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Beginning with MSU, every game is a playoff game for Ohio State

Ok, the Buckeyes may actually be heading in to their 11th game of the season. But here's where things really get interesting.

Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Ohio State has been challenged plenty this season, but it's not stretch to say that the real meat of the season starts now. Beginning with ninth-ranked Michigan State, the Buckeyes will play another top-15 Michigan team and then potentially a top-10(five?) ranked Iowa in the Big Ten Championship, assuming all goes well over the next two game stretch.

Vegas has consistently set the line too high for the Buckeyes to the cover this season, but consistently underwhelming performances haven't budged Vegas's opinion of Ohio State. So when you see the 13-point line for Ohio State, it seems like they're almost begging you to bet on Ohio State to be a two-touchdown winner, even if the Buckeyes have struggled to cover this season.

The reason why that matters is that either 1. Vegas has some inability to match expectations with reality and readjust from preseason expectations, or 2. Ohio State hasn't covered the spread but is due for a turnaround -- not meeting the spread isn't an indication of the team's strength.

Plenty of Zeke and some deep passes

OSU Offense MSU Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.31 40 1.24 64 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 47.8% 17 39.9% 57 40.3%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.5 7 727.3 24 29.8
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.13 35 4.29 40 4.65
OSU Offense MSU Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Rushing S&P+ 124.9 7 111.4 33 100.0
Passing S&P+ 121.6 21 118.9 20 100.0

  • Have you missed the explosive passing game? Would you like to see Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall more involved in the offensive game plan? This might be the game for you. Despite losing Pat Narduzzi to Pitt, the Spartans defense has a lot of continuity from last season in terms of strategy and design. And with that cover-4 comes a reliance on your cornerbacks. While the Spartans have been good overall in pass defense -- after all, that's a top-20 S&P+ unit -- the Secondary is 93rd in passing IsoPPP. That's an unadjusted stat, but nevertheless is indicative of the Buckeyes likely game plan through the air. Michael Thomas is one of the best receivers in the country at winning one-on-one matchups. His ball skills combined with deep threats from Braxton and Jalin should lead to a few more explosive plays than we've seen over the last few weeks. The overall explosive passes haven't dropped off too much week-to-week despite the instability at quarterback and receiver, but explosive passes haven't always led to touchdowns. Don't get me wrong -- chunk pass plays are very useful, but with the Buckeyes' sporadic red zone issues, a scoring explosive pass play is extremely important. It's reasonable to expect Ohio State to come out slinging it.
  • The Spartans are terrible in the third quarter. After averaging 17th in defensive S&P+ in the first half, they fall to 97th in the third quarter. Ohio State, on the other hand, is worst at the beginning of games, ranking 33rd in the first quarter in offensive S&P+. It will likely be close at half time -- but expect the third quarter to be good for Ohio State.
  • In general, teams are balanced between the run and pass on standard downs versus Michigan State, then throw the ball on passing downs. That's a pretty fair statement against the majority of defenses, but even moreso against the Spartans. Opposing offenses pass on 74% of passing downs, which is 116th in the country in opponents' passing downs run rate. The reason is that it just works. The Spartans may be 20th in overall passing S&P+, but they are 64th in passing downs S&P+. That could translate to more carries for Zeke/Braxton/J.T. on standard downs and explosive passing on third down.
  • The Michigan State run defense is interesting. 33rd overall behind a strong defensive line, the Spartans are much better at preventing explosive runs (17th) than allowing consistently efficient carries (78th). That's a huge disparity and almost the opposite of how the Spartans defense is against the pass. Further, the Spartans' line isn't excellent according to adjusted line yards (12th), but poor considering the percentage of opposing runs that equal at least five yards (63rd). Why is that? My guess is that the Spartans stuff a large percentage of opposing runs for a loss or no gain (13th in stuff rate), but allow a decent number of non-stuffed runs to go for at least five yards (around 38%), though few of those runs go for fifteen yards or more. That suggests that, like the rest of Zeke's year-to-date, that we could be in for a good number of 6-9 yard runs.
  • About the Spartans' red zone defense -- the good news is that they're ranked worse than Ohio State's offense is as far as average points allowed wihtin the 40-yard line. Ohio State has been far from consistent in the red zone, but hopefully J.T. and Zeke (and a poor defensive rushing success rate for the Spartans) will help any play calling issues the Buckeyes have and allow Ohio State to maximize their scoring opportunities.

Clear and present danger: Big plays from Connor Cook

MSU Offense OSU Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.31 37 1.27 75 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 42.1% 62 30.9% 4 40.3%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 32.9 18 24.9 1 29.8
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.22 26 3.63 10 4.65
MSU Offense OSU Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Rushing S&P+ 90.3 108 118.6 18 100.0
Passing S&P+ 110.2 42 141.0 3 100.0

  • Connor Cook is a good quarterback. In fact, the numbers suggest that he's pretty much the Spartans' offense best (only?) hope. Going by things like quarterback rating, Cook is the 35th-ranked quarterback. In yards per game, he's 33rd. Yards per attempt, he's 34th. He's almost assuredly the most technically proficient quarterback the Buckeyes will see during the regular season. And there's no question that the Spartans offense relies on Cook more than most other offenses. Cook leads the 42nd-ranked passing S&P+ offense. He is rarely sacked (3.7% sack rate and 28th in adjusted sack rate) and rarely throws interceptions. So big plays are likely not a large part of the defensive game plan. It will likely be more about bending without breaking -- not allowing too many big passes while limiting his passing efficiency.
  • The good news is that at least in passing efficiency, the Buckeyes are almost unparalleled in college football. Nearly every quarterback the Buckeyes face completes less than 50% of his passes. It's explosive pass defense that is the issue. While Michigan State's defense has a poor split between defensive passing efficiency and explosiveness (39th and 93rd), the Buckeyes' is far more dramatic (1st and 99th). So that means that Ohio State has to stop Aaron Burbridge. The senior has kind of come out of nowhere for the Spartans to lead the team with over a third of all receiving targets (36%) and more yards than the next three-leading Spartans receivers combined. He also leads the top receivers in yards per catch too (15.7). Pressuring Cook -- at least in QB hurries, if not necessarily sacks -- and locking down Burbridge are the priorities for the Ohio State defense.
  • That's because, in large part, the Spartans don't really have a run game. Michigan State is 108th in rushing S&P+. The freshman duo of LJ Scott and Madre London have low opportunity rates (37% and 29%) and aren't particularly explosive, either. While they had some big runs against Oregon, they have struggled to break free with any consistency. The Spartans' offensive line is frequently beaten on the ground for losses (103rd in stuff rate) and so London and Scott rarely pick up five-yard gains (110th). Expect a lot of Joey Bosa and others stuffing runs. If you see a lot of tackles for loss early on without stacking the box, I don't think the Spartans can be effective in the passing game with Buckeye defenders freed up to focus on their primary wide out.