Three and Out From Inside the WHAC
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Buckeyes kick off their Big Ten season on Saturday with a trip to East Lansing to face off with the #20 Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans have a tremendous defense and pride themselves in their aggressive and physical nature.
While most will look at Ohio State's defense as the ultimate reason the Buckeyes will either win or lose this week, it is the OSU passing game that could make life a whole lot easier on everybody.
If the Ohio State passing game makes plays on Saturday it will take some of the pressure off of the Buckeye defense and it will also force the Michigan State offense to do some throwing of their own, which they probably won't want to do.
The question is whether or not the Buckeye passing game is up to the task against a Spartan defense that has four of the best defensive backs in the conference.
Six months ago, the prognosis for the Ohio State receivers was not very good. Inexperience, very little production, lack of playmakers, you name it and Urban Meyer had an issue with it.
Things have improved since then, but the first thing that needed to change was the understanding that this offense wasn't going to move without them.
"They've come a long way since the spring," receivers coach Zach Smith said of his group on Monday.
"The biggest change that needed to happen was they needed to realize that this offense has a lot to do with how they perform. It's not an offense where once or twice a game you're gonna take a shot. It's an offense that if we go out and don't play well, we're not going to win the game.
"There's more pressure, and since we've gotten here there's been a lot of pressure put on them, and for good reason. I think that's helped with the results so far."
The pressure on Saturday will come from cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, both of whom will play tight man coverage, and be physical while doing so.
Earlier in the season, Smith challenged his receivers against California's man defense, telling his players that it was a sign of disrespect.
That same lack of respect will be in play once again on Saturday, and if the Buckeye receivers can't make the Spartans pay, then they will not win.
Currently, both Zach Smith and Urban Meyer like where the receivers are headed, and much of that is because of the development of the two top receivers Corey Brown and Devin Smith.
Both players have already surpassed the 14 receptions they had last season, Brown with 20 and Smith with 17.
With Michigan State's man defense out wide, the ability of Smith to continue catching passes this weekend is imperative for Ohio State's fortunes.
"He's our down the field shot guy," Meyer said of Smith.
If Smith can't get off of the line of scrimmage, the Buckeye offense shrinks to a level that becomes easier to defend, and much less explosive.
Simply put, Smith has to win more than he loses on Saturday. The coaches have put that challenge to him, and they expect him to respond.
"You've got to feel confident that Devin Smith as an 'X' receiver is going to win his one-on-one against a DB," Zach Smith said.
"He's shown that and he's improved on that quite a bit. So we feel really good about him if he's one-on-one. Any time you challenge a guy, especially a guy like him that's a competitive kid, when you challenge him he almost takes it personally, which is a good thing.
"He gets mad, he gets a little disrespected, it obviously produces results. I'm really excited to watch him play."
The game is about to get much different for the Buckeyes this weekend. They have not yet faced a defense like Michigan State, and they will have to play their most consistent offensive game of the season to get the win.
The Spartans will take the field and challenge Ohio State at every step. Nothing will be given, everything will have to be taken. The Buckeye offense, and specifically the receivers, will know right where they stand from the first snap of the game.\
"It's no secret what they're doing," Meyer said of the Spartan cornerbacks.
"They walk up on you and say 'I got you, and the other guys go stop something else.' So the challenge will be there again. And that's for us to move the ball on offense, that's going to be a big part of what we have to do."
With the Michigan State defense playing so close to the line of scrimmage, the Buckeyes will really have no choice but to go deep. Their success in completing those passes will determine whether or not the Spartans have to back off a little bit.
"Their structure of defense is that they're going to play press man on the outside receivers," Zach Smith explained.
"They're going to get beat every now and then, that's just the nature of asking them to play press without help. But at the same time, they're really efficient with it.
"When they play that structure of defense, you've got to throw it down the field. Their philosophy is that you're not going to hit it, and our philosophy is that we're gonna hit it.
"We're gonna be smart about how we do it and be smart about when we do it, and if we hit them, then it's going to be a good day. If we don't, then it might not."
Last week against UAB the Buckeyes opened up with a deep pass to Devin Smith. Smith got open down the sidelines by ten yards, but Braxton Miller overthrew him.
It was a play that was planned early in the week.
"It was just an emphasis point for the week," Zach Smith explained.
"We liked the play against their defense. It was something that Coach Meyer threw out there, and him and I talked about it and threw it out at Devin, 'Hey, listen, run this route a couple of times well this week and we'll open the game with it.' He bought into that and really did well all week with it, so we felt good about it."
And seeing Smith break free down the sideline, did his coach think that the Buckeyes had hit the homerun they were planning all week for?
"Yeah, I did," he said. "Absolutely I did."
Given how overthrown Smith was, did the pass at least get completed in practice?
"Enough times to call it," he laughed.
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