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Tressel: Spartans Provide Tougher Test

About those last two victories that have gotten Ohio State fans feeling good about themselves and their teams again … Jim Tressel says you can forget about them.
“The encouraging thing about the last two weeks is that I think we are getting better,” the OSU head coach said. “But the game we will play this week is better than the last two teams that we have played. We have to be ready to play our best if we expect to be successful.”
The Buckeyes will travel to Michigan State on Saturday to take on the Spartans, who must be licking their wounds after last week blowing a 17-point lead midway through the fourth quarter and eventually losing a 45-37 triple overtime thriller to archrival Michigan. Still, Tressel knows that playing on the road gives his team just one more challenge in a Big Ten season that has already seen its share for OSU.
“I don’t think you can minimize the importance of playing at home,” he said. “Just last week, for example, Michigan was able to draw from their crowd to come back against Michigan State. Purdue went to Northwestern and couldn’t get it done. Minnesota went to Indiana and couldn’t get it done. I think you’re kidding yourselves if you don’t think your opportunity to win is going to be energized by playing at home.”
The Buckeyes are currently working on a three-game losing streak in conference play dating back to last year’s Michigan game. OSU is 1-2 away from Ohio Stadium this year and five of the 10 losses the team has during the Tressel era have come outside Columbus.
“Sure, we like to play at home because everything’s familiar,” said OSU senior tailback Maurice Hall. “But that’s no excuse for why we shouldn’t be able to play well on the road. Two years ago, we won all of our games regardless of where we were playing. So I don’t think that will make any difference this week. We’ve been improving a little bit each week for that last couple of games and we just need to continue with that.”
The Spartans present a unique problem for the Buckeyes in that they are so much different than the Michigan State team that lost a 33-23 decision in the Horseshoe last season. For starters, last year’s team was a pass first, second and always type of team with veteran quarterback Jeff Smoker at the controls. As a result, the Spartans threw for 373 yards and two of their three touchdowns. On the ground, MSU accounted for just 5 net yards on 17 carries.
This year, Michigan State features a much more balanced attack, averaging 232.2 yards per game on the ground and 221.0 through the air. The rushing average ranks second in the Big Ten and the passing figure is fifth.
There could be a problem sustaining both attacks, however, with quarterback Drew Stanton expected to be sidelined with a separated shoulder. Stanton went to the sidelines as both the Spartans’ leading rusher and passer, leaving senior Damon Dowdell in charge of the offense. Dowdell started the 2004 season under center for Michigan State, but after losing the opener against Rutgers and being rendered ineffective in the second week against Central Michigan, Stanton replaced him.
Still, Tressel doesn’t expect to see the Spartans change their offense.
“I don’t anticipate them changing their system,” he said. “What they have been using has worked for them and Dowdell seemed to run it pretty well in the second half last week after Stanton went out. We expect that what we have seen on film is mostly what we’ll see on Saturday.”
One big change could come in the backfield behind Dowdell as tailback DeAndrea Cobb filled in and went over the 200-yard mark against the Wolverines. Called by Tressel “a warrior” who plays on all of Michigan State’s special units as well as manning the tailback spot, OSU fans may remember Cobb from last year’s game when he returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.
Another high point for the Spartans is their punting game. Brandon Fields is the Big Ten leader in punting, averaging 48.1 yards per attempt. MSU also utilizes the “rugby style” of punting where Fields typically rolls out a few steps and punts a low, driving kick away from opposing return men. To guard against teams like Ohio State which feature dual punt returners, Fields will simply elect to kick it out of bounds.
“The thing I think about Michigan State is that they have progressed throughout the season,” Tressel said. “We have to continue our progression as well if we expect to be successful on Saturday.”
When asked if he thought his team was catching the Spartans at a perfect time considering their heart-wrenching loss last week, the coach shook his head and replied, “If they weren’t playing Ohio State, maybe. But I’m sure when they looked at their schedule before the season began, they circled an eight-day period with Michigan and Ohio State from Saturday to Saturday. I’d be shocked if we saw anything but their full effort.”
Senior tailback Lydell Ross has been reinstated to play following what amounted to a two-week suspension for an incident at a Columbus nightclub in mid-October. Tressel would not offer an opinion as to how many carries Ross would receive against Michigan State, saying only that he would be in the tailback rotation along with Maurice Hall, Antonio Pittman and Branden Joe.
Last season, Ross rushed for 125 yards against the Spartans, marking the last time he cracked the century mark against a Big Ten opponent. Last year, Ross finished the season with 79 yards against Purdue and 22 against Michigan before totaling 31, 30 and 0 during the Buckeyes’ three-game losing streak against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Meanwhile, it appears quarterback Justin Zwick will be sidelined a third straight week with the shoulder separation he suffered in the Iowa game on Oct. 16. The injury was originally diagnosed as a 2-3 week problem, but Zwick has reportedly not begun to throw a football yet.
“If there was a game today, Justin probably would not play,” Tressel said. “Our plans going into today would be that he’s probably not (going to be available Saturday).”
While Zwick is sidelined, the backup to starter Troy Smith continues to be true freshman Todd Boeckman, but the Buckeyes would like to protect Boeckman’s redshirt season if they can.
Defensive end Jay Richardson (leg) and safety Donte Whitner (ankle) are expected to return to action this week while safety Nate Salley, who missed most of last week’s second half with a bruised shoulder, is also expected back. There was no report on fullback Brandon Schnittker (ankle) but he was listed as the starter on the depth chart. It should be noted he was listed as the starter there last week as well and watched the game on the sidelines in street clothes.
Freshman tight end Rory Nicol (ankle) will likely miss the game, meaning converted offensive lineman R.J. Coleman will continue to see more action behind starter Ryan Hamby.
Hall earned a pair of player-of-the-week honors for his play against Penn State. He was named offensive player of the week after leading the team with 65 yards rushing in the 21-10 victory, and was also named top special teams player after breaking the school’s all-time record for kickoff return yardage.
Cornerback Ashton Youboty was named defensive player of the week, right guard Mike Kne was the offensive lineman of the week and defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock earned the defensive attack force player of the week honors. It was Kne’s third offensive lineman of the week honor in eight games this season, tying him with center Nick Mangold, while Pitcock was attack force player of the week for the third time.
Linebacker Bobby Carpenter had the big hit of the week and scout-teamers of the week were receiver Albert Dukes (offense), defensive back Nick Patterson (defense) and linebacker John Kerr (special teams). Patterson won his third scout team award in the last four weeks.
**Tressel said that he avoided long lines at the polling places and voted absentee this year. “We typically start our day before the polls open and work well past the time when they close, so I had it together enough this year to get an absentee ballot and voted that way,” the coach said. Several polling places in the Columbus area were reporting waits of up to 2-3 hours.
**Michigan native and former OSU linebacker Ryan Miller has been named the honorary captain for the game against Michigan State. Miller, who played with the Buckeyes from 1993-96, is currently a sports reporter for WBNS-TV in Columbus.
**Kickoff for the OSU-Michigan State game will be 12 noon Eastern. ESPN will televise the game with Mark Jones handling play-by-play duties and Bob Davie providing color analysis. The always-knowledgeable Holly Rowe (who is a premium BuckeyeSports.com member, by the way) will be the sideline reporter.
**Next week’s game at Purdue will have a starting time of 3:30 p.m. Eastern. It is scheduled to be part of a unique package that ESPN will put together next week. Stay tuned for details.