Michigan State not only torpedoed Ohio State’s chances of a repeat national championship, but also won the conference and made the playoff. Oh, they also held the Buckeyes to 132 total yards. My predictions are bad.
On this week’s Hangout in the Holy Land, Matt Brown and I compared playing Michigan State to going to the dentist, and tomorrow should be no different. The Spartans sport a top-10 defense, play physical at every position, and have a just good enough offense to beat you 20-17 and have you wondering what the hell happened afterwards. With the weather projected to be in the mid-30’s, this should be every bit the slugfest that a game with Sparty tends to be.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch tomorrow as Ohio State takes on Michigan State:
Can Ohio State get past the first 20 seconds of the game without giving up a touchdown?
Here’s how long its taken Ohio State’s opponents to score a touchdown the last two weeks:
- Penn State - 14 seconds
- Iowa - 8 seconds
No matter how great you are for the rest of the game, constantly falling behind 7-0 on the first play from scrimmage is a recipe for disaster, and precisely the type of mistake Ohio State can’t afford to make again.
Points are always at a premium against the Spartans, and at this point, an opening drive three and out with a shanked punt would be a fantastic start for Ohio State compared to how they’ve opened games lately.
If we’ve learned anything previous matchups between these two, it’s that this is going to be a close game. In fact, there’s probably no more even matchup in college football this past decade. The Spartans hold a slim 130-128 total points edge over the last six games, with four being decided by three points or less.
Each team has three wins, and the road team has won every regular season game dating back to 2007. It wouldn’t be surprising to see tomorrow’s edition again come down to one play.
The Spartans are the close game connoisseurs their reputation suggests. All six of their Big Ten games this season have been one score affairs, with an average score of 23-20 in favor of MSU.
Can the linebackers and secondary bounce back from the Iowa game?
We’ve finally seen what Ohio State’s defense looks like when the line isn’t dominant.
The results weren’t good.
After almost single-handedly winning the Penn State game, the Buckeyes’ front didn’t do much against Iowa, and it exposed the soft underbelly that is the back seven.
Ohio State’s linebackers and secondary had a rough day, looking lost in both run support and in coverage, helping Iowa to their highest yards per play average (6.9) since they dropped 7.1 on Purdue last season. They’ll face a similar-style attack in Michigan State.
The Spartans throw efficiently (third in Passing S&P+), aren’t very explosive (87th in IsoPPP), and protect their quarterback reasonably well (36th in Adjusted Sack Rate). They also have a quarterback in Brian Lewerke who tends to make the right play, and mostly avoids mistakes. If Ohio State’s defensive line can’t control the game, will the back seven pick them up, or will we see a repeat of last week?
Speaking of which, how about a turnover (or two)?
After forcing 12 turnovers over their first five games, Ohio State’s defense has been almost non-existent on the havoc front for the last month. They’ve forced only one turnover the last three games, with none against both Penn State and Iowa.
Even that lone turnover comes with an asterisk, given that it came on the final play of the Nebraska game, when they were up 56-14. The last time the first team defense forced a turnover? Nick Bosa’s strip sack in the first quarter against Maryland:
Michigan State is a good candidate to reverse that trend. The Spartans have turned it over 15 times this season (80th nationally in giveaways), including seven times over their last four games.
Whether it comes in the form of a strip sack, an interception, or a fluky bounce that goes their way, the defense has to be able to get their hands on the ball somehow and make a game-changing play. If not, we’ll have to hope that the offense can reverse its own turnover problems (six combined turnovers against Penn State and Iowa).
*Yells for the 100th time* WHAT ABOUT J.K. DOBBINS?
Dobbins hasn’t had more than 14 carries in a game since the season opener against Indiana —you know, the one where he set the single-game school record for rushing yards by a freshman— and seems to completely disappear from the gameplan at times, including his perplexing six carry day against Iowa. Ohio State should probably try and remedy that against the Spartans.
Michigan State’s run defense is predictably very good (6th in Rushing S&P+), so it’s hard to expect a huge day on the ground, but Dobbins is not only Ohio State’s best ground option, but really the only big play threat they have.
In a series defined by Ohio State not giving their running backs the damn ball in crucial situations, it’ll be interesting to see whether Dobbins is called on with the game on the line. No matter what the choice is, you better prepare yourself for three-plus hours of being very uncomfortable.