Michigan State's defense ranks sixth nationally in yards allowed per game.
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COLUMBUS — The only way to make Ohio State's game against Michigan State last season a fair fight would have required the Spartans to count to five-Mississippi before rushing the passer.
As the No. 14 Buckeyes prepare for the rematch Saturday in East Lansing, coach Urban Meyer warned it will not be any easier this year.
"I've seen some good defenses in my career, and this is one of the best," he said.
What's different, though, is Ohio State's ability to handle the heat.
"I feel like we're very equipped right now to face their defense," center Corey Linsley said.
A year ago, OSU faced the Spartans without its top running back, top lineman, top receiver, and top quarterback — all of whom were lost to suspension or no longer on the team.
Also missing: A prayer. The Buckeyes allowed nine sacks in a 10-7 loss. Only a window-dressing touchdown with 10 seconds remaining kept them from being shut out for the first time since a 28-0 loss at Michigan in 1993.
"I know we're all still hurting from that," right tackle Reid Fragel said.
This year, OSU will see most of the same defensive faces. Led by a pair of all-conference juniors — 6-foot-7, 278-pound defensive end William Gholston and linebacker Max Bullough — the 20th-ranked Spartans have allowed three offensive touchdowns and rank sixth nationally in yards allowed per game (233.5).
Meyer compared Michigan State's defense to the class of the Southeastern Conference, where he spent six seasons as the coach at Florida.
"I can only compare to what's the strongest conference I have a lot of experience in," Meyer said. "I can tell you this defense we're getting ready to play would be in the top couple of that conference. This team we're getting ready to play is what I'm used to seeing on defense the last seven years or six years."
The response from his players?
"It will definitely be a good matchup," Fragel said. "I'm looking forward to it."
If it seems a case of careful-what-you-wish, the Buckeyes believe their offense is in a better place.
Let them count the ways. They have an uneven but potent spread offense that is averaging 37.8 points per game —up 10 points from their first four games last season; an improved offensive line; and a dynamic quarterback in Braxton Miller who is learning to audible based on changing defensive looks.
Start up front, where a line replacing three starters and breaking in converted tight end Reid Fragel at right tackle is holding its own. One measure: The Buckeyes have allowed six sacks after permitting a league-worst 46 a year ago.
Meyer said the line is improving, "but nowhere near where we expect."
"We're getting better each week," said left tackle Jack Mewhort, a St. John's Jesuit graduate. "Physically, we've got a great group of guys. But we've got to cut out the mental mistakes."
The Buckeyes also will have more options, including a full complement of running backs for the first time this season. A week after Jordan Hall ran for 105 yards against Alabama-Birmingham, Carlos Hyde is expected to return from a strained MCL. Expect the pair to often be on the field together Saturday, which Meyer said will allow the Buckeyes to do "some creative stuff" against a defense that held them to 35 rushing yards on 39 carries last year.
"We have to find a way to get some yards running the ball," Meyer said. "To turn around and hand the ball off, we tried it last year a little bit and it went in reverse."
Another new development is Miller's increasing comfort at the line of scrimmage. The sophomore began the season running the play he was told regardless of the defense's alignment. Saturday against UAB, Miller said he changed the play 20 times.
"Part of our problem [early] was we were running plays that our quarterback should get us out of," Meyer said. "[Offensive coordinator Tom] Herman can't do it all the time, so he has to get us in and out of plays."
Add it all up, and is Ohio State indeed better equipped to face the mean, green Spartans?
"I guess time will tell come Saturday," Fragel said.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.
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