Happy Friday everyone. I hope you all enjoyed last night’s basketball game, though I know Bonesaw and MSUMC25 did not. I’ll take the win though and enjoy it. Speaking of wins, MSU’s football team has a chance to get on a bit of a late-season win streak tomorrow when they go to Oh... oh who am I kidding? MSU has lost seven straight against the Buckeyes and it really feels hard to envision this year being the year the streak is broken. Ohio State currently sits atop the College Football Playoff rankings and Michigan State is a team trying to find its identity. Matt Tamanini from Land-Grant Holy Land joins us to tell us a little about OSU’s identity. Let’s get to it.
TOC: I usually ask a question unrelated to the game at the end of my list but this time I am going to lead off with it just to get my readers riled up. What are your thoughts on the um cheating scandal? With what we know right now, what do you think their punishment should be?
MT: I honestly couldn’t care less about the sign-stealing scandal. It is exceedingly clear that they cheated and there is no doubt in my mind that every coach — up to and including Jim Harbaugh — knew what was going on; and all of their ridiculous smoke screens won’t obscure that painfully obvious fact. But even if the NCAA vacates any wins from the last two years, the games still happened, they still won on the field. And yes, this is a different kind of scandal than if a player gets paid under the table or even if some random tutor takes tests to keep an athlete eligible, but nothing the Big Ten or NCAA does will change what we all saw and experienced.
So, for me, this whole thing is not about punishment or revenge or justice, instead it is all about the comedy of it. The bumbling way that they went through this whole thing is just so damn funny to me. I have no idea if Jim Harbaugh was the mastermind, a willing participant, or didn’t know anything about it, the sheer keystone robbers handling of the whole operation is hysterical, and then you throw in the denials, deflections, and whataboutisms from the morally superior Michigan Men, and it becomes one of the funniest sitcoms in the history of television.
Whatever the Big Ten and/or NCAA decides to do, I just hope that it keeps the story going long enough for us to eventually find out that Harbaugh had ordered a handful of buffoons to break in to team hotels a la Watergate and that they had secretly set up individual listening devices that said “Property of the University of Michigan Football Program” on them.
TOC: Okay, back to our game, let’s start with the quarterback position. It felt like there was some discontent with Kyle McCord earlier in the season. Has that mostly gone away? Are we seeing his ceiling now or do you think he still has room to improve?
MT: Oh no, there is still a lot of discontent with Kyle McCord in Buckeye Nation. Look, he is a fine quarterback, his numbers are essentially identical to J.J. McCarthy’s — save a slightly worse completion percentage — but he is coming on the heels of the three most prolific passers in Ohio State history, one of whom seems set to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, so what he does, honestly, pales in comparison to Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields, and J.R. Stroud.
It’s interesting, because McCord has struggled fairly mightily in the first half of nearly every game this season, but has been close — but not at — the level of his predecessors in the second halves of games. So far, Ohio State’s skill position players and stout defense have compensated for his first half deficiencies, but obviously that is not an ideal formula for a quarterback looking to lead his team to conference and national championships.
He does not have the vision of Stroud, nor the accuracy of Fields, nor the arm-strength of Haskins, so it has taken some time for Ryan Day to seemingly figure out how to manage his new signal-caller. There is still a ton left on the table for McCord as he has shown flashes of elite ability, but they have been few and far between.
Admittedly, he has been dealing with an ankle injury since the Week 4 game against Notre Dame, and it was reaggravated against Penn State, so some of his mechanics and deep ball issues might be attributable to that, but it is November in the Big Ten, everybody is banged up. So, if the Buckeyes want to accomplish any of their goals this season, in my opinion, they are going to need significant improvements from the quarterback position over the next few weeks.
TOC: Moving to the skill positions, how do you compare this year’s WRs, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, to the 3-headed monster from 2 years ago, Chris Olave, Garrett Wison, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba? Also, can RB TreVeyon Henderson please go pro after this season? Are all of these current guys first round picks capable of starting on Sundays?
MT: I think it goes without saying that a lineup of Olave, Garrett, and Smith-Njigba was a bit ridiculous. Offensive coordinator and wide receiver coach Brian Hartline has done a masterful job of recruiting the position, and there is a ton of talent in the WR room currently, but it is a step behind that 2021 group.
I would go as far as to say that Harrison is probably the best of the bunch, and I would be at least a bit surprised if he isn’t the first wide receiver off the board in the 2024 Draft; because of his production, talent, work ethic, and familial pedigree. Egbuka, who has missed three games this season, is also excellent and in almost any other season, would be the primary weapon on the team. If he is able to come back healthy down the stretch, that would go a long way to OSU reclaiming the Big Ten East crown.
The fall off is with the third guy. Julian Fleming came to Columbus as the No. 1 wide receiver out of high school, but a series of major, unfortunate injuries have kept him from becoming the player that many people expected him to be. Right now, about the only argument that people can make to keep him in the starting lineup is that he is an elite-level blocker, something that Hartline’s crew prides itself on. Outside that, his hands have been suspect this season and he has not been the reliable No. 3 WR that the Buckeyes have gotten used to in recent years.
Former walk-on Xavier Johnson is seemingly the next receiver up, based on experience and versatility, but true-freshman Carnell Tate is unquestionably the most explosive option for the third wideout position. He has been getting increasing playing time in recent weeks, and he could be a factor at any point moving forward.
Henderson is a different story, however, as over the past two seasons, he has been significantly hampered by injury more than he hasn’t been. So, to see him eclipse more than 200 all-purpose yards each of the last two weeks against solid defenses in Wisconsin and Rutgers is not only encouraging for Buckeye fans, but honestly, a bit surprising as well.
Throughout the course of the campaign, there have questions and discussions about whether or not running back-turned linebacker-turned running back Chip Trayanum should be RB1, and if the Buckeyes should abandon their plan to redshirt sophomore back Dallan Hayden and push him to the top of the pecking order.
However, if Henderson is truly back to being a healthy and dynamic version of the playmaker that was a Freshman All-American in 2021, then that changes the OSU offense tremendously, by taking a significant amount of responsibility off of McCord.
TOC: Let’s move to the defense. Please tell us about your base formation and your common sub packages? What level of the defense is best? Who is the biggest threat to opposing offenses?
MT: Since Jim Knowles became Ohio State’s defensive coordinator last season, he has installed a safety-driven defense. That means that he opts — in nearly all situations — to run with four linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. In fairness, the exact construction of those five DBs does vary on game situation and opponent.
The best defense sees two cornerbacks and three safeties on the field with a nickel safety essentially playing the role of the third linebacker, but with added athleticism to let him blitz, cover, and run-stop. That position, for most of the season, has been 18-year-old sophomore Sonny Styles. However, due to the injury to free safety Lathan Ransom, Styles moved to the back of the defense against Rutgers last week, and slot corner Jordan Hancock (who has rotated into that fifth DB spot all season) saw a significant amount of playing time.
Ransom will again be out this week, and whether or not he plays again this regular season is still up in the air — although Ohio State is optimistic to get him back close to 100% for the regular season finale. So, that could impact the construction of the defense, but almost assuredly, OSU will run out five DBs a majority of the time. No. 1 corner Denzel Burke did not play last weekend against the run-focused Scarlet Knights, but he is expected to be back at 100% following an extra week off to nurse an injury.
At full-strength, I would say that the secondary is the OSU defense’s strong unit, but it is close with the defensive line. The front four don’t put up the same gaudy numbers that Buckeye fans got spoiled by with Nick and Joey Bosa and Chase Young on the edge, but they have been solid all season and have been getting increasing amounts of pressure over the past month. Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau on the ends can disrupt an offense in both run and pass situations and Tyleik Williams is one of the best interior d-linemen that OSU has had in a number of years.
TOC: This Saturday’s game is a night game. Any chance that will throw off your team? If not, what would have to go wrong for MSU to pull off a shocking upset? Semi-related question, do you miss the rivalry you had with MSU a decade ago now?
MT: I wouldn’t think so. This will be the Buckeyes’ third night game of the season, although first at home. They fared decently well in tough primetime road environments in South Bend and Madison, so if that didn’t faze them, I don’t imagine the friendly confines of The Horsehoe will.
If Sparty is going to pull the upset, they will need to force Ohio State to settle for field goals in the red zone. The Buckeyes have been atrocious in the red zone. They are 10th in the Big Ten in terms of red zone conversion percentage and eighth in red zone TD percentage, despite the fact that they are third in terms of red zone trips. If MSU can keep OSU from finishing drives, that will go a long way.
Then, of course, there’s the age-old cliche of forcing turnovers. The Buckeyes are fifth in the B1G in turnovers lost with just 10 on the season — although they only have nine takeaways, tied for the lowest total in the conference. So, if Michigan State can find a way to turn that in its favor in any significant way, there is certainly a chance that things could get kooky on Saturday night.
In terms of the old MSU-OSU rivalry, I look at it in terms of the entire era of Buckeye football. Perhaps it is due to the next level of success that Urban Meyer ushered in and that Ryan Day has — mostly — maintained, but I find nearly every Ohio State football game to be unexciting nowadays. and I’m not talking about margin of victory, but every game is so fraught with expectations that it’s become next to impossible to just enjoy the team, enjoy the matchups, enjoy the traditions of college football.
So, yes, I do miss that era in the OSU-MSU series, but to me, it is less about any on-field competitiveness, and more about the sport's singular focus on the national title robbing us of some of the joy that had previously always been part of what made the sport so special.
TOC: Bonus Question: Predict the final score.
MT: I apologize to your readers if this feels like it is looking through the game with Scarlet and Gray colored glasses, but I am going to go with Ohio State 38, Michigan State 6
TOC: Bonus unrelated question: What would Buckeye nation think if Urban Meyer ended up as MSU’s next head coach?
MT: I can’t speak for all of Buckeye Nation because I think we are probably pretty divided over Urban Meyer as a human and as a coach, so I will just say for me, if he takes over in East Lansing, good riddance and good luck!
TOC would like to thank Matt for taking the time to contribute to this article. Matt, I don’t think too many of us here are going to be upset with your score prediction.