got a long way to go. There are certain areas we’re not playing very good, and that’s why we practice all the time,” he said.
Part of OSU’s practice routine this week has been watching films of last year’s game at Michigan State, which wasn’t perfect but was very, very good.
“That was our best game offensively, by far. We threw for over 300. We ran against not a good defense, but a great defense. We’re not there right now. We’ve got to get there fast when you start playing teams like this and a talented team like this,” Meyer said.
In last year’s game, J.T. Barrett threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for two more. Ezekiel Elliott carried 23 times for 154 yards as OSU overcame an early 14-7 Michigan State lead.
One of the big questions going into Saturday’s game is the health of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook.
Cook suffered some sort of injury to his right shoulder last week against Maryland and was replaced by Lima Central Catholic graduate Tyler O’Connor, who was 6 of 11 for 44 yards and a touchdown. Cook returned to the game briefly after the injury but was only 6 of 20 for 77 yards.
After the game, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said he was “95 percent” sure Cook would play and be effective against Ohio State.
Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash says he expects Cook to play.
“Cook will play. He’s a competitor. He will play. They have had several snaps of a back-up quarterback (O’Connor) in there. They have some similarities and they have some differences. We’ll be ready with whoever is out there,” he said.
BOSA ON NEXT YEAR: Defensive end Joey Bosa sounds very much like someone who will be making himself available for the NFL draft after three years at Ohio State.
“It’s hard to think three years is almost over. It seems like yesterday I was coming here for the first time,” Bosa said on Monday.
“It’s really crazy that three years has flown by so quick and my brother (2016 OSU recruit Nick Bosa) is going to be taking my place here next year. I’d have to say the only possible thing that would keep me here is playing with Nicky,” he said.
EXTRA SECURITY: Ohio State has banned backpacks and has gone to a clear plastic bags and small clutch purses only policy for the Michigan State game after the terrorist attack in Paris last weekend.
Athletic director Gene Smith said that event led to the change in security level.
“We felt that this was the right time to do it because of where we are in our world, but also we’d probably keep it going in the future,” Smith said.
A complete explanation of the policy and a list of approved and banned items can be found at http://www.ohiostatebuckeyes.com/gameday/.
MEYER LIKES DEFENSE: Meyer has praised Ohio State’s defense, especially its defense against the run, the last two weeks and the weekly awards from a 28-3 win over Illinois last Saturday proved that.
Thirteen defensive players graded out as “champions,” meaning they met or exceeded expectations. Cornerback Eli Apple, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and Bosa shared the defensive player of the game honors.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.