By MICHAEL MAROT/AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Urban Meyer has No. 2 Ohio State in a seemingly perfect spot.
The Buckeyes are 12-0, have won 24 straight and are likely one win away from making their fourth appearance in the BCS title game. They have a potential Heisman Trophy finalist in Braxton Miller, the first 1,000-yard runner of Meyer’s coaching career in Carlos Hyde, an offensive line that fits with the Ohio State tradition and an underrated defense that makes all the big plays.
This is a team that heads into the Big Ten title game with flaws and questions and down a starting right guard after Meyer benched Marcus Hall on Friday with a Saturday night showdown against No. 10 Michigan State looming.
“He won’t start the game,” Meyer said. “Other than that, we’ll see what happens. But that’s where it’s at.”
It’s the latest twist for a team that has been anything but perfect this season.
Last week, Hall and kick returner Dontre Wilson were ejected after getting involved in a fight with archrival Michigan. Hall responded by throwing his helmet to the ground on the sideline and making an obscene gesture at the Wolverines fans as he walked through the tunnel. On Friday, Meyer said he benched the lineman and will start freshman Pat Elflein.
That’s not all.
The doubters contend Ohio State’s imperfect resume is filled with victories over mostly bad teams and won a conference in which Top 25 matchups have been rare. This year, the Buckeyes faced only two ranked teams – beating usually strong Wisconsin by a TD at home and a Northwestern squad by 10 on the road, a team that never lived up to the ranking. Some say Saturday night’s game will be the biggest challenge of Meyer’s two-year tenure in Columbus.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio doesn’t see things quite the same way.
A year ago, the Spartans (11-1) fell 17-16 to Ohio State in East Lansing, and this year, Dantonio insists the Buckeyes are improved.
“What you see is an extremely productive offensive football team that is capable of a big play at any point in time, at any given moment, from anywhere on the field,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to control that, work through that. … They’re a very well-coached football team with tremendous players with an X-factor, the X-factor being Braxton Miller, quarterback. That’s what makes it so difficult.”
Meyer knows better than anyone things don’t always go according to the script. Twice at Florida, he won national championships with one-loss teams. Twice, he’s finished a season 12-0, at Utah in 2004 and last year with the Buckeyes, and didn’t win a title.
What the Buckeyes have done better than most, though, is improvise.
Miller sprained his left knee in Week 2 and missed the next two games. Watching Kenny Guiton, Meyer said, helped Miller figure out what he had to do better to prepare for games.
Hyde, meanwhile, was suspended for Ohio State’s first three games after allegedly confronting a woman in a Columbus bar. Yet the Buckeyes continued to win.
“Against Wisconsin, I saw some toughness in our defense that I was concerned about,” Meyer said Friday before the Buckeyes held a walkthrough at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. “The offensive line, last year I was concerned about our toughness as an offense. This year, pretty much week in, week out, we’ve shown it. It’s going to be a physical, hard, tough game. We’ll find out if the Buckeyes are a tough team (Saturday) night.”
While Meyer may simply be playing the politically correct game of lowering expectations, but with the stakes getting higher each week, Ohio State has continually found ways to get the job done.
Making a 2-point conversion stop to win last weekend and Alabama’s stunning stumble at Auburn, gave them a shot at a national title, and that’s not something the Buckeyes want to give away now.
It’s enough to keep the light-sleeping Meyer awake a few more hours before Saturday night. Then again, Meyer has seen all this before, with his 2006 national championship winning team at Florida.
“I just remember there were a bunch of close games that (Florida) team won,” Meyer said. “It seemed like every time you heard about that team it was what they couldn’t do, not what they could do. They played with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, so I’m hoping we continue to see that. I think this team does that.
Meyer added: “It’s going to be a physical, hard, tough game. We’ll find out if the Buckeyes are a tough team (Saturday) night.”
Note: Meyer expects middle linebacker Curtis Grant to play against Michigan State. Grant has missed the last three games with a high ankle sprain.