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COLUMBUS — From the outside, it looks like the premier game on the opening week of Big Ten play: The conference's two highest ranked teams, with a combined 7-1 record.
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But the guys closest to No. 14 Ohio State and 20th-ranked Michigan State (3-1) know better.
“We've got a long way to go,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said on Saturday after a closer-than-expected 29-15 victory over winless UAB. “The fact is we're a bend-and-break defense, which is painful to watch. And then we're not a methodically dominating offense. I mean, we're not a very good offense right now.”
Things weren't a whole lot different just over 200 miles to the north.
Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen said the locker room was somber after the Spartans were pushed around at times before muscling past winless Eastern Michigan 23-7 on Saturday.
“Everybody knew that we didn't play like we should. So it was kind of a down mood,” he said. “We need to do our job better and prepare better, especially going into Big Ten. We can't make the mistakes we did today. All the dropped passes, and missed tackles — all the little things we need to fix.”
Despite playing four nonconference home games, the Buckeyes have looked more like the 2011 team that lost seven games — matching the program's most since 1897 — than the new-look, fresh-start team anticipated under Meyer.
The Buckeyes have been rocked by penalties, an inability to make tackles in the open field, giving up big plays and an erratic offense that has trouble putting together first downs for long spans of time.
Meyer said he was pleased with his players’ effort, but they didn't sound like they were.
“Some guys take a play off a little bit,” star quarterback Braxton Miller said. “I don't know what it is. We've got to fix that. That's one of our big problems.”
Even though Meyer criticized every phase of his team — calling the Buckeyes “passive” and saying the defense wasn't up to Ohio State's standards and the offense's explosiveness was “non-existent” — he was upbeat and confident around the Buckeyes after the game.
“He was happy. You can't be grumpy about a win. A win is a win no matter if you win by one or a hundred,” wide receiver Corey Brown said. “At the end of the day we're 4-0 going into Big Ten play but we know we have to be better.”
That was the theme in East Lansing, Mich., too, after the Spartans couldn't put away an Eastern Michigan team that surrendered 31 points at home to FCS Illinois State but held the mistake-prone Spartans to eight fewer points. Most of the ire of fans has been directed at a wide-receiving corps that has consistently dropped passes, run poor routes and caused problems for first-time starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
Head coach Mark Dantonio repeatedly refused attempts to even get him to talk about his team's troubles.
“Next question,” he said testily to any inquiry he didn't like — which was most of them.
Others were not nearly so reticent to address the Spartans’ problems.
“I don't think we made any progress at all,” said center Dan Roushar, although he did tip his cap to running back Le'Veon Bell's career-best 253 yards rushing. “We are going to have to get a whole lot better.”
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was defiant about his team's preparations for Ohio State.
“We're going into it 3-1 and will run straight ahead,” he said. “We'll have a collision course against Ohio State next weekend at Spartan Stadium.”
The game will pit two of the top offensive stars in the conference. Bell is third in the nation in rushing at 153 yards a game, with Miller tied for 16th (with Michigan's Denard Robinson) at 110.3. Their brilliance with the ball makes up for a lot of inexperience and mistakes elsewhere.
One of the coaches is bound to be happy after Saturday's game. It's unavoidable.
But, as of now, it's as if neither has a whole lot of faith in their teams or how they are playing.
Meyer was asked what concerns him most about the Buckeyes.
“There's too much,” he said. “Defense, offense and kicking game: We have to be better in all three phases.”
Like Michigan State, Ohio State has six days to turn things around.