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COLUMBUS — It is the most anticipated Big Ten showdown in years, the most unstoppable offense in Ohio State history against the stop sign of a Michigan State defense.
Does it get any better?
“It’s miserable,” Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “Fun? Have you watched that tape? Those guys are really, really good.”
He is kidding. Sort of.
Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis is why coaches coach and players play. OSU left tackle Jack Mewhort called it a “classic smash-mouth game” — a test of mind, body, and will that will match strength against strength.
“With everything at stake,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
A dynamic but bruising veteran offense has carried second-ranked OSU (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten) to 24 straight wins and the brink of its first trip to the national title game since 2007.
The Buckeyes have scored a school-record 79 touchdowns — 15 more than the previous mark set in 1995 — wield the best rushing offense among BCS teams (321 yards per game), and are well on course for the highest-scoring season in 123 years of OSU football. Their 48.2 points per game are nearly six more than the 1969 team’s record yield.
All that’s in Ohio State’s way? The nation’s best defense.
When MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said the Spartans would be live tackling in practice this week — unlike before OSU’s 17-16 win in East Lansing last year — scout team quarterback Damion Terry tweeted, “Pray for me.”
Big Ten offenses have often felt the same.
No. 10 Michigan State (11-1, 8-0) leads the country in total defense (237.7 yards per game), rushing defense (64.8), and pass efficiency defense (91.79 rating), and is holding opponents to an average of 11.8 points.
Meyer called a unit that features a league-high five players on the coaches’ All-Big Ten first team — including defensive back of the year Darqueze Dennard, defensive lineman of the year Shilique Calhoun, and star linebacker Max Bullough — “as good of a defense as I’ve seen.”
The most points MSU has allowed in a game this season (28) is less than the fewest points the Buckeyes have scored (31 against Wisconsin).
“This is why you coach,” Herman said. “These are the games your competitive nature can come out a little bit and say, ‘I’m going to have my offense, my checkers, and my pieces are going to be more prepared and play harder and longer and with better technique and effort than yours.’
“At the end of the day, there’s only a few reasons to live this crazy life that we do. One of them is for the love and betterment of young men. And then the other one is that bankers don’t get to do this. They don’t get to go compete in Indianapolis against the No. 1 defense possibly in America and come out hopefully on top, and say my guys did that. That’s fun, it really is.”
So how does Ohio State breach the wall?
The Buckeyes know they must effectively pass against Michigan State’s press-quarters scheme, which allows the Spartans to jam nine players into the box but leaves their cornerbacks one-on-one against the receivers. In fact, wide receiver Corey Brown has already poked an MSU secondary that dubs itself the “No Fly Zone.”
“We fly whenever we please,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Buckeyes, though, will not change their identity. With quarterback Braxton Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde running behind four senior offensive linemen, OSU also feels it can drive whenever it pleases.
OSU had 383 yards of offense — including 203 rushing — against MSU last year and has navigated a pair of top-10 defenses this season. The Buckeyes gained 390 yards in a 31-24 win against Wisconsin and 495 yards in a 34-24 victory against Iowa.
The Spartans, meanwhile, have not been impenetrable lately, allowing a combined 386 rushing yards in their last three Big Ten games.
A week after OSU churned for 393 rushing yards at Michigan, center Corey Linsley was asked if the Buckeyes can run on anybody.
“I feel that way now, and that's the way we prepare,” he said. “We're going to do our best to do that Saturday.”
And Michigan State will do its best to stop it. In the biggest conference battle since the No. 1 vs. 2 OSU-Michigan game in 2006, neither side has any intention of backing down.
“[The Buckeyes] haven’t lost a game in two years, so for me to tell you they’re not our biggest test we’ve faced so far would just be lying to you,” Bullough said. “But in all reality, it’s a challenge we look forward to.”