COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) They feign indifference and say that they don’t care.
Still, make no mistake about it, the Ohio State Buckeyes hear all of that stuff about not playing good teams and failing when they do. And it makes them angry.
It also makes them particularly cognizant of the importance of Saturday’s game at No. 8 Michigan State.
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”We understand it’s a pretty pivotal game in our season,” defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. ”They’re the highest-ranked opponent we’ve had all year. It kind of is a deciding factor of how this season’s going to go.”
After three years of slogging through mostly overmatched non-conference teams and a weakened Big Ten, No. 13 Ohio State finally is presented with a quality opponent.
The Buckeyes – who just like the Spartans have won six in a row and are 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten – know what a rare opportunity it is for them to impress the rest of the country for a change. In the wake of a 35-21 Sept. 6 home loss to Virginia Tech, they know there won’t be a second chance. They know that if they lose, their claims of being a top team will be hollow.
”With that loss to Virginia Tech, we lost a lot of respect,” Bennett continued. ”But it’s not about making sure that everybody loves us in the country or respects us in the country. It’s about winning games and making sure we have a chance to go where we want to go in the postseason.”
After beating them, the Hokies have gone on to lose five times. If it’s easy to pinpoint the devastation of that loss, it’s also hard to figure out what the Buckeyes’ best win is. A double-overtime squeaker over a Penn State team which has lost four in a row? A 52-24 rout of Big Ten newcomer, three-loss Maryland?
So even though Ohio State has moved up two spots in the second weekly College Football Playoff rankings to No. 14, it’s clear that only a win over the Spartans (No. 8 CFP) will muzzle those who say the Buckeyes subsist on a diet of cream puffs.
”If we win, good things could happen. If we lose, bad things could happen,” offensive tackle Taylor Decker said. ”They’re a top-10 team. We want to play them, we want to beat them, just to show what we’re capable of and show how good of a team we are. Maybe we haven’t been tested. Some people feel that way. It’ll be a good gauge.”
Over Urban Meyer’s more than 2 1/2 years and 34 games as head coach, the Buckeyes have played only seven times against teams ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 – only one rated as high as No. 10. They’re 5-2 heading into their only meeting against a ranked team so far this season.
Meyer bristles when he’s asked about finally playing a team of equal talent. He believes the Buckeyes have played several good teams already. But he also knows that the Spartans, who were 10th-ranked when they shocked the No. 2 and unbeaten Buckeyes 34-24 a year ago in the Big Ten title game, are considered a step above.
”Say what you want about any other teams, any other conferences or whatever, this (Michigan State) team can play at any level, any conference, anywhere,” Meyer said. ”I’d like to think that the Ohio State Buckeyes can, too. This is going to be a big football game.”
It is a contest that, should 3 1/2-point underdog Ohio State win, would not be met with a collective shrug by most observers around the country – as has been the case with the likes of Kent State, Cincinnati and other Buckeyes opponents.
The Buckeyes surely care what others think and say about them; they just try hard not to reveal it.
”We just have to go out there and take care of our business,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. ”Then at the end of the year we’ll let the people decide what they want to think.”
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