Ohio State coach Urban Meyer speaks with Braxton Miller. Meyer said he didn't know if his offense could respond the way it did.
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A 4-0 start had forged as many questions as it had provided answers regarding the 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes.
The nonconference schedule hadn't tested them, the spread had occasionally sputtered, the defense had been dogged.
Were they hardened for a Big Ten battle, especially on the road, most especially against an opponent that sported the league's stingiest defense?
Could they punch it out at the line of scrimmage, turn the spread into a meat-grinder, take away a foe's bread and butter, show a steely-eyed resolve with the outcome in the balance?
So many questions, and many of them shared by one Urban Meyer, who coaches the Buckeyes.
Now, finally, some answers.
OSU took a 17-16 decision from Michigan State on Saturday. You need only to win by one.
Someone pointed out to Meyer that in this day of high-octane college offenses there are seemingly more 70-60 scores than, well, 17-16.
"We have to score more points," he said. "I'd like 70 every now and then."
Sure he would. But he's not going to get 'em in the Big Ten -- not 70, not 60, not 50 -- at least not against the good teams in meaningful games.
He and his Buckeyes will win or lose those games with defense and tenacity and grinding out big plays, mostly on the ground, that break an opponent's spirit and then its heart.
Meyer said he didn't know for sure if his team could line up, four minutes on the clock, two time-outs in the other coach's pocket, the crowd begging its defense to make a play, everybody knowing what is coming, blast it between tackles, play smash-mouth football, and run out the clock.
So the Buckeyes gained 7 and 6, then 15, and then 6 and 5, and that was it.
"Every coach wants that, especially against a front like that," Meyer said. "I didn't really know if we could do that."
Now he knows.
He claimed that he knew all along what his defense was capable of doing. Nobody else did.
"Well, I felt our defense was good enough to be better than it was in the first four games," he said, amending his thought just a tad. "We have really, really good players. Great players? Maybe a few."
In this one, OSU's defense slammed the door on Le'Veon Bell, the Big Ten's leading rusher and No. 3 in the nation coming in with a 152.5-yard average. He carried 17 times for 45 yards, no single run longer than eight yards.
Bell was quarterback Andrew Maxwell's prime target in the pass game for awhile early, but OSU adjusted and MSU pretty much abandoned that after the first 20 minutes or so, throwing more to wide receivers.
The Buckeyes played a lot of man-to-man, pressuring their corners to perform without much help, and moved an eighth man closer to what coaches like to call the box, not right at the line of scrimmage, but between the line and the linebackers.
"They played man on the outside and made sure to stop the run," Bell said.
He could have said "stop me," because he is Michigan State's running game.
"I'd venture to guess that won't happen again to that player," Meyer suggested.
I'd venture to guess few thought OSU's defense was capable of such a performance.
"I'll admit our defense was really aggravated and frustrated with the way we played the first four games," outside linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "We wanted to show everybody that we were good, that we could stop both the run and the pass. We went back to the drawing board. We fixed things. And we really believed we could do this.
"We gave 'em a dose of defense today. It was a big game, and we came together. This is the Big Ten. It's the real deal now."
Maybe, the Buckeyes are the real deal too.
There remains an uncomfortable reliance on one player, quarterback Braxton Miller, and he was a difference-maker again this time with 315 total yards and a big-time, 63-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith flying down the right sideline that immediately answered a Spartan score and put OSU up for good late in the third quarter.
There may be no answer to that. Miller may have to be all or nothing for this offense.
There were other answers to important questions and now the season takes on a new tenor. Nebraska visits the Horseshoe next Saturday night and if the real-deal Buckeyes win that one, by one or by 70, a 10-0 start is by no means out of the question.
If you wondered how Ohio State would rebound from last season's rare losing record, how the Buckeyes would take to a new coach with radically new ideas, and if -- and how -- they might stay focused considering an upcoming postseason ban, then Saturday's outcome offered the most profound answers to date.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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