EAST LANSING — Michigan State football‘s defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton pointed out the obvious about Ohio State’s offense.
“They’re very efficient in the pass game, you can say, right?” Hazelton said Tuesday.
Quite an understatement.
The No. 8 Spartans’ struggling pass defense will have plenty of weapons to try and contain as they travel to Columbus, Ohio, to face the No. 4 Buckeyes and quarterback C.J. Stroud on Saturday. Kickoff is at noon on ABC from Ohio Stadium.
Behind Stroud’s Big Ten-leading 337.3 yards per game, which ranks sixth in the Football Bowl Subdivision, OSU leads the nation with 550.4 yards and 46.3 points per game.
“They have some good athletes running around out there, but we have some good athletes running around, too,” Hazelton said. “And as we get back more guys and we can start matching up some people, it’ll be interesting to see how it works out.”
Stroud, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound redshirt freshman, threw for five touchdowns and 361 of the Buckeyes’ 624 total yards in Saturday’s 59-31 home blowout of Purdue. That production mostly was spread among a dangerous trio of receivers — 28 of his 31 completions went to Garrett Wilson (10 catches, 126 yards, three TDs), Chris Olave (nine for 85 and a score) and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (nine for 138 and a score).
Stroud’s 14.19 yards per completion rate ranks 15th in the nation. Like MSU’s Kenneth Walker III, he very well could receive an invite to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
“I think Stroud throws the best ball over the middle, really, and his post,” MSU safety Xavier Henderson said Tuesday. “He does a good dig route, which is a hard throw to make. But he’s pretty accurate when he throws those. I don’t know where they’re more dangerous at, but they’re pretty good at both of them.”
According to elevenwarriors.com, 25 of Stroud’s completed passes against the Boilermakers traveled less than 10 yards in the air, and 232 of the Buckeyes’ receiving yards came after the catch.
“Their offensive line does a good job protecting their quarterback, too, so he doesn’t have to have to move around a whole lot more,” Hazelton said. “We’re hoping we can get him to move some and get off his spot. And if we can do that, and then we’ll see how it works out.”
Defending short and intermediate passes and open-field tackling have been bigger issues for the Spartans than deep balls to receivers getting behind defensive backs. MSU’s linebackers have had problems covering running backs and tight ends all season.
“We just got to make sure that we get to our drops and that we are able to read the quarterback’s eyes, kind of feel things out and make sure we see things,” linebacker Cal Haladay said. “We just gotta see things and recognize stuff as it’s happening.”
Hazelton has used soft coverage with his cornerbacks most of the season, partly, he said, because of the personnel the Spartans have. But it’s also partly due to injuries, and partly due to his philosophy of not allowing deep, explosive passes.
“We never want to give up a big play. I mean, that’s the thing that has been really hurting us,” Hazelton said. “If you go through and you say, ‘Hey, how many yards per attempt and per completion?’ Well, shoot, it’s not as horrible as our total numbers, because we’ve seen so many passes. But it’s also, OK, those things are starting to hurt us. And there’s times you gotta be able to challenge people and times that you can’t.”
However, the Buckeyes arefar from a one-dimensional offense, like Purdue was in throwing for 536 of its 594 yards against MSU in its 40-29 win on Nov. 6.
OSU running back TreVeyon Henderson is second in the nation at 7.34 yards per carry and 18th at 102.8 yards per game, and redshirt freshman Miyan Williams added 117 yards against Purdue to bolster the nation’s 30th-best rushing offense (196.8 yards per game). Wilson also ran for a 51-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep in his return from concussion-type symptoms that kept him out a week earlier against Nebraska.
“It’s like a personal thing, like a competitive thing for each dude in the secondary,” Henderson said. “I challenged dudes today, ‘OK, just compete.’ And that’s what we gotta do on Saturday. We can’t be afraid of what kind of numbers those guys have put up. We gotta get out there and challenge those guys and play aggressive ball. I think that’s when we play our best.”
Haladay wore a brace on his right hand Tuesday instead of the cast he’s played with the past two games. The redshirt freshman said he hurt it during the Michigan game, got it taped up on the sideline and went back in and played with the unspecified injury.
“As soon as the thing comes off, I’m hoping it stays off,” said Haladay, who coach Mel Tucker has complimented for not playing with gloves or any other accessories.
Tucker, who last week said he will not talk about injuries, said Monday there was a plan for kicker Matt Coghlin against Maryland after he did not kick at Purdue. The sixth-year senior only kicked extra points Saturday and did not take kickoffs.
MSU has been dealing with a few key injuries, including left tackle Jarrett Horst, wide receiver Jalen Nailor, cornerback Chuck Brantley and linebacker Quavaris Crouch.
“I told them today that if you can go, give us what you got. If you can’t go, you can’t go and then it’s next man up,” Tucker said. “So whatever your role is, it’s going to be significant. And I told them a day, ‘Listen, if you travel to the game and you’re going, even if you know you’re not gonna go in the game unless a grenade goes off, you still gotta have a positive influence on someone playing in the game.’”
Tucker and his staff gave a number of younger and lesser-used players more reps in Saturday’s 40-21 win over Maryland.
Among them was defensive tackle Derrick Harmon, a 6-5, 330-pound freshman who played late and provided MSU more depth with Simeon Barrow out and after Maverick Hansen was ejected.
“We’ve been giving them reps and he’s been progressing. And actually, we have a lot of confidence to put him in the game,” Tucker said of Harmon. “We’re going to continue to develop him as a player we can use in the rotation. He’s a big man. He’s a massive human being. He’s smart and he’s a worker, and he continues to get better.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football’s plan to slow Ohio State’s Stroud