The future of Ohio State’s season might be in jeopardy, but the Buckeyes are only worrying about what they can control. Ohio State missed last week’s game against Illinois because of COVID-19 issues, leaving the Buckeyes one cancellation away from not being eligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. As if there wasn’t already no room for error, next week’s opponent, Michigan, has already canceled their game this week because of their own COVID-19 issues.
Last time out
The last time we saw Ohio State, the Buckeyes scored a win over Indiana, winning their 25th straight game over the Hoosiers. The game played out like a number of other Buckeyes games this year — with Ohio State jumping out to a big halftime lead, only to return to the field with a less than impressive performance in the second 30 minutes of the game.
The victory at least gave Ohio State sole possession of first place in the Big Ten East, but that won’t matter if the Buckeyes don’t play at least six conference games this year. Oho State racked up 607 yards of total offense against the Hoosiers, and now has scored at least 40 points in 27 of the 46 games since Ryan Day arrived in Columbus in 2017.
Now the Buckeyes will turn their attention to Michigan State, who is dangerous despite posting a 2-3 record this year. The Spartans are one of just three teams in the country this year with two wins over AP Top 25 teams. Michigan State beat Michigan on Oct. 31st when the Wolverines were ranked 13th in the country, and last week the Spartans beat the 11th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats.
Series at a glance
Saturday’s game marks the 49th meeting between the Buckeyes and Spartans, with Ohio State holding a 33-15 edge in the series. The Buckeyes jumped out to a 27-10 halftime lead and rushed for 323 yards in the 34-10 win over the Spartans in Columbus last year. Ohio State has won seven straight games in East Lansing, with their last loss at Spartan Stadium coming back in 1999. Even though Michigan State may sit under .500 coming into this game, Ohio State can’t sleep on the Spartans, as Michigan State has defeated the Buckeyes three times since 2011.
More big numbers
The biggest surprise from the win over Indiana was how much trouble the Hoosiers gave Justin Fields. After throwing just three interceptions in his first 17 games at Ohio State, Fields was picked off three times by Indiana. Even with the turnover issues, Fields still set a career-high with 378 yards of offense against the Hoosiers. With his three touchdowns in the game, Fields now has 75 total touchdowns in his college career.
Fields wasn’t the only Buckeye to put up career-high numbers against Indiana. Master Teague III ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries against the Hoosiers. After a slow start to the season, Teague is anchoring a rushing attack that is leading the Big Ten with 233.2 yards per game. The triple-digit effort was Teague’s second 100-yard performance of the season, and fourth of his career.
Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave continue to dominate the targets in the passing game. Wilson now has four straight 100-yard games this year, which is the second-longest streak in school history behind Cris Carter’s five straight 100-yard games. Wilson is averaging 128.3 receiving yards per game this year, which is second in the Big Ten and seventh nationally.
After catching five passes for 64 yards against Rutgers, Chris Olave returned to the 100-yard club against Indiana, hauling eight passes for 101 yards. Olave now has three 100-yard performances in four games this year, and four in his Ohio State career. The Buckeyes can’t afford to see a drop off in production from Wilson and Olave, as no other Ohio State receiver has more than nine catches for 78 yards this season.
The driving force of Ohio State’s defense this year has been their linebackers. At the head of the group is Pete Werner, who was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award earlier this week. Werner currently leads Ohio State with 24 tackles this year, and is looking to join Andy Katzenmoyer and James Laurinaitis as the only Buckeye linebackers to win the Butkus Award.
Joining Werner is Tuf Borland, who will be playing in the Senior Bowl in January, and Baron Browning, who continues to shoot up draft boards with his strong play this season. Borland has 19 tackles and sack this year, while Browning has added 18 tackles and a fumble recovery. While Werner and Borland are returning starters, Browning hasn’t taken long to adjust to his starting role after replacing Malik Harrison this year.
Waiting for Wade
Where Ohio State has suffered on defense is with their play in the secondary. Even though the Buckeyes beat Indiana, they gave up 491 yards passing to Michael Penix Jr. While there aren’t many teams in the Big Ten that should be able to replicate what Indiana did to the Buckeyes, the same can’t be said about potential opponents for Ohio State if the Buckeyes earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
One of the most puzzling things in college football this year has been the play of Shaun Wade. The cornerback was looked at as one of the best in the country in his position this year, but Wade hasn’t been able to live up to the hype. Even though Wade did have an interception return for a touchdown against Indiana, that was overshadowed by inconsistent play the rest of the game. If Ohio State is going to realize their goal of winning a national title, they’ll need Wade to play a lot better than he has so far in 2020.
After a couple of awful performances, Michigan State earned a huge win last week, beating previously undefeated Northwestern 29-20. The win pushed Michigan State’s record to 2-3 on the year. Now the Spartans will host just their second-ever December home game, with the first coming in 2001 after a game against Missouri was moved to December following the attacks on 9/11.
New Spartan general
Michigan State will enter this matchup with a new but familiar face at head coach. Mark Dantonio announced his retirement after 13 seasons as Michigan State’s head coach. The Spartans originally tried to lure Luke Fickell away from Cincinnati, but Fickell wasn’t ready to leave the Bearcats. Michigan State then turned their attention to Mel Tucker, who had no problem leaving Colorado after coaching the team for just one season.
Tucker not only spent four seasons at Ohio State as an assistant from 2001-04, he started his coaching career in East Lansing as a graduate assistant. Tucker has made numerous coaching stops in both college football and the NFL before receiving his first head coaching opportunity at Colorado, where he went 5-7 last year.
Joining Tucker at Michigan State is Jay Johnson, who was the offensive coordinator on Tucker’s staff at Colorado last year. Running the defense will be Scottie Hazelton, who spent last season as Kansas State’s defensive coordinator. A familiar name to Ohio State fans on the coaching staff is Mike Tressel, who will be in his 14th season with the Spartans. After spending the last two seasons as defensive coordinator, Tressel is coaching the safeties this year.
Ohio State’s Kryptonite
Beating Ohio State when the Buckeyes are ranked would be nothing new for Michigan State. The Spartans have beaten ranked Ohio State teams 10 times. In five of those victories, Ohio State was ranked in the top-five. The latest of those victories came in 2015 when Michigan State beat the second-ranked Buckeyes 17-14 in Columbus.
It has been pretty much all or nothing from Rocky Lombardi this year. The quarterback only completed 11 of 27 passes against Northwestern last week for 167 yards and two touchdowns. While the passing numbers weren’t great, Lombardi did make up for it by rushing for 65 of Michigan State’s season-high 195 yards. Lombardi has thrown eight touchdowns this year, but has matched that number with eight interceptions. Seven of Lombardi’s eight interceptions this year have come in Michigan State’s three losses.
Three yards and a cloud of dust
Teams have been able to focus more on keeping Lombardi and the Michigan State passing attack in check since the Spartans haven’t been able to run the football. Michigan State’s leading rusher this year is Connor Heyward, son of former NFL defensive lineman Craig “Iron Head” Heyward. The running back has carried the football 52 times this year for just 179 yards.
After rushing for nearly 1,000 yards last year, Elijah Collins has been almost invisible this year. So far this year Collins has just 56 yards on 32 carries, which is a huge drop-off from what he was able to do last year when he broke the 100-yard mark in three different games. The only Michigan State player averaging over four yards per carry this year is Jalen Nailor. The wide receiver has carried the football just twice, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
Luckily for Michigan State, Nailor has been one of the most explosive receivers in the country this year. Nailor is currently fifth among FBS receivers with 23.7 yards per catch this year. On the season, Nailor has 16 catches for 379 and two touchdowns. After playing sparingly in his first two seasons at Michigan State, Nailor has already set career-highs in receptions and yards.
Joining Nailor at wide receiver is Jayden Reed, who has been more of an intermediate threat for the Spartans. After catching 56 passes for 797 yards and eight touchdowns last year, the sophomore has 22 catches for 252 yards and three touchdowns this year. Rocky White has also contributed to Michigan State’s cause this year, averaging 22.3 yards per catch with his 10 receptions.
Even though Michigan State has given up a lot of points his year, the Spartans still have some playmakers on defense. At the top of the list is Antjuan Simmons. The senior linebacker from Ann Arbor was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after being credited with 13 tackles and two tackles for loss in the win over Northwestern. After recording 90 tackles last season, Simmons leads Michigan State with 53 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss this year.
Bet on Brown
One of the hottest players in college football has been cornerback Shakur Brown. The junior cornerback has been playing like Ohio State fans had been expecting Shaun Wade to play this year. In the last two weeks, Brown has intercepted four passes, and now has picked off five passes this season. Brown is currently tied for the FBS interception lead this season.
Don’t sleep on Michigan State’s ability to create some havoc in the backfield. After Simmons, the Spartans have three other players who have been credited with at least four tackles for loss this year.
Defensive end Drew Beesky has five stops behind the line of scrimmage this year, with three of those being sacks. Noah Harvey has been a nice compliment to Simmons at linebacker, recording 4.5 tackles for loss, while defensive tackle Naquan Jones has added four tackles for loss. All this and we haven’t even mentioned Jacub Panasiuk, who is the brother of former Michigan State defensive end Mike Panasiuk.
After hitting three of four fields goals last week against Northwestern, Matt Coghlin was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week. Michigan State has had a number of memorable moments from their kickers against Ohio State over the year. There’s no doubt Coghlin has the ability to hit a kick in the clutch if his number is called.
It’s tough to get a true read on this game because we don’t know who Ohio State will be without due to the COVID-19 outbreak that they have been dealing with recently. As long as the Buckeyes aren’t missing Fields, Wilson, or a number of other key players, Ohio State shouldn’t have a huge problem handling Michigan State.
The Spartans can claim a win over Northwestern, but nobody is going to confuse the Buckeyes and Wildcats. Ohio State features an explosive element that Michigan State hasn’t seen this year. The closest comparison would be Indiana, and the Hoosiers easily handled Michigan State in East Lansing last month, shutting out the Spartans 24-0.
This could be a game for the Ohio State secondary to gain some confidence. Even though Michigan State does have some pieces at wide receiver with Nailor and White, what keeps them from putting up bigger numbers is the inconsistency of Lombardi. It should be easier for the Buckeyes to make some plays since there hasn’t been much of a threat coming from the running game of the Spartans this year.
Saturday’s game should see the most complete game of the year from Ohio State. Not only is there questions about what the rest of the season could hold for Ohio State because of COVID-19 and a possible cancellation next week. The Buckeyes know they have to make a statement in whatever games they have left this season.
Ohio State will also be playing for Ryan Day, who will miss this game due to a COVID-19 diagnosis last week. This leaves Larry Johnson as interim head coach for Saturday’s game. Not only will Johnson be Ohio State’s first African-American head coach, everyone on the team highly respects Johnson. They’ll want to put forth their best effort for the legendary assistant coach.
Michigan State is building in the right direction, the Spartans are just too young right now to pull the upset of the Buckeyes. With 80 underclassmen, Michigan State will be a team that Ohio State has to keep their eyes on in the future. Right now though, it’s just expecting a little too much to think the Spartans will be able take down a motivated Ohio State squad.