After having a bye week to chew on their embarrassing loss to Purdue, Ohio State got back in the win column last week against Nebraska. The 36-31 win over the Cornhuskers wasn’t the cleanest win, but it was enough to keep the Buckeyes alive in the College Football Playoff race.
Return to normalcy
The biggest takeaway from Saturday’s win over Nebraska was the resurgence of the Ohio State running game. The Buckeyes finished the game with 229 yards, snapping a streak of six straight games with less than 200 yards on the ground, which was their longest streak since the 2002 Ohio State team failed to reach that mark in seven straight games. The rushing total by the Buckeyes was their best since the season opener, when they rolled up 375 yards rushing against Oregon State.
Running back J.K. Dobbins was the offensive star of the game, rushing for 163 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries. The output by Dobbins was just the second time he cracked 100 yards rushing this season, and his highest rushing total since running for 174 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game last year against Wisconsin. Dobbins also joined Mike Weber in the 2,000 career rushing yards club, giving the Buckeyes their first duo of running backs on the same team to reach that number. Ohio State is now 8-0 when Dobbins rushes for over 100 yards in a game.
Mike Weber got less than half the touches that Dobbins did, but he still had a solid game, rushing for 91 yards on nine carries. The 91 yards rushing by Weber was his best performance since racking up 186 yards on the ground against Oregon State in the first game of the season. Now Weber will be looking to repeat his 2017 performance against Michigan State, when he amassed 162 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries in the blowout win over the Spartans.
All good things have to end
Had it not been for an improved rushing attack, Ohio State might have fallen victim to Nebraska’s upset attempt on Saturday. Buckeye fans have been spoiled by huge performances from Dwayne Haskins, but the redshirt sophomore quarterback came back to earth a little bit on Saturday, as he posted his worst performance as starting quarterback at Ohio State. Along with seeing his streak of three games with at least 400 yards passing snapped, Haskins completed a season-low 56.3% of his passes.
Moving on up
Despite his subpar performance against Nebraska, Haskins is still on his way to setting even more Ohio State passing records. Currently Haskins sits just 278 yards away from the school’s single-season passing yardage record, which is currently held by Joe Germaine. Haskins is also just three passing touchdowns away from tying J.T. Barrett record of 35 passing touchdowns in a season.
One reason for Haskins’ struggles last week could have been due to loss of Austin Mack, who will miss at least the rest of the regular season after suffering a foot injury against Purdue. Johnnie Dixon did try to fill some of the void left by Mack, hauling in five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Cornhuskers.
Dixon’s performance on Saturday inches him closer to the 1,000 career receiving yard mark. Currently Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill have already passed the milestone, but the Buckeyes could have two more join them before the end of the year. Dixon currently has 857 career receiving yards, and Terry McLaurin is even closer to hitting that number, with the senior from Indianapolis sitting at 948 career receiving yards.
With their performance against Nebraska, Ohio State’s defense left plenty to be concerned about. After allowing 31 points to Nebraska, the Buckeyes have now given up 80 points over their last two games. With the 184 yards Ohio State allowed the Cornhuskers to rush for, Ohio State has allowed opponents to rush for at least 175 yards in five games this year. The suspect rush defense might not hurt Ohio State this week against a Michigan State team who has struggled on the ground this year, but it could be a problem in two weeks against Michigan, who is averaging 217 yards rushing per game this year.
As if the Ohio State defense didn’t have enough problems, it looked like things were going to get even worse in the first half last week, when safety Jordan Fuller was ejected in the second quarter following a suspect targeting call. Luckily Ohio State got a sensational performance out of true sophomore Brendon White. The Olentangy Liberty product tied for the team-high with 13 tackles despite playing just 58 snaps. While it remains to be seen if the performance changes White’s role the rest of the season in the secondary, it at least gives the Buckeyes another option to think about.
Linebacker Malik Harrison also put forth a big performance on Saturday against the Cornhuskers, matching White’s 13 tackles. Not only were the 13 tackles by Harrison a career-high, but the absence of Fuller in the secondary for most of the game allowed Harrison to tie Fuller for the team-lead in tackles this year, with both players having registered 48 total tackles.
Dre’Mont do it all
Even though he doesn’t having Nick Bosa lining up on the defensive line with him anymore, Dre’Mont Jones is doing his best to try and create some pressure for the Buckeyes. With a tackle for loss against Nebraska, Jones has now recorded at least one tackle for loss in each of the last seven games.
Jones, a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, isn’t getting much help from his teammates though, as his sack against the Cornhuskers was the lone sack by the Buckeyes last week. Ohio State has just eight sacks over the last four games, with three of those being credited to Jones.
Continuing the trends
With the win over Nebraska, Urban Meyer improved to 51-4 in Big Ten games, and is 6-0 with the Buckeyes following a regular season loss. While the win over Nebraska wasn’t as decisive as some of the other results seen by Meyer-coached teams with more than a week to repair, the head coach is now 49-4 with extra prep time.
Meyer and his team now head back out on the road for a two-game road trip before closing out the regular season at home against Michigan. Despite the loss last month to Purdue in West Lafayette, Meyer is still 24-3 in Big Ten road games. The Buckeyes will be looking to avoid multiple road losses in the same season under Meyer for this first time during his tenure in Columbus.
Never an easy battle
To do so, Ohio State will head to East Lansing to take on a Michigan State team that almost always plays Ohio State tough, whether it be on the road, at home, or at a neutral site. The Buckeyes have won all three games in East Lansing since Meyer arrived at Ohio State, but those wins have been by a combined 14 points. In their last trip to Michigan State in 2016, Ohio State barely squeaked by the Spartans 17-16, which was the same scoreline as Meyer’s first game at Spartan Stadium in 2012.
Last year’s meeting between Ohio State and Michigan State was a bit of an anomaly, with the Buckeyes controlling the game from the beginning, waxing the Spartans 48-3. Ohio State used a powerful running game to blowout Michigan State, with Weber and Dobbins each rushing for over 100 yards, and the Buckeyes posting 335 yards rushing overall. The win was the largest victory over Michigan State by the Buckeyes, and improved Ohio State’s all-time record against the Spartans to 31-15.
Ohio State ties galore
Before becoming a head coach, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio made a name for himself as co-defensive coordinator on Jim Tressel’s staff at Ohio State from 2001-2003. After his time at Ohio State, Dantonio moved on to his first head coaching position at Cincinnati, where he spent three years before Michigan State hired him at the end of the 2006 season. Since taking over in East Lansing, Dantonio has led the Spartans to three Big Ten titles, and is the only Big Ten head coach to beat Urban Meyer twice since his arrival in Columbus.
Dantonio isn’t the only Michigan State coach with Ohio State ties. Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach from 2001-2011. Mike Tressel, nephew of former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, was a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes for two years, and is currently Michigan State’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Secondary coach and special teams coordinator Paul Haynes was Ohio State’s secondary coach from 2005-2011 and co-defensive coordinator in 2011.
Battered and bruised
Michigan State had high hopes coming into this season with 22 starters returning, which was tied for most among FBS teams, but those aspirations haven’t materialized for the Spartans. 10 of Michigan State’s returning starters have missed time due to injury this year. The Spartans may not be in the mix for the Big Ten East crown, but they’ll be ready to throw a wrench into Ohio State’s plans.
Last week at a glance
Last week the Spartans put forth their most dominant performance of the season, beating Maryland 24-3 in College Park. Michigan State not only held the Terrapins to 100 total yards on offense, but they were able to notch their best rushing performance of the year, gashing Maryland for 269 yards on the ground.
We are Spartans
Defense has been Michigan State’s calling card this year. The Spartans have the best rushing defense in the country, only allowing opponents 71.4 yards per game on the ground. Aside from Penn State and Michigan, who rushed for 205 yards and 183 yards against the Spartans, no other team has rushed for more than 63 yards in a game against Michigan State this year. In three games this year, Michigan State has held opponents to less rushing yards than career, and in the season opener against Utah State, the Aggies had 25 rushing yards on 25 carries.
Linebacker Joe Bachie is the heart of Michigan State’s defense, and last week he put together his best performance of the season. With seven tackles, two of which were for a loss, and three forced fumbles, Bachie was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the third time in career. After registering 100 tackles last season, Bachie leads Michigan State in tackles this year with 68.
Ohio State has done a good job at keeping quarterback Dwayne Haskins clean, but they’ll have their work cut out for them this week in trying to slow down defensive lineman Kenny Willekes. As a sophomore in 2017, Willekes had a breakout season with seven sacks. The now-junior has already surpassed that number this year with 7.5 sacks through nine games. For more on Willekes, our own Geoff Hammersley took a deeper look at the standout defensive end.
Michigan State might not have a star in the secondary like they did with Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard, but they do have a number of solid returning starters who will make Dwayne Haskins’ job tough in East Lansing. Khari Willis, David Dowell, and Matt Morrissey all have two interceptions this year, and Justin Layne leads Michigan State with eight pass breakups. Aside from what Michigan has to offer up in a couple weeks, the Buckeyes might not see a better secondary this season.
Had it not been for their defense, Michigan State would find themselves farther down the Big Ten standings. The offense has been tough to watch for the Spartans most of the year. After throwing for nearly 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns this year, quarterback Brian Lewerke has struggled, throwing just eight touchdowns in eight games.
If Lewerke continues his ugly play, the Spartans might have a decision to make as the season winds down. The redshirt junior was awful in the loss to Michigan, completing just five of his 25 passes for 66 yards. Lewerke missed the following game against Purdue due to a shoulder injury, which allowed Rocky Lombardi to throw for 318 yards and two touchdowns against the Boilermakers. Lewerke returned last week, but his play didn’t improve much, throwing for just 87 yards in the win over the Terrapins.
While it looked like Lewerke’s play has regressed this year, it isn’t all his fault. Michigan State’s wide receivers have dealt with a couple big injuries. In the win over Central Michigan at the end of September, sophomore Cody White suffered a broken hand, which caused him to miss the next four games. White returned to action last week against Maryland, catching two passes for 20 yards, and is currently Michigan State’s second-most productive receiver this year with 320 yards receiving.
Michigan State’s best receiver this year had been Felton Davis III but the senior saw his final season in East Lansing end prematurely when he suffered an achilles injury against Michigan. Even with missing most of the last three games, Davis’ 31 catches for 474 yards and four touchdowns are all team-highs. Darrell Stewart Jr. has done his best to pick up some of the slack in the absences of White and Davis, but he has just 24 catches for 250 yards and a touchdown this year.
Building off last week’s performance
Michigan State’s inconsistencies through the air would be a little easier to stomach if they were able to find some success running the football. The Spartans did put together their best rushing performance of the season last week against Maryland, but prior to their 269 yard effort, they hadn’t run for more than 165 yards on the ground in any game this year.
A senior season to forget
After rushing for nearly 900 yards last year, a lot was expected from L.J. Scott in his senior season, but so far the running back hasn’t come anywhere close to those expectations. Scott has only been available for four games due to injuries, and he has just 180 yards on 55 carries this year. Scott still has an outside shot at rushing for 3,000 yards in his Michigan State career, but he is going to have to somehow find 229 yards on the ground in these last few games.
Ironhead Jr. Jr.
The catalyst for last week’s season-best performance on the ground for the Spartans is a name that will be familiar to Ohio State fans. Connor Heyward, brother of former Buckeye Cam Heyward, rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries against the Terrapins. The effort was the first time in his Michigan State career that Heyward has rushed for more than 48 yards in a game, and the sophomore is currently Michigan State’s leading rusher with 358 yards on the ground and five rushing touchdowns. If the Buckeyes don’t close some of the holes on the ground that Nebraska was able to find last week, it could be another big day for Heyward on Saturday.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 30, Michigan State 25
Win Probability: Ohio State 61.7%
Aside from last year’s obliteration of the Spartans by the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio State normally brings out the best in Michigan State. Not only do the Spartans hold two wins over Ohio State since Urban Meyer took over in 2012, but Michigan State has also lost two games in East Lansing to the Buckeyes by a score of 17-16.
Even though Michigan State has plenty of issues on offense, their defense should be able to keep things close on Saturday afternoon. Just a few weeks ago, an explosive Purdue offensive came into East Lansing following a big win against Ohio State, and Michigan State held the Boilermakers to just 13 points.
Ohio State was able to kickstart their running game last week, but it is tough to see those gains lasting for too long with how stout Michigan State is against the run. This will put even more pressure on Dwayne Haskins, and while the sophomore has passed almost every test thrown his way this year, the Spartans will frustrate him throughout the game. Ohio State should be able to avoid being eliminated from the College Football Playoff race, but the Spartans will make the Buckeyes work for it.