Coming into the season, Ohio State’s matchup with Michigan State was one of the most anticipated games of the year. With storylines aplenty —Ohio State looking for revenge after last year’s loss, and a possible elimination game between Big Ten and playoff contenders— Saturday was supposed to be a marquee showdown between two Big Ten heavyweights. It was also supposed to be the first leg of a brutal season ending back-to-back for the Buckeyes, concluding with Michigan next week. But as college football routinely teaches us, what’s supposed to happen sometimes doesn’t.
After rising to No. 8 in the week four AP Poll, Michigan State cratered, losing their next seven games, before finally beating Rutgers last week
which really shouldn’t count, if we’re being honest. To put in perspective just how crazy the losing streak was, consider that Sparty lost five games total from 2013-2015, with three of those to teams that either played in, or won, the national championship that year.
While a few of this year’s losses are excusable (Wisconsin, Michigan), losses to BYU, Northwestern, Indiana, Maryland (!), and Illinois (!!!!) have to really sting for a program that’s been at the upper crust of college football since 2010. For a number of reasons, they haven’t been able to replicate that success in 2016, and unless they find a way to beat both Ohio State and Penn State —and get outside help— won’t even make a bowl. Not quite the showdown we all envisioned in early August, but the good news is that everything is still on the line for the Buckeyes.
After another dominant win, Ohio State not only appears to be peaking at the right time, but has everything to play for, despite not controlling their own destiny in the Big Ten. So, while tomorrow’s game doesn’t have the appeal it once did, it still stands as another opportunity for the Buckeyes to make their case for the playoff.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch for on Saturday:
From the start
After struggling to open games offensively for the better part of the last two seasons, Ohio State has looked stupendous the past three weeks, scoring touchdowns on each of their opening drives. Behind an efficient J.T. Barrett, a consistent running game, and actually giving Curtis Samuel the ball, they’ve kept defenses off balance, and set the tone for the rest of the game. Another 59 point showing isn’t likely, but starting fast again could at least squash whatever potential upset hopes the Spartans have.
Despite Michigan State’s status as #trash this year, I don’t think you need me to give you a lengthy history lesson on what they’ve done to Ohio State’s championship aspirations in 2013 and 2015, and why this still remains a game to be nervous about, even if it is a mismatch. While it’s still unlikely we see the same result as those games, the last thing the Buckeyes need is to give early hope to a team they should beat comfortably.
With a more consistent passing game, as well as Curtis Samuel’s involvement, Ohio State has seemingly cured the early game woes that hampered them earlier this year, and almost all of 2015. If they’re able to score on Michigan State from the jump, the Buckeyes offense should continue their roll from the previous two games.
Putting in work
One of the most intriguing subplots the past two weeks has been the offense’s continued work on the passing game, even in garbage time. Despite big halftime leads against Nebraska (31-3) and Maryland (45-3), the Buckeyes have come out throwing in each second half, with encouraging results. In the two second halves, JT Barrett went a combined 17-24, for 9.5 yards per attempt with two touchdowns, hitting 10 different receivers in the process. If the Buckeyes get out to another early lead, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the second half work continue.
The Spartans’ pass defense has been kind to opposing offenses, ranking 105th in Passing S&P+, consistently giving up yardage (95th in Passing Success Rate), and having almost no ability to get to the quarterback (100th in Adj. Sack Rate). They’ve done well enough limiting big plays (30th in Passing IsoPPP), but that’s about it. Those numbers would suggest another day of improvement for the Ohio State passing game is likely.
Obviously, this is all for naught if the Buckeyes aren’t able to get in a rhythm and we get a repeat of the 2015 game.
Curtis Samuel does it all
Samuel is no longer the only player in FBS with 500 or more yards both rushing and receiving, but is still having one of the most dynamic offensive seasons in program history. If Ohio State makes the playoff, 1,000 yards in each category is on the table, which is something that’s never been done at the FBS level.
Even if that doesn’t happen, he’s already one of the most explosive players in recent Buckeye history, and is currently in elite company as a receiver. Samuel’s 5.7 catches per game this season is the most for a Buckeye since David Boston’s insane 1998 campaign, in which he averaged just over seven per game. Not bad company, IMO.
Take time to focus in on everything Samuel does, and appreciate his versatility and explosiveness while you can, because he’ll be cashing NFL paychecks this time next year.
You can throw to them?
Humor me for a second. In the same vein as Justin Timberlake’s 2006 declaration to “Bring sexy back,” such has been Marcus Baugh’s on-field declaration to bring the tight end back to the Ohio State passing game.
Despite not putting up eye-popping numbers, Baugh has caught at least one pass in each of the last seven games, and flashed ability that should probably warrant a bigger role in the passing game:
While Ohio State hasn’t utilized tight ends in the passing game frequently since Meyer’s arrival in 2012, Baugh is slowly breaking the mold, and emerging as not only a dependable target for Barrett, but a legitimate playmaker as well, in addition to his already superior blocking. I’ll be interested to see whether he’s even more involved in the passing game on Saturday, especially if Michigan State gets too focused on Samuel.
After the Nebraska game, it felt like Ohio State was beginning to turn a corner. The offense looked as fluid as it had all year, and the defense was back to its usual dominant play. It was almost like the Buckeyes were on the verge of evolving:
Ohio State feels like a level 35 Charmeleon. Good enough to burn you, but if they evolve into Charizard they're definitely going to kill you— Paul Blogba (@Dubsco) November 6, 2016
Pardon me for getting a cheap Pokemon reference in (and posting my own tweet), but after what they’ve done to Nebraska and Maryland the past two weeks, Ohio State has certainly looked like the fire-spitting, ass-kicking team we all expected after the Oklahoma game.
With no #disrespekt intended toward the Michigan State football program, Saturday’s game is fantastic opportunity for the Buckeyes to take another step forward and build their case as the hottest team in the country.
If they’re able to repeat their performances from the prior two weeks, they’ll be in great shape heading into what could be a playoff play-in game next weekend, and in the minds of the playoff committee.