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COLUMBUS, Ohio - In Ohio State's first four games, opposing offenses tried to spread the field in hopes of creating mismatch problems agains the Buckeyes' defense and their inexperienced linebacking corps. And while none of the four teams were ultimately able to pick up wins against OSU, they each for varying degrees while attempting to isolate the Buckeyes' defenders with more skillful ball-carriers.
That shouldn't be a problem this week, but just because the Buckeyes will be facing an offensive attack unlike any that they've seen this season, that doesn't mean it will be one that they're unfamiliar with when they take the field against Michigan State this Saturday.
Coached by Mark Dantonio- a disciple of Jim Tressel- the Spartans run a power, run-based offense that's not much different than the one that the former Ohio State head coach ran when Dantonio was his defensive coordinator in Columbus.
"They run a lot of powers, a lot of lead zone plays and stuff like that, so they definitely like to pound the ball," OSU linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "That's similar to Coach Tressel."
In their first four games this season, the Buckeyes have surrendered an average of 394 yards per game to opponents- ranking OSU 71st in the nation in total defense. But when you consider that the Buckeyes rank 33rd in rushing defense, giving up 117 yards per game on the ground, it's possible that the Spartans' offense is one that the OSU defense is best equipped to face.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer agrees.
"I think our defense is kind of built for this," Meyer said. "It's not built for sideline to sideline thinking dunks."
Stopping the Spartans, however, will be easier said than done. Having lost a quartet of NFL draft picks in Kirk Cousins, B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, and Edwin Baker, Dantonio has put the hopes of his offense in the hands of running back Le'Veon Bell, who has emerged as an early season Heisman Trophy candidate.
A native of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Bell burst onto the scene in the Spartans' season-opening win over Boise State, rushing for 210 yards, two touchdowns, and gaining 55 yards on six receptions against the Broncos. After gaining 70 yards against Central Michigan and 77 against Notre Dame, the 6-foot-2, 244-pound bruiser put up 253 yards on 36 carries in the Spartans' win over Eastern Michigan last week.
Meyer is well aware that his team can't allow Bell to enjoy a similar performance this Saturday.
"If it turns into a 200 yard rushing day where they just lock you into next week, then we're going to lose the game," Meyer said. "That is a huge concern. That is the concern on that side of the ball."
The OSU coach compared Bell as a runner to former Heisman Trophy winner and Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne. That could be an issue for the Buckeyes' defense, which has had trouble bringing opposing ball-carriers to the ground on a consistent basis in recent weeks.
Sabino said that he thought that the OSU defense looked improved in its most recent game against UAB, but that it's still not where it needs to be as a unit.
"We still had too many missed tackles, but I think we did a better job leveraging the football and eliminating the big plays," Sabino said. "We still gotta do a better job of tackling."
If the Buckeyes are looking for tips on how to bring Bell to the ground on Saturday, they may want to turn to a member of their own offense.
"I played against him twice in high school," OSU fullback and former Pickerington linebacker Zach Boren said. "I tackled him. He's a great player, he's a powerful runner, I think he's kind of stayed true to himself from high school to college."
Sabino, however, thinks that the Buckeyes' defense already has a good grasp on how to stop Bell from running wild for a third time this season.
"A big back like that is hard to bring down if he gets moving, so you have to stop him before he gets going," Sabino said. "He's jumped over guys, he's spun on guys, he's a good player."
Whether the Buckeyes can do that or not remains to be seen, their matchup with Bell and the Spartans should tell them a lot about themselves heading into the remainder of conference play.
"I can't wait, it should be a good challenge for our defense," Sabino said. "He's a good running back and it should be a good way to start off Big Ten play."
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