Pop quiz, hot shot: Which team is the biggest rival of the Ohio State football program?
It’s a trick question, because yes, it’s still Michigan, of course.
That said, it’s the school situated just about 90 minutes away from Ann Arbor — Michigan State — that might lay claim to that title lately. There’s no doubt the Spartans have been the single biggest thorn in the side of the Buckeyes since 2008.
The Spartans have won three of the last six games against Ohio State. The Green and White have kept Ohio State out of the final BCS title game in 2013 and the College Football Playoff in 2015. They play the role of bully and spoiler equally well.
|2011||Columbus||Michigan State 10, Ohio State 7|
|2012||East Lansing||Ohio State 17, Michigan State 16|
|2013||B1G Championship Game||Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24|
|2014||East Lansing||Ohio State 49, Michigan State 37|
|2015||Columbus||Michigan State 17, Ohio State 14|
“They’re very systematic (in) what they do,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said on Monday during his weekly pnews conference. “They have very good players. Really good players.
“It’s not scheme, it’s players. They have very good, very good players. I think they developed. When I first got here, when I saw two first rounders, a corner and all those safeties. They were very good, and they’re still very good.”
You may recall that Last November, as the No. 1 team in the country playing at home, the Buckeyes fell flat against Michigan State in Ohio Stadium. That cost Ohio State a chance to repeat as national champions. What do the Spartans do that continues to befuddle the Buckeyes?
How do you beat Ohio State?
Unlike the Buckeyes’ other losses in the Urban Meyer era — I know, it’s only three, so the sample size isn’t perfect — Michigan State has challenged the Buckeyes without gimmicks. They line up and go right at them and that’s what Ohio State expects Saturday, regardless of the Spartans’ shocking 3-7 record.
“This will be my fourth time starting against these guys,” Buckeyes lineman Pat Elflein said Monday. “It doesn’t matter what the record is. They’re going to show up, they’re going to play hard. They’re going to have something dialed up for us, always have a chip on their shoulder when the Buckeyes are in town. It’s going to be the same way this Saturday. So we have to prepare, like we do every other week. The records don’t matter.
“They always come out to play. They’ve always got a really good game plan against us and really good players. We have to show up, nine units strong, we’ve done that the last two games and we have to do that again. I know that their defensive front seven is always very tough and play very hard. They’re good football players. It’s always a slugfest upfront for us, a hard fought game. It’s a very important game.
Maybe that shoulder chip comes from the “disrespect” Mark Dantonio is able to convince his team it receives. Maybe it’s from Dantonio himself, who — some have speculated — was very bothered by the way Ohio State dismissed his former boss and close friend, Jim Tressel. Is it all the Ohio guys on their Michigan State roster? They have 28 players from the Buckeye State. The reality is that the folks who know you best often know the best way to exploit your weaknesses.
Maybe the two sides have more in common than just a distaste for the University of Michigan?
“Very physical, very, very physical. They’re tough. Even when we beat them 49-37 at their place two years ago, you walk away from that game, you’re in the locker room like ‘wow,’ and everything is sore,” redshirt junior Billy Price said when asked what makes Michigan State so challenging. “You have to respect those guys. They’re cut from the same fabric we are. We’re tough, blue-collar type guys that just out there and go to work.
“They’re just a thorn in our neck, a pain in the butt sometimes. They’re a very, very good team.”
Overlooking the Spartans? Not a chance
If you’re counting on the fact that Michigan State has struggled so mightily — and unexpectedly – to give Ohio State a reason to exhale, think again. In fact, Buckeyes defensive end Tyquan Lewis said Monday he didn’t even know how many games Michigan State had lost in 2016. He doesn’t care, either.
“Honestly, I don’t even know their record,” Lewis said. “I just focus on the opponent. I look at it as another big game. Everything counts, especially in November.”
Urban Meyer spoke of a “laser focus” on Michigan State this week and to a man his players echoed that sentiment. While the Buckeyes are aware of all scenarios surrounding the playoff, it’s pointless to think on it too much.
“You think about that,” Elflein said. “You can’t avoid it. But if you don’t lock in 100 percent on this team this week, none of that is possible.
“You think about the scenarios and all that, but we have to win out. First win (at) Michigan State and then win the rest of our games if we even want to dabble with the playoff and the championship.”