COLUMBUS, Ohio -- So it has come to this for Ohio State: Michigan State defensive players felt disappointed to let the Buckeyes score at home.
The Spartans were 10 seconds away Saturday from recording the first shutout by a visiting team since 1982. Deep down, they knew they let that piece of history get away.
"It hurts a little bit," safety Trenton Robinson said. "We were so close to doing it. Personally, I missed a tackle on that last play, and I'm going to have to make up for it next week."
Used to be, other teams felt lucky to score themselves when coming into Ohio Stadium. And Michigan State didn't do a lot of that on Saturday, reaching the end zone only once in a 10-7 eyesore of a victory. Truthfully, though, this game was far more lopsided than the final score and exposed just how many problems the Buckeyes have on offense, while justifying the No. 1 defensive ranking the Spartans brought into the game.
Ohio State is one-dimensionally dysfunctional, and Michigan State's coaches knew it. They felt comfortable bringing pressure up the middle all day long, confident that there wasn't much freshman quarterback Braxton Miller could do about it.
"We knew that because they have a couple of inexperienced quarterbacks, they can only run a certain amount of plays," Spartans defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said.
In fact, the Buckeyes' offensive playbook on Saturday looked like about as thick as a take-out menu. In the first three quarters, they attempted one pass on first down, stubbornly sticking to a predictable running game even on first-and-15 at one point. Of course, that one pass resulted in a Miller interception. He completed only five passes before being pulled in the fourth quarter, meaning Ohio State's starting quarterbacks now have a total of 12 completions their past three games combined.
So Mark Dantiono blitzed and blitzed again until his team had nine sacks and 13 tackles for loss. At one point, Worthy met Miller as soon as he received the snap and took him to the turf. Miller couldn't even use his elusiveness to make plays because, as Dantonio said, "we put a fence around him."
"I love going against a young quarterback -- we all do," Robinson said. "You start bringing all that pressure, and their eyes get huge. We knew what was coming the whole game."
This Michigan State defense is legitimate, and it will only get better if young players like sophomore William Gholston keep improving. The 6-foot-7 former highly-recruited defensive end had arguably his best game yet, with a sack, three tackles in the backfield and numerous hurries. Dantonio called him dominant, and Gholston said he felt as comfortable as he was in high school.
That defense can keep the Spartans in Big Ten contention all season long, but they'll have to play more cleanly on offense. Though Dantonio praised quarterback Kirk Cousins, the fifth-year senior misfired on a few key throws, tossed two interceptions and lost a fumble late in the first half when the ball just slipped out of his hands. Fittingly in a game like this, Cousins admitted that his team's only touchdown of the day -- a 33-yard pass to B.J. Cunningham -- came off a broken play where Cousins just threw it up in hopes Cunningham could make a play.
And yet, Ohio State would love to have a playmaker like Cunningham, who grew up in nearby Westerville, Ohio. The four suspended players from the tattoo scandal return next week, including three frontline offensive starters. But even then, Luke Fickell will be hard-pressed to fix a broken, unimaginative offense led by a shaky quarterback.
Miller was benched in favor of former starter Joe Bauserman in the fourth quarter, and Bauserman threw for 87 of the team's lousy 187 total yards, including the late embarrassment-saving touchdown. He also showed the same lack of mobility and inaccuracy that got him benched after the Miami game. Fickell insisted after the game that Miller remains his starter.
The Buckeyes players are young and talented enough to make you think they'll get better, especially with Dan Herron and DeVier Posey working back into the mix. Problem is, that improvement must come in games at Nebraska, at Illinois and against Wisconsin before October ends.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," Fickell said. "And we knew today wasn't going to be easy. And we've talked about it from the get‑go that we're going to have to get better each and every week. If we don't, things won't be well."
Things look much better in East Lansing after Michigan State got its first win in Columbus since 1998. Dantonio got his first victory over the team he used to coach, beating the only Big Ten club he's faced that he'd yet to master. For the 24 players from Ohio, many of whom felt they weren't recruited hard enough by Ohio State, nothing could be sweeter. In a Friday night meeting, Cousins urged the Ohio natives to lead the way with their passion "if they ever wanted to walk the streets at home again."
"Whether Ohio State is No. 1 or not, to go on the road and win here, for us and our coaching staff, it's a big deal," Robinson said.
Just maybe not as big of a deal as it used to be.