- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ohio State receiver Corey "Philly" Brown didn't play in last year's game against Michigan State because of an injury. But he suffered along from the sidelines during the 10-7 loss.
"It was really frustrating," Brown recalled to ESPN.com. "Our offense just couldn't get anything going on."
Offensive struggles were common for last year's Ohio State team, but never more so in that loss to the Spartans in which they were sacked nine times and nearly got shut out at home. Flash-forward a year, and many things have changed for the Buckeyes. Under Urban Meyer, they're averaging 37.8 points per game. Braxton Miller is a much more confident and explosive player at quarterback than he was as a wide-eyed freshman against Michigan State last season.
Still, beneath some good stats lie some concerns for Ohio State as it prepares to take on the Spartans' stout defense again. The offense has a tendency to go dormant for long stretches. The passing game remains inconsistent. And the team is heavily reliant on Miller's individual gifts.
Asked this week how close his offense is to being the diverse attack he wants, Meyer answered, "I don't think it's very close yet. At times, we've shown glimpses, but we've got to have more confidence to spread the ball around a little bit."
At least the receivers have made progress from the offseason, when Meyer criticized their past production and practice performance. Brown (20 catches for 223 yards) and Devin Smith (17 for 272) have already exceeded their reception totals for last year. Smith has become the big-play target, while Brown is a reliable possession guy.
"We've come a long way from the spring until now, and you can see a big difference in the way we have played," Smith said. "We got tired of the way people were talking about us and saying we were not good. We had to make a quick change, and now the whole world sees that Ohio State has receivers who can make plays."
Receiver/tight end Jake Stoneburner has had his moments, with two touchdown catches against California two weeks ago and a big role in the blocking scheme last week versus UAB.
"I think they're still trying to figure out how to use me," Stoneburner said. "But I think it's working out pretty well so far."
Ohio State ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing at 229 yards per game but really hasn't had a full deck to work with because of injuries, first to Jordan Hall (foot) and then to Carlos Hyde (knee). Hyde is expected back this weekend, giving the Buckeyes both running backs for the first time this season. Hyde is a force inside the tackles, while Hall can stretch the defense on the edges.
But Michigan State has one of the top rushing defenses in the country. Meyer says the Buckeyes will have to make plays downfield in the passing game this week and going forward, since opponents have started loading the box to try to slow down Miller. That puts even more pressure on the receivers to come through.
"We've got a lot of guys in our [receivers] room that can stretch the field, go up and make the big play," Brown said. "I feel like if we take our shots, any of our wideouts can make the play."
They will have to do so against arguably the best secondary in the conference, led by corners Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. And Miller, for all his heroics this year, will need to have his best day throwing the ball into tight quarters. Maybe most importantly, the Buckeyes will have to avoid backing themselves up with penalties and other mistakes that have kept this offense from truly taking off so far.
"It seems like every week we're fixing stuff here but then making some mistakes there," center Corey Linsley said. "If we can just put it all together ..."
They might just have to do so Saturday to avoid more frustration against Michigan State.
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