Last weekend, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook suffered a shoulder injury against Maryland. It initially seemed serious enough that his status for the Ohio State game was uncertain. But Cook has largely put paid to the rumors that he won't be healthy enough to play against the Buckeyes, and it looks like the Spartans' veteran offensive leader will take the field on Saturday for one last tilt against the team that he seems to enjoy playing against most.
It's probably not surprising that Cook relishes his opportunities to play the Buckeyes. The QB, who has somehow only been in school for four years and not eight, hails from Hinckley Township, Ohio, but he did not receive an offer to play for the state's flagship school. He ended up in East Lansing instead, and the former three-star recruit has certainly done his best to make every school that passed on him regret it, but one would imagine it must feel particularly good to get a chance to take down the school you'd dreamed would offer you but didn't. Cook even went so far as to say that this game -- this one stretch of three or so hours, this one passing afternoon -- was the reason that he passed up a chance at a lucrative NFL contract and returned to school for his final season.
What that means for Ohio State is a whole lot of scheming to prevent the Spartans from picking them apart through the air. Mark Dantonio's team has some talented receivers -- more on them in a minute -- and the offensive know-how to do some damage with them. They won't have it easy against the Buckeyes' world-class secondary, but one of the most intriguing matchups heading into this game involves 2nd-year cornerback Gareon Conley.
Weight: 195 lbs.
Current stat line: 28.0 tackles, 1.0 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 3 pass breakups
The Buckeyes have certainly shared the wealth through the air on defense. They've racked up 10 interceptions as a team, and Conley is tied for first with his two INTs. He has decent size and tackles well, and has actually racked up nearly 10 more tackles than Eli Apple has this season. Part of that, of course, can be explained by just how ridiculous Apple has been in pass coverage so far. To wit:
Eli Apple in coverage 10+ yards downfield: 6 rec allowed on 22 targets, 7 pass breakups (yes, that's more PBUs than receptions allowed)— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) November 17, 2015
The game situation
The stakes for this one couldn't possibly be higher for Ohio State. Defensively, they'll be tasked not only with shutting down Connor Cook, but also the talented corps of receivers he has at his disposal. Far and away the most impressive of this group is senior wideout Aaron Burbridge. Burbridge has put together a monster year, with 1,021 yards on 65 catches so far. He's capped that off with six TDs. At 6'1, 208 pounds, he's no slouch physically, and the task of containing him will likely fall heaviest on Eli Apple's shoulders.
But Conley faces his own daunting matchup in talented senior Macgarrett Kings, Jr. Kings stands just 5'10, meaning he gives up a few inches to Conley, but he's got the hands and moves to make up for his size. That toolkit has paid dividends for him this year, as he's notched five receiving TDs on just 32 catches. He can get to the end zone, and Cook is going to find ways to throw the ball his way -- one out of every five Spartan passes is to Kings.
If Conley can do his best Eli Apple impersonation, the Buckeyes should be all set, no matter how badly Connor Cook lusts for revenge. If not? This could be a wild one from start to finish.
What to watch for
When Cook isn't battling Ohio State's secondary, he's going to have to hand the ball off a time or two. That could be a problem for the Spartans -- not because they lack talented running backs, but because the Buckeyes are on a historic rampage against the run. In the last two games, Ohio State has allowed a combined 53 rushing yards. 53! Across eight full quarters of football! Ezekiel Elliott averages more than that in a half!
Michigan State, in the absence of a clear No. 1 back like Jeremy Langford, has instead gone by committee this year, getting good production from three different guys: Madre London, LJ Scott, and Gerald Holmes. They've combined to score 18 rushing TDs, and both Scott and Holmes average more than five yards per carry. They'll need to shoulder a heavy load to keep some of the heat off of Cook against a ferocious Ohio State front seven. (Seriously, have you watched Joey Bosa play lately?)
On paper, this game looks like it should be a relatively solid win for the Buckeyes. The advanced stats like Ohio State by a full 14.4 points, and Michigan State's defensive numbers don't look quite as fearsome as in years past. It's possible to get an offense humming and score points against a unit that's sorely missing Pat Narduzzi, as evidenced by Nebraska, of all teams, putting up 32 -- errr, 39 -- against them just two weeks ago.
But. This game means a whole lot to a whole lot of people, not least of whom are Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun, who both allegedly returned to school just to get another shot at the Buckeyes. Two years is an eternity in the college football world, and Mark Dantonio is surely itching to add another Ohio State notch to his belt. Michigan State is going to show up to play, and both teams are going to walk out bloodied and bruised.
That said, I think Ohio State's talent advantage is just too much to ignore. Ezekiel Elliott perversely runs his best against the best defenses he faces, so we could be in for another 150+ yard performance from the man that no dress code can stop. J.T. Barrett's legacy couldn't be hurt by another hero-ball performance against the Spartans. And while Urban won't pull out all the stops -- this is still the regular season, after all -- I think we see a much more dynamic, creative offense from the Buckeyes this week. 14 points might be a little generous, but something around 35-24 feels right for this one.