Buckeyes take on Spartans

INDIANAPOLIS – Urban Meyer has No. 2 Ohio State in a seemingly perfect spot.

The Buckeyes are 12-0, have won 24 straight and are likely one win away from making their fourth appearance in the BCS title game. They have a potential Heisman Trophy finalist in Braxton Miller, the first 1,000-yard runner of Meyer’s coaching career in Carlos Hyde, an offensive line that fits with the Ohio State tradition and an underrated defense that makes all the big plays.

This is a team that heads into the Big Ten title game with flaws and questions and down a starting right guard after Meyer benched Marcus Hall on Friday with a showdown tonight against No. 10 Michigan State looming.

“He won’t start the game,” Meyer said. “Other than that, we’ll see what happens. But that’s where it’s at.”

It’s the latest twist for a team that has been anything but perfect this season.

Last week, Hall and kick returner Dontre Wilson were ejected after getting involved in a fight with archrival Michigan. Hall responded by throwing his helmet to the ground on the sideline and making an obscene gesture at the Wolverines fans as he walked through the tunnel. On Friday, Meyer said he benched the lineman and will start freshman Pat Elflein.

That’s not all.

The doubters contend Ohio State’s imperfect resume is filled with victories over mostly bad teams and won a conference in which Top 25 matchups have been rare. This year, the Buckeyes faced only two ranked teams – beating usually strong Wisconsin by a TD at home and a Northwestern squad by 10 on the road, a team that never lived up to the ranking. Some say Saturday night’s game will be the biggest challenge of Meyer’s two-year tenure in Columbus.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio doesn’t see things quite the same way.

A year ago, the Spartans (11-1) fell 17-16 to Ohio State in East Lansing, and this year, Dantonio insists the Buckeyes are improved.

“What you see is an extremely productive offensive football team that is capable of a big play at any point in time, at any given moment, from anywhere on the field,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to control that, work through that. … They’re a very well-coached football team with tremendous players with an X-factor, the X-factor being Braxton Miller, quarterback. That’s what makes it so difficult.”

Meyer knows better than anyone things don’t always go according to the script. Twice at Florida, he won national championships with one-loss teams. Twice, he’s finished a season 12-0, at Utah in 2004 and last year with the Buckeyes, and didn’t win a title.

What the Buckeyes have done better than most, though, is improvise.

Miller sprained his left knee in Week 2 and missed the next two games. Watching Kenny Guiton, Meyer said, helped Miller figure out what he had to do better to prepare for games.

Hyde, meanwhile, was suspended for Ohio State’s first three games after allegedly confronting a woman in a Columbus bar. Yet the Buckeyes continued to win.

“Against Wisconsin, I saw some toughness in our defense that I was concerned about,” Meyer said Friday before the Buckeyes held a walkthrough at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. “The offensive line, last year I was concerned about our toughness as an offense. This year, pretty much week in, week out, we’ve shown it. It’s going to be a physical, hard, tough game. We’ll find out if the Buckeyes are a tough team (Saturday) night.”

While Meyer may simply be playing the politically correct game of lowering expectations, but with the stakes getting higher each week, Ohio State has continually found ways to get the job done.

Making a 2-point conversion stop to win last weekend and Alabama’s stunning stumble at Auburn, gave them a shot at a national title, and that’s not something the Buckeyes want to give away now.

It’s enough to keep the light-sleeping Meyer awake a few more hours before Saturday night. Then again, Meyer has seen all this before, with his 2006 national championship winning team at Florida.

“I just remember there were a bunch of close games that (Florida) team won,” Meyer said. “It seemed like every time you heard about that team it was what they couldn’t do, not what they could do. They played with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, so I’m hoping we continue to see that. I think this team does that.”

Buckeyes take on Spartans

COLUMBUS – Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio seems careful, controlled, maybe a little humorless and like someone who has never, ever been called a wild man.

But sometimes when he’s calling plays, he does a 180-degree turn from his public image and shakes things up with a trick play.

Maybe no coach in the Big Ten has called more trick plays. Or, at least, nobody has used more in big situations.

The most famous of these deceptions came when the Spartans faked a game-tying field goal in overtime against Notre Dame in 2010 and holder Aaron Bates threw a touchdown pass to beat the Irish 34-31.

Three weeks ago, Dantonio faked a field goal at Nebraska’s 27-yard line with a 6-point lead and punter Mike Sadler ran for a first down.

In October, on fourth-and-seven at Michigan State’s 37-yard line with a 6-point lead over Iowa, Sadler ran for 25 yards.

ESPN’s cameras caught Dantonio fist bumping his daughter Kristen on the sidelines after the call against Iowa.

At his weekly press conference the next week, Dantonio explained that she had told him earlier in the game, “Don’t forget the trickery,” and he replied, “It’s coming.”

That this much trickery would come from a former defensive coordinator goes against the conventional wisdom that they are usually risk averse.

But Dantonio protests that he doesn’t take that many calculated risks. He’s not setting off the pyrotechnics just to watch them blow up.

While Dantonio might have 10 or 12 trick plays in reserve for some games, he points out that the two fakes against Iowa and Nebraska are the only ones he has called this seasons and he used only one gimmick play in 2012.

The trick plays stand out because Michigan State, like its coach, is pretty far removed from glitz and glamour.

No. 10 Michigan State (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) has won 11 games three of the last four seasons and is averaging nine wins a season since Dantonio arrived in 2007.

From the outside, though, the perception is still that the Spartans are in the shadow of the big boys in their neighborhood – Michigan (who they have beaten five of the last six years), Ohio State and Notre Dame.

Also, they have not played in one of the BCS bowls.

Knocking off No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten) Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game would be another step by the Spartans toward confirming they are an elite program.

Michigan State thinks it can match up with anyone but that this is not always recognized outside the MSU program.

At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Dantonio said a Michigan State win against Ohio State “would send a message throughout the country right now.”

“I think we’re sending that message. We’re doing all we can to send the message in terms of how we play on the field,” he said. “Sometimes we’ve got to scratch and claw a little bit more than others, but that’s the nature of it. We have to earn ourselves into that opportunity to be thought of with that kind of prominence year in and year out.”

A hardnosed defense and an improving offense are what Michigan State thinks could accomplish that.

And if it takes a trick play or two, they can do that, too.