The season really flies by, doesn't it? It seems like it was only yesterday that Ohio State was scoring 50 yard touchdowns at will against Virginia Tech, putting the rest of the country on notice that they wouldn't relinquish their title easily.
Flash forward to mid-November, and after a month and a half of
boring games against inferior competition taking care of business, Ohio State stands at 10-0, and in excellent position to repeat as national champions. Though the season hasn't been without it's share of question marks and frustration, the Buckeyes have a lot going for them as they enter their final two games.
Offensive struggles have been the main storyline, making it easy to overlook the dominant defense. The Silver Bullets haven't allowed more than 14 points to an opponent in over a month, including Illinois' meager three point output last Saturday. A fierce pass rush and strong secondary have led one of the best pass defenses in the country, while the run defense has steadily improved. All things considered, it's probably the best defense in Urban Meyer's three-plus seasons in Columbus.
While still stagnant at times, the offense has also improved, and looks smoother with J.T. Barrett at quarterback. Michael Thomas is quietly unguardable, while Jalin Marshall and others have pitched in when called upon. The good news is that they haven't needed to lean on the passing game, as Ezekiel Elliott is playing the best football of his career, which is really saying something. In order to beat their toughest opponent to date, they'll need Elliott, and more.
Michigan State's season has been somewhat of roller coaster. The Spartans early win over Oregon put them near the top of the polls, but was followed up by some less than stellar performances prior to their matchup with Michigan. We all know what happened there, and the Spartans managed to keep themselves alive in the playoff discussion, until their loss a couple of weeks ago to Nebraska (probably) ended that.
They now come to Columbus for the first time since the 2011 debacle, and while most of my predictions are sure to be incorrect, count on Ohio State gaining more than 178 total yards in this one, at least.
These two teams know each other well, and play like it. In fact, since 2012, the Buckeyes hold a slight 90-87 total scoring edge in the three games between the two. Will Saturday hold true to form, or can the Buckeyes break script and run away with this one?
Here are five things to watch for as Ohio State finally kicks off its season:
This isn't so much something to watch for as it is something to appreciate. Saturday will be the last time we see the Ohio State seniors --and probably a sizable amount of underclassmen-- play in Columbus. Their four years (five for a certain Quarterback/H-Back) have produced a legendary run scattered with accomplishments:
- 48-3 record over the past 4 seasons (Those 48 wins are a record for a single class in program history)
- 2014 National Champions
- 2014 Big Ten Champions
- 3 division championships
- 30 consecutive regular season conference wins
- Two, separate 20-plus game winning streaks (Including 23 straight as of now)
- Undefeated (as of now) against Michigan
Yards on 1st down, or else
Given the identity and success of past Spartans teams, it comes as a surprise that Michigan State has struggled so mightily on the ground this season. They rank 108th nationally in Rushing S&P+, and haven't done much successfully on the ground other than in power situations. In particular, they've been unable to run on first down, constantly putting a burden on Connor Cook.
Luckily for them, Cook and the passing game have been up to the challenge. The Spartans rank 3rd nationally in third down S&P+, while also excelling on passing downs. Whatever your opinion is of Cook as an NFL prospect, it's clear that he's delivered under tough circumstances this sesaon. With that being said, Michigan State can't rely on third down success if they expect to win on Saturday .
Though they haven't been #elite on 1st or 3rd downs, Ohio State is still one of the most consistent down by down defenses in the country:
Given what we've seen, as well as the numbers that back it up, It's hard to imagine Michigan State reversing their 1st down struggles against this defense. Cook is very good, but not even he'll be able to save the Spartans if they consistently find themselves in 2nd and long.
Rush it to the limit
While Ezekiel Elliott didn't truly enter the nation's conscience until his playoff performance against Alabama, the junior running back first burst on to the scene against Michigan State last season. Elliott piled up 154 yards on 23 carries, scoring two touchdowns against the stout Spartans defense. His effort not only helped put him on the map, but entered Ohio State into the playoff discussion. Hindsight may be 20/20, but it shouldn't have been a huge surprise.
The 268 yards and 6.5 yards per carry in last year's game were the most given up by Michigan State since....The Buckeyes put up 283 yards and 6.8 per carry in the 2013 Big Ten Championship. In each game, the Buckeyes were able to carve up two very good defenses on the ground. This year's Spartans are by no means bad against the run, but they certainly aren't on the level of their predecessors. Opponents have successfully run, albeit not explosively, and Ohio State shouldn't have a problem replicating that success to a higher degree.
Elliott hasn't had a 30-carry game yet this season, but it wouldn't be a total shock to see him come close to matching last year's 36-carry effort against Oregon. With the additional threat of Barrett --who was an effective runner in last season's game-- Ohio State has a legitimate shot at posting an even better day on the ground than they have in the previous two matchups.
If the majority of that comes from Elliott, it would not only power the Buckeyes to a pivotal win, but could vault him to the top of the Heisman conversation.
It's kind of funny that the most memorable play for Michigan State this year came on special teams, given it's been an Achilles heel for them all season. FEI ranks them as having some of the worst special teams in the country, led by both coverage units.
The Spartans have had serious trouble at times covering both punts and kicks, allowing opponents to gain valuable starting field position, or outright score. Oregon's Bralon Addison and Michigan's Jabrill Peppers were both able to spring free at times, gaining 227 total return yards between the two. While it wouldn't be fair to not point out that their coverage units have improved --especially in punt coverage-- covering kicks has still been a lingering issue.
In Curtis Samuel and Jalin Marshall, Ohio State has two talented returners who have the speed and athleticism to make Michigan State pay, and it's a good bet that at least one of them will have a productive day and shift field position for the offense.
Well, here's what we've all been waiting for. It's hard to complain about 10-0, but it's about time we get to see Ohio State play a team the caliber of Michigan State. They may be 13-point underdogs, with a possibly injured starting quarterback, but the Spartans are without a doubt the best team the Buckeyes have faced up to this point.
Saturday is going to tell us a lot about where Ohio State stands heading into Michigan and possibly beyond. Have they been playing down to competition and waiting for these final two games all season? Is the offense truly good enough to support whats been a great defense? Will Tim Beck not call a quarterback draw on 3rd and 5? We're going to find all of that and more out by the time this game is over.
I do think we'll see Ohio State play it's best game of the season to date. The offense should be able to move the ball on the ground, and explosive plays through the air are going to be there for the taking, provided the offensive line can give Barrett adequate time.
Cook and Michigan State are too good to completely shut down, but the Spartans lack of a running game makes an already tough task even tougher for the visitors. If their prior games are any indicator, 2nd and 3rd and long will be common and the Ohio State defense should be more than comfortable within those confines.
If Ohio State can take care of business like it looks like they should, they may be peaking at just the right time.