Friday, September 30, 2011

GAME PREVIEW: BUCKEYES HOST NATION'S TOP DEFENSE IN SPARTY

COLUMBUS — Ohio State true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller made his starting debut in victorious fashion last Saturday afternoon in Columbus, injecting life into a reeling Buckeyes football team who were in dire need of being energized.

Miller essentially came riding into Ohio Stadium on his white horse — with the reins tightly grasped in his hands — and led the Buckeyes to a 37-17 win over Colorado. The freshman left the 105,000-plus fans on hand in awe of his dual-threat capabilities. Ok, I may have embellished a little there, but the fact remains, he left them calling for an encore.

Well, they got it.

This time around, though, the Buckeyes' young signal caller will have a mightier dragon to slay, as the Michigan State Spartans (3-1) come to town powered by the top rated defense in the country.

Will the youthful, energetic Miller be up for such a daunting task, so early in his collegiate career? Will he be able to make the Spartans' defense look like the Keystone Cops, much like he made Colorado look last week?

"We'll see," OSU interim head coach Luke Fickell said. "We'll see real quick here."

The Spartans have surrendered an FBS-best 172.2 yards per game this season, and have held opposing quarterbacks to an average of 101 yards a contest, with six interceptions to just three touchdowns. Opposing quarterback have completed less than 50-percent of their passes against the Spartans this season.

Fickell didn't hide from acknowleding the fact that the Spartans possess the toughest defense the Buckeyes have faced thus far.

"I think so ... " Fickell said, when asked if the Spartans' defense gives the Buckeyes their biggest challenge yet. "Michigan State is probably as good up front as we've seen. They're going to definitely get on your guys outside. They're going to put pressure on you, whether it's four, five, six men. I think we understand that. How we handle it will be the key."

How Miller handles it will determine success.

If there's one chink in the Spartans' armor this season defensively, it's been their inability to sack the quarterback. In four games this season, the Spartans have only corralled opposing signal callers five times. Going against a quarterback as elusive as Miller could expose that weakness even further.

Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio understands what kind of threat Miller brings to his defense.

"I think the big story right now is Braxton Miller, a guy who's carried the ball 30 times in three games," Dantonio said. "Pretty much the last game was his first full-time start, so he's running the ball as much as some of their tailbacks really are. If you take (Jordan) Hall, who's been in two games thus far, he has carried the ball one more time than (Miller) has. That gives you a little bit of an indictation how much he runs the football, as well as passes it.

"(Miller's) a guy that can make you miss in space and you've got to contain the quarterback in this game."

Of course, the outcome isn't just going to come down to who wins the battle between Miller and the Michigan State defense. The showdown between Ohio State's defense and Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins will be just as intriguing.

Cousins, a three-year starter at Michigan State, hasn't put up unworldly numbers this season — 81-of-117 for 947 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions — but he's the type of player that's crafty and knows how to win football games.

"He's a very good football player," Fickell said of Cousins. "Obviously very smart ... he throws the ball well. But I think the biggest thing is he just has command of the offense. He has some weapons that can do a lot of different things."

Those weapons Fickell's referring to is tailbacks Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker, as well as receiver B.J. Cunningham.

Bell and Baker have been a formidiable one-two punch for the Spartans backfield this season, combining for 433 yards (4.9 avg.) and seven touchdowns. Cunningham has been the Spartans' top target out wide, hauling in 29 receptions for 428 yards and a touchdown thru the first four weeks. He had 12 catches for 158 yards against Notre Dame two weeks ago.

But as Fickell pointed out, the offense begins and ends with Cousins.

"They can run the football well," Fickell said. "They can get out and spread the field and the throw the football well, but that's because they have a quarterback that can handle those different situations.

"Is he a guy that's flashy, going to run all over the place? No. But he's going to control the offense, get the ball where it's supposed to go, going to read the coverages, read the defense, get them out of things they need to get out of.

"That's what every team is looking for, a field commander like that."

Bottom Line

Each side is pretty evenly matched position-by-position, and both have very similar approaches to the game from a philsophical standpoint, so the winner of this contest will have to bring a different element than the other is used to seeing.

Enter Braxton Miller.

Sure, the inexperience is always concerning in a game like this, and Michigan State should be able to give him some serious mental tests. But Miller's escape abilities cannot be denied. He will make at least three huge, game-breaking plays on Saturday.

And in game's like this, big plays usually make the difference.

Prediction: OSU 30-21