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If Ohio State’s secondary contains R.J. Shelton, Michigan State won’t even keep it close

The Buckeyes could blow the doors off the Spartans on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, the Ohio State-Michigan State matchup has been one of prestige, the kind of game that plays in primetime on national television and evokes both pride and pain for fans of both teams. Braxton Miller, not Carlos Hyde, on fourth-and-short. J.T. Barrett’s coming-out party. Oh sweet Jesus why aren’t they feeding Zeke. You know, things of that nature.

But if you’ve followed college football even a little bit this season, you’re probably aware of a good many things. One of those things is that the Ohio State-Michigan State game this weekend will almost certainly be lopsided, and it will almost certainly not hinge upon the defensive performance of a single player. The Buckeyes are 9-1, with playoff hopes still burgeoning; the Spartans are 3-7, with losses to (among others) Wisconsin, Indiana, Northwestern, and Maryland. Ohio State beat all four of those teams already, including a 62-3 shellacking of Maryland that showed the full extent of the Buckeye Death Star’s power.

All of this is to say that this profile is not one of the man who is going to single-handedly clinch victory for Ohio State on Saturday. But it does offer us a look at one of the only marquee positional matchups we might see in East Lansing this weekend.

The stats

Name: Marshon Lattimore

Number: 2

Position: Cornerback

Year: Sophomore

Height: 6’0

Weight: 192 lbs.

Line: 26.5 tackles, 4 interceptions, 9 passes broken up

Marshon Lattimore has been one of the most consistently effective playmakers on Ohio State’s defense in 2016. He’s a fast, physical corner with excellent coverage skills and a nose for getting his hands on the ball. As my colleague Ian Hartitz has pointed out:

We often see questionable pass interference calls down the field because the cornerback never attempted to make a play on the ball. Fortunately for Ohio State, their entire secondary thinks any pass thrown in their general proximity is theirs, so refs have allowed them to be more physical at the point of the catch since they’re often going for the ball. Few in the country have done this better than Lattimore this season.

Given his physicality and his ability to break passes up with the best of them, Lattimore’s skill set is an invaluable one. That’s good news for the Buckeyes, because this weekend’s opponent features at least one pass-catcher who can make defenses pay for their mistakes.

Opposition research

It’s been an ugly season for Michigan State as a whole, but senior wide receiver R.J. Shelton hasn’t suffered much. He’s put together a tidy stat line, racking up five touchdowns on 47 catches, good for 710 yards overall. His catch rate is 67.1% (about one point better than Noah Brown’s); his success rate, meanwhile, is an even 50%. (Success is here defined as gaining 50% of needed yardage on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th downs.)

That’s a good numerical profile for a player who’s dealing with a program in chaos and a stable of injured and ineffective QBs who have rotated all season. Shelton’s been the offense’s most reliable contributor, a mover-of-chains who’s good for the occasional explosive downfield play. If recent history is any indicator, the Buckeyes might struggle to keep the ball out of his hands, especially on first-half drives.

One other name to know: tight end Josiah Price. Price has hauled in 30 of his 38 targets this season, scoring touchdowns on five of those plays. His success rate is also higher than Shelton’s (though his targets aren’t comparable, as Shelton’s seen 70). If you can bring yourself to relive the Penn State game or the Wisconsin game, you’ll recall that the Buckeyes struggled mightily to contain tight ends leaking out into the second level for solid yardage. Containing Price will fall more on the Buckeye linebackers and safeties than on Lattimore, but it’s a threat that bears watching.

What to watch for

It’s hard to find an awful lot of fault with the total body of work of Ohio State’s pass defense this season. One thing that does stand out is that the Buckeyes get measurably worse on 3rd downs: dropping from 6th and 2nd nationally on 1st and 2nd downs, respectively, to 25th on 3rd down. That lines up with one of the only other troubling statistics to be found on the Buckeyes’ résumé: their No. 105 national ranking in explosive pass plays allowed. Greg Schiano’s pass defense bends and bends and almost never breaks, but on the rare occasions that it does, it does so in the oh-my-god-the-dam-ruptured-and-the-whole-town-is-drowning kind of way.

Still, there’s obviously a lot to love about the Buckeye secondary, and Lattimore in particular. Look at how beautifully and precisely he gets up to defend what would’ve been another of those explosive downfield pass plays against Penn State here:

Like we’ve said, Lattimore’s ball skills are great; if he ends up without safety help over the top against Shelton (or No. 2 wideout Donnie Corley), you’ve got to like his odds to make a play on it.

You shouldn’t sleep on Lattimore and the other members of the Buckeye secondary when it comes to run support, either. Their superior speed allows them the chance to adjust quickly defend the pass or the run, whether they’re in their preferred press-quarters scheme or otherwise. At the bottom of the video box, you’ll see Lattimore a step behind DE Sam Hubbard, in perfect position to make a play on the ball should the running back escape. (As it happened, LB Chris Worley—no slouch himself—didn’t need any help to wreck the play in the backfield.)

Run or pass, Marshon Lattimore is becoming a force to be reckoned with in college football. The Buckeyes need to take care of business for the next two weeks to have a prayer at the college football playoff. If they get there, Lattimore will be no small part of the reason why.