The College Football Playoff might be off the table for Ohio State after last week’s 55-24 loss to Iowa, but the Buckeyes are still in the driver’s seat to win the Big Ten East and play in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis next month. If the Buckeyes win their last three games, they’ll take home the Big Ten East crown, and make their third appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game.
If Ohio State was going to have to rebound from such an embarrassing loss, there might not be a worse team for them to have to square off with than Michigan State. The Buckeyes and Spartans have alternated wins and losses in the past six meetings, with Ohio State narrowly squeaking out a 17-16 last November in East Lansing. There is usually plenty at stake when the schools play, with six of the last eight meetings seeing both teams ranked inside the AP Top 20.
Big Ten losses for Ohio State are rare under Urban Meyer, with last week’s loss to Iowa being just the third conference loss Meyer has suffered during the regular season as head coach of the Buckeyes. Now, Ohio State will be hosting Michigan State, who beat the Buckeyes 17-14 in Columbus in 2015, which is still the only regular season conference home loss Meyer has suffered as Ohio State head coach.
Michigan State comes into Saturday’s game with some confidence after a wild win over Penn State last week. Not only did the Spartans and Nittany Lions have to endure a lengthy weather delay in soggy East Lansing, but Michigan State was able to win in dramatic fashion. Matt Coghlin’s field goal as time expired gave the Spartans the upset victory, and sent Penn State back to State College with their second consecutive loss.
Had it not being for a 39-31 loss in triple overtime to Northwestern the week before, Michigan State might be sitting atop the Big Ten East standings right now. With each team having one conference loss so far this year, the Buckeyes and Spartans are tied for the division lead. This game takes on even more importance than normal, as the winner will control their own destiny in the division.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
In Dobbins we trust. If Ohio State wants to set the tone for the future, they need to focus more energy on getting the football to freshman J.K. Dobbins. The running back has rushed for 914 yards this season, putting him on the verge of being just the fourth Ohio State freshman to rush for 1,000 yards in his first year in Columbus.
Not saying it would have dramatically changed the result, but Dobbins only getting six carries last week is inexcusable. There seems to be a theme in Ohio State’s losses under Urban Meyer, where talented running backs are criminally underutilized. In 2015 in the loss to Michigan State, Ezekiel Elliott only saw 12 carries in the loss to the Spartans. Last year in the loss to Penn State, Curtis Samuel carried the football just twice.
Ohio State is 20th in the country with 235.3 yards per game on the ground, and in games where they have been success, the Buckeyes give the running game some time to grow with Dobbins and Mike Weber. The Buckeyes get into trouble when they rely too much on the arm and legs of J.T. Barrett. While the senior quarterback is more than capable of making plays with both, it has come at the expense of a running back who is averaging 7.7 yards per carry this year, which is the most among freshmen in the country.
Bouncing back. One of Urban Meyer’s strengths as a head coach is his teams bounce back quickly after losses. In his 16 seasons as a head coach, there have only been four times where Meyer’s teams lost consecutive games. The only time at Ohio State where Meyer’s teams have lost back-to-back games came at the end of the 2013 season, when Ohio State lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and then lost to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Earlier this year, Ohio State didn’t have much time to regroup after the loss to Oklahoma at home. While Michigan State is a lot tougher opponent than Army, the Buckeyes at least have some experience dealing with adversity. The loss to Iowa last week should get Ohio State focused on some of the things that worked during the six-game winning streak they were on before the loss to the Hawkeyes.
At least Ohio State does have a carrot still dangling in front of them even though the College Football Playoff looks like it no longer is a possibility. The lure of another Big Ten title should be enough to get this talented Buckeye team amped up. If Ohio State is able to win their last three games, along with the Big Ten Championship Game, they’ll still be able to play in one of the high-profile New Year’s Six bowl games.
Bone to pick. After being thoroughly dominated last week against Iowa, the Ohio State defensive line has to come into this game angry. Not only did sophomore Nick Bosa get ejected in the first half of the loss due to a targeting call by the officials, but the defensive line was largely non-existent the whole game.
If Ohio State is going to get back to the successes they saw last season, as well as earlier this year, they need the defensive line to play angry. After hearing doubts about their performance following the Iowa game, you’ll likely see a lot stronger performance out of the talented group.
Turnovers have been a problem for Ohio State this year, since the defense isn’t forcing them at the rate that they were last season. The Buckeyes are going to need Bosa, Sam Hubbard, and the rest of the defensive line to put pressure on Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke and force him into some bad throws. If the Buckeyes can get consistent early pressure from the defensive line, it could loosen the rest of the defense up and allow them to make some plays.
Michigan State’s biggest advantages
Hot fire. Right now the hottest quarterback in the country is Michigan State’s sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke. After throwing for more than 200 yards in just three of Michigan State’s first seven games, Lewerke became just the third Big Ten quarterback to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games in the past 20 years. Prior to Lewerke accomplishing the feat, the only other Big Ten quarterbacks to do so were Purdue’s Drew Brees and Northwestern’s C.J. Bacher. The 445 yards Lewerke threw for in the triple overtime loss to Northwestern two weeks ago set a school record.
Junior wide receiver Felton Davis III has emerged as Lewerke’s favorite target. After hauling in just 25 catches through the first seven games of the season, Davis has caught 20 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns over the past three games. Freshman Cody White has also gained some of Lewerke’s trust after hauling in nine catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern.
Last week Iowa quarterback Nathan Stanley threw for five touchdowns against the Buckeyes, and earlier in the season Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield carved up the Ohio State secondary. Unless Ohio State gets some more production in the secondary from defensive backs Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield, it could be another long day for the Buckeyes as they try to slow down Lewerke and the improving Michigan State passing attack.
We are Spartans. While Michigan State’s offense and Lewerke have gotten most of the headlines the last few weeks, the Spartan defense is what has carried them for most of the season. Michigan State’s rush defense is averaging just 87 yards per game, which not only ranks first in the Big Ten, but also is one of the best groups against the run in the country. This week the Spartans will face a tough test against J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber.
Linebacker Joe Bachie is the leader of the Michigan State defense. The Cleveland native has registered 77 tackles, which leads Michigan State, and is fifth in the Big Ten. The sophomore has also registered 7.5 tackles for loss, which ranks second among Michigan State defensive players. Leading the Spartans with five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss is sophomore defensive end Kenny Willekes.
Michigan State has been able to have so much success on defense because they are great at limiting the big play from opponents. The Spartans have allowed just 32 plays of more than 20 yards this season. Ohio State, who has had 57 plays on offense go for more than 20 yards, likely will struggle to find the explosive plays they are used to against a Michigan State defense that plays sound defense.
Ohio connections aplenty. Maybe it is because some of the roots the Michigan State coaches have at Ohio State, but the Spartans always seem to give the Buckeyes their toughest game of the season. The Spartans have won their last two trips to Columbus, beating the Buckeyes 10-7 in 2011, and 17-14 in 2015. Of the last six meetings between the schools, the largest margin of victory came back in 2014, when Ohio State beat Michigan State 49-37 in East Lansing.
Head coach Mark Dantonio spent three years on Jim Tressel’s staff as defensive coordinator from 2001-03 before moving on to become the head coach at Cincinnati, and eventually landing at Michigan State. Dantonio’s staff features a few familiar names, most notably co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, who was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator for 11 years under Tressel. Linebackers coach Mark Snyder held the same position at Ohio State from 2001-03 before moving to defensive coordinator for the 2004 season. For those group of coaches, games against Ohio State are always special because of their past connections.
With so many players from the Buckeye State, Michigan State’s student-athletes always get up for games against Ohio State. This year is no different, with the Michigan State roster featuring 26 players from Ohio. Many of those Michigan State players grew up cheering for Ohio State, and had dreams of donning the scarlet and gray. What better way to show Ohio State what they were missing by not offering scholarships to those players by beating them.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 33, Michigan State 19
Win Probability: Ohio State 78.2%
Despite the recent razor-thin margins of victory in the series, the numbers like Ohio State to win this game by two touchdowns. After such a big loss to Iowa last week on the road, the Buckeyes should find some success at home as they get their Big Ten title hopes back on track.
Ohio State’s defense has struggled recently, but at some point they have to start playing up to their expectations. The defensive line should be able to create some pressure and not only shutdown L.J. Scott and the Michigan State running game, but also keep Brian Lewerke from coming anywhere close to his recent numbers.
On offense, the loss of Parris Campbell hurt the Buckeyes more than many expected it to last week, as they didn’t have anyone at receiver besides Johnnie Dixon who could break a big play. Not only will Campbell’s return be huge, but J.K. Dobbins should see plenty more activity on offense. Even though Michigan State has been strong on defense this year, the combination of Ohio State’s running and passing game will be too much for the Spartans to handle.
How to watch, stream, listen to Michigan State v. Ohio State:
Game time: Saturday Nov. 11th, 12:00 p.m. ET
Streaming: Fox Sports Go
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
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