CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It finally gets real for the Ohio State Buckeyes. The figuring-it-out portion of the schedule is over, as the defending national champions did more tinkering than many expected during the first 10 weeks. Ready or not, Ohio State's quest to repeat truly begins this week against Michigan State.
So how ready are these Buckeyes? How close are they to recapturing the championship form that last year propelled them to Indianapolis, New Orleans and, finally, to Arlington, Texas?
"We’re close, we’re really close, especially defensively," defensive tackle Tommy Schutt said following Saturday's 28-3 win at Illinois. "Things are starting to click."
Few would argue Ohio State's defense enters this season-defining stretch with momentum. The Buckeyes have allowed just 34 points in their last four games and 53 rushing yards in their last two. They matched their season high with 11 tackles for loss against Illinois and recorded their sixth game with three or more sacks. They face a Michigan State team that, despite multiple injuries along its offensive line, has allowed just 13 sacks in 10 games.
But it always comes back to the offense with this Ohio State team. The expectations, whether unrealistic or fully understandable, have yet to be met. Despite Ezekiel Elliott's season-long brilliance, the Buckeyes often have looked disjointed as they've sought clarity at the quarterback position. They will go forward with J.T. Barrett, who returned from a one-game suspension and had a decent day against Illinois, passing for 150 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 74 yards and a touchdown. He threw an interception, but only after his arm was hit as he released the ball, evidence of the pressure Illinois steadily applied.
Ohio State rushed for 283 yards on 50 attempts but scored only seven points in the first 29 minutes. After the Buckeyes took a 7-0 lead, four of their next five possessions resulted in a punt or a fumble, and of those four none spanned more than 15 yards.
Barrett noted that teams don't need to be at their best until the end of the season. But Ohio State, more than any other team last season, peaked at the perfect time. So are these Buckeyes close?
"Hmmm, no, I don't think so," Barrett said. "At Ohio State, we're very critical on ourselves. We have some stuff we can get better [at] on both sides of the ball."
For the offense, it's pass protection and creating a better run-pass balance. Ohio State has allowed only 15 sacks, a respectable number, although Minnesota collected four on Nov. 7 and Illinois made Barrett uncomfortable with pressure Saturday. The Buckeyes have surrendered at least six tackles for loss in all six Big Ten games.
Coach Urban Meyer has full faith in The Slobs -- "With what’s coming down the road, if I can’t trust the offensive line, we’ve got a major problem," he said -- but identified pass protection as the lone drawback in the Illinois win.
"I'd put it more on the protection right now than the actual throw-and-catch part," Meyer said. "We're throwing it pretty accurately. It's just the pressures."
The good news: Barrett had arguably his best game as a Buckeye last year at Michigan State, lighting up a nationally ranked Spartans defense for five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing), 300 passing yards and 86 rushing yards. He'll also face a surprisingly ordinary Michigan State defense, especially a secondary picked on much of the season by opponents with far less talent than Ohio State.
The potentially troublesome news: Michigan State's defensive line poses a significant challenge. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun (8.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, 11 tackles for loss) is a proven pass-rushing threat, while tackle Malik McDowell (3.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries, 10.5 tackles for loss) and several blitzing linebackers add to the arsenal.
"J.T.’s a shorter quarterback, he needs to slide into windows, and when there’s a lot going on in front of him, he has to move a lot to see those windows," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "That's just something we’re going to have to deal with. We’re going to have to hold up and keep the width and the depth of the pocket for him to stand in and make throws."
Elliott and the ground game remains the focus of the offense, which has logged 44 or more rushes in each of the past five games (Ohio State had more than 25 pass attempts just once in the span). But Meyer and Decker both noted that more passing is a must against stronger opponents like Michigan State and Michigan. The Buckeyes boast a complete receiver in Michael Thomas and explosive threats like Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller, a non-factor against Illinois. They undoubtedly miss Devin Smith's downfield presence.
Meyer seemed optimistic about the Illinois performance, but he and his players agreed that a similar output might not be enough against Michigan State. The Buckeyes recognize what's coming. They've also been here before.
"It seems like we step up in big games the past couple years," Schutt said. "That’s kind of how we go about our business.
"In big games, we play big."