COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A closer look at the critical areas and key players as No. 2 Ohio State takes on No. 10 Michigan State for the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis.
Take it easy: The Buckeyes were clearly amped up emotionally against rival Michigan last week, and they paid a pretty steep price for losing focus when right guard Marcus Hall and hybrid offensive weapon Dontre Wilson were ejected. While Michigan State might not get the blood boiling like the Wolverines, there is even more on the line this week for Ohio State, which could mean even more potential for distraction. Obviously the conference title is up for grabs, but after moving into position to play for the national championship last weekend, the Buckeyes know they control their own destiny for a shot at the crystal football. It could slip away easily against the Spartans, who nearly knocked them off a year ago.
Ride Hyde: For all the emphasis Urban Meyer has placed on balancing out his spread attack this season between the run and the pass, one is clearly more effective than the other. And with Carlos Hyde rolling the way he has since Big Ten play opened, unless Michigan State's top-ranked rushing defense can shut him down, the Buckeyes would be best served handing him the ball as often as possible. It doesn't hurt to have Braxton Miller in the backfield with Hyde, and the two have formed perhaps the best tandem in the country this season. Ohio State has been more dangerous throwing the football this year, and Miller's development as a passer does make the offense more difficult to defend. But the rushing game alone has essentially been unstoppable, and if the Spartans don't have an answer early, Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman would be wise to just keep pounding away on the ground.
Talk it out: When they absolutely had to understand each other on the deciding defensive snap against the Wolverines, the Buckeyes made their voices clear and came up with a season-saving stop. But too often before that, communication breakdowns combined with an overeager, individualistic approach to open up holes on misdirection plays and screens that burned the Buckeyes for big plays. Ohio State will have to stick to the script against the Spartans, because assignment errors get magnified as the stage gets larger and the opponents tougher. And Michigan State has been known to pull a few tricks out of its sleeve.
Downtown Devin: While the rushing attack figures to again get more use, the Buckeyes are almost certainly going to need to mix in some deep shots at some point. Devin Smith has already burned the Spartans once for a game-winning, 63-yard touchdown reception, and Ohio State's best threat down the field really needs to make only one play to loosen up a defense that figures to load up the box against the run. The junior now has 18 career touchdown grabs after adding one last week against Michigan, and they've covered a staggering 39.6 yards per score. With better weather conditions inside at Lucas Oil Stadium than the Buckeyes have seen during a cold, windy November in the Big Ten, Smith could sneak behind the secondary a few times.
Award-winning performance: Ryan Shazier didn't hide from the fact he was motivated by perceived snubs at awards season last year, but he didn't have a chance to make his case in the postseason after the hardware was handed out. The junior came up short in both the linebacker and defensive player of the year categories in the Big Ten earlier this week, and while he's a team-first guy, that could provide a bit of extra fuel for somebody who has already been on epic tear statistically. Shazier led the conference in both tackles and tackles for loss and forced four fumbles this season, and he was going to need to add to those numbers regardless of how the balloting went down last week. But another productive outing from Shazier might make a few voters wish they had a chance to do it over again.