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Michigan State running back Connor Heyward will be focus of attack against Ohio State

Heyward is coming off a big game against Maryland.

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

Ahh yes, it is game week against the Michigan State Spartans. In six tries, Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer is 4-2 against Mark Dantonio’s program. Those two defeats not only ruined National Championship aspirations for the Buckeyes, but conference title hopes as well.

Even though MSU will be without their star wide receiver Felton Davis, who tore his Achilles on Oct. 20 against Michigan, they do have a weapon on the ground in running back Connor Heyward.

The sophomore RB, believe it or not, is the younger brother of former Buckeye Cameron Heyward, who was a first round NFL Draft selectee in 2011, and therefore, the son of the late Pro Bowl and All-American fullback Craig “Ironhead” Heyward. If the younger Heyward is trying to increase his stock for a future NFL Draft, more games like last week will do the trick. Against Maryland, he rushed for a career-high 157 yards and two touchdowns.

For Ohio State fans, this is the kind of character you’ve come to loathe this season; Heyward has big-play potential, as one of his scores last week came from 80 yards out. The Buckeyes gave up a 93-yard TD to TCU back in September, but managed to hold Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo to just 87 yards last week. Granted, they let freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez run for 107 yards, but they did minimize some of the big plays on the ground after halftime.

Fortunately for the Buckeye defense, Spartan QB Brian Lewerke isn’t a scrambler. The latest game against Maryland was his best effort on the ground this season — going for a whopping 45 yards on nine carries. On the season, the average Lewerke rush is going for 1.7 yards. Heyward is picking up 5.1 yards per carry, and he’s willing to dip his shoulders down for more yards. Like his dad was, he’s a physical back, and will try to run you over to get those extra yards. An example of this is from last year’s contest against Minnesota, where on a 37-yard kick return, he tried plowing over his tackler on the sideline.

When the season started, Heyward wasn’t the starter — that job belonged to senior RB L.J. Scott. But, injuries hampered Scott in the second game of the season against Arizona State, and he’s played sporadically ever since. Freshman rusher La’Darius Jefferson has helped with the carries on the MSU offense, and has been good for a consistent 40-60 yards per contest. Jefferson’s best game of the year happened at Penn State, where he had 15 carries for 60 yards.

A combination of underclassmen Hayward and Jefferson having gotten big game experience already this season, Hayward having the ability to break away from tacklers, and Ohio State’s inability to straight up tackle outside the line of scrimmage is a very bad formula to have in this Saturday’s crucially important matchup for the Buckeyes. The added bitter cherry on top is that this game will be played in East Lansing, Mich., so the crowd will become a factor as they are, literally, right on top of the sidelines.

If you’re looking at common opponents OSU and MSU have played this season, I think you’ll be deceived by what you see. For Sparty, their Penn State performance came down to a game-winning touchdown throw from a healthy Lewerke, and saw Jefferson lead the team in rushing; MSU’s Purdue game is the biggest anomaly, as backup QB Rocky Lombardi threw for 318 yards and two TDs on 46 attempts.

Outside of last week’s game against Maryland, the running game hasn’t really reaped any big performances this season for Dantonio’s squad. And in only a few instances (like against the Boilermakers) did the passing game resemble something of a legitimate threat. A big reason for this is injuries; at the start of the season, MSU had 10 returning starters on offense, but injuries have thrust others into starting roles. It’s a bad break of football justice that your star QB, RB and WR all go down in the same season at some point. Yet, that’s happened to the Spartans in the first nine weeks.

With the MSU offense in flux, Heyward is the guy that — I think — has the potential to be the biggest X-factor this Saturday afternoon. Lewerke’s passing hasn’t been spectacular, and I’d wager he’s still recovering from a throwing-shoulder injury sustained a few weeks ago. That’d explain his 11-for-20, 87 effort against the Terrapins. Michigan State doesn’t have much on offense, but they’ve been able to make do.

On paper, this game shouldn’t be too big of a problem for the Buckeyes. However, the 2015 game seemed like a Buckeye victory until it wasn’t. The same goes for the 2013 meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

This game always seems to be the one that trips Ohio State. With it being on the road, do expect something funky to occur, whether it be a monster performance from Heyward or some trick-play magic from Dantonio.