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Players to Watch: Michigan State

The Buckeyes will look to make a statement against the Spartans this weekend

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a pretty crazy past few days in Columbus, but as of right now it looks like we are all systems go for Ohio State to take on Michigan State this weekend. Playing the game is important for a number of reasons, including not only the Buckeyes working toward that six-game minimum for the Big Ten title game — which looks more and more everyday like a rule that will be changed in OSU’s favor — but also getting additional game reps in for their guys so the team will be more prepared for the College Football Playoff.

The Spartans are a good matchup for Ryan Day’s Larry Johnson’s crew, as they are a unit that shouldn’t quite push the Buckeyes to the brink, but also aren’t a total pushover as we saw last week in their upset of Northwestern. They have a good enough passing game to allow the secondary to show any potential improvements they’ve made, and a decent defense that should allow for Justin Fields to have a bounce-back performance.

There are a number of players on both sides of the ball worth watching in this one, so let’s check out what former Ohio State assistant Mel Tucker has going on in East Lansing.

Offensive Player to Watch: Jalen Nailor

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Iowa The Register-USA TODAY NETWORK

Somewhat surprisingly, Michigan State actually has a pretty good passing attack this season relative to the rest of the country, checking in at No. 48 nationally through the air. The Spartans haven’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut, but most of what they’ve been able to accomplish has come via the pass. Tucker has a very solid group of wide receivers at his disposal, led by none other than Jalen Nailor.

The redshirt sophomore has already shattered his previous career-highs in East Lansing through just five games this season. After playing in only four contests a year ago and redshirting due to an injury, Nailor has hauled in 16 passes for a team-high 379 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The 6-foot track athlete is Michigan State’s primary deep threat, averaging 23.7 yards per reception. Nailor had one of his better games of the year last time out against the Wildcats, catching three balls for 99 yards and a TD.

Tossing the rocking to Nailor is junior QB Rocky Lombardi, who in his first year as a full-time starter has thrown for just over 1,000 yards with eight TDs and eight interceptions. Lombardi has a talented group of wide receivers around him outside of Nailor, including Jayden Reed and Ricky White. Reed is the team’s catch leader with 22 receptions for 252 yards and three TDs on the season, while White, similarly to Nailor, is averaging a ridiculous 22.3 yards per catch with 10 receptions for 223 yards and a TD.

Ohio State’s defense has been susceptible to big plays in the passing game this year, and Michigan State has picked up a large chunk of their offensive yardage doing just that. This will be a good indication of whether or not the Buckeyes have finally started to put a lid on their woes in the secondary.

Defensive Player to Watch: Antjuan Simmons

Michigan State v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Sparty defense is really where their bread as been buttered this season. Ranking No. 49 in the country overall in total defense, Michigan State has allowed over 40 points in a game just once this year — somewhat strangely coming against Iowa. Their run defense has been especially impressive, holding Northwestern last week to just 63 yards on the ground as a team. A bulk of their success has come from a sturdy group of linebackers, led by three-year letterwinner Antjuan Simmons.

After leading the Spartans as a junior in 2019 with a whopping 90 tackles, Simmons is back at it again in 2020 with a team-high 53 tackles to go along with 6.5 tackles for loss and a sack through five games. Named to the preseason watch list for the Bednarik Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy, Simmons earned Big Ten Player of the Week for his efforts against Norhtwestern last weekend, wherein he recorded 13 tackles including two for loss. Ohio State will have to keep an eye on the versatile linebacker on Saturday, as we will no doubt see Michigan State dial up the blitz packages after the success Indiana had putting pressure on Justin Fields.

Simmons has some help around him when it comes to slowing down opposing offenses. Junior cornerback Shakur Brown is having a tremendous season, currently tallying all five of the team’s interceptions on the year. MSU has not exactly gotten to the quarterback a ton to this point, but when they have it has more often than not been senior defensive end Drew Beesley, who leads the Spartans with three sacks. Linebacker Noah Harvey is Sparty’s second-leading tackler, with 37 total tackles and 4.5 TFLs this season.

The Michigan State defense hasn’t been world beaters this year, but they aren’t going to just let the Buckeyes come in and steamroll them for four quarters. Ohio State knows they need to have a dominant performance to up their stock in the eyes of the committee, and they should be able to do enough on Saturday to make that a reality.