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Column: Five things to watch for in the Ohio State-Michigan State game

Lots of existential questions heading into this game.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Every game day of the 2020 season, I will be running through five things to watch in that day’s contest. They could be something that schematic, an opposing player, or an on-field trend. Let me know what you’ll be watching for in the comments below.

This is gonna be a weird one, folks. Ohio State is coming off of its only meaningful win of the season, but it was still a frustrating and disappointing victory. But, a lifetime’s worth of stories have unfolded since the Buckeye’s 42-35 win over Indiana on Nov. 21, so the specific questions that I had about scheme and personnel are only vaguely still at the forefront of my mind as I prepare to watch the Buckeyes and Sparty on Saturday at 12 noon ET on ABC.

While I think that Michigan State does provide an interesting challenge for the Buckeyes — especially in a week in which they will admittedly be shorthanded and without their head coach — I am focused more on if, who, and how Ohio State plays this weekend.

1) Will they actually play?

If you would have told me a week ago that the Buckeyes would be playing this game today, I would have thought that you were out of your mind. No Big Ten team has yet canceled a game due to a coronavirus outbreak on their team and then played the following week. However, it appears that the Buckeyes were so proactive in canceling the Illinois game that it actually saved this game, and perhaps their season.

It might have been luck, a Machiavellian maneuver, or just good, strategic planning on the part of Gene Smith, Ryan Day, and Dr. Jim Borchers, but however we got here, it appears that OSU and MSU will in fact be kicking off in just a few hours in East Lansing.

However, from the time that I am writing this on Friday night to the time that the game kicks off, any multitude of things could happen that could derail the game from being played. The Buckeyes had one last round of tests before they took off on a late-night chartered flight to the state up north.

So, while things certainly look like they are locked and loaded for a noon kick, it is still 2020, so I’m not assuming anything until the teams are on the field (and even then, I probably won’t be 100% confident).

2) Who will be unavailable?

During the Urban Meyer era, the Ohio State program was pretty open about the status of players and their injuries, not necessarily as a point of program policy, but just because the head coach couldn’t really keep himself from talking about that type of stuff with the media.

However, now that Ryan Day is OSU’s head coach, the team has become incredibly tight-lipped about the status of players’ availability and only releases an availability report on the Friday morning before game days. However, because of the outbreak and the final Friday-night test, the availability report for Saturday’s game will be released two-hours before kickoff at 10 a.m. ET.

However, there are other clues to be found about who might play today. Since the outbreak happened for the Buckeyes, the team’s social media accounts have been slowly teasing fans revealing pictures of specific players at practices and other team activities. On Friday night, they posted a photo of quarterback Justin Fields boarding the team’s charter plane to East Lansing (carrying some presumably vegan sushi), seemingly confirming that he had not tested positive for the coronavirus and would be leading the Buckeyes on Saturday.

But, other than that — short of any other social media photos or official statements — everyone else on the team is potentially unavailable. So, I will be interested to see which Buckeyes will be ruled out for this week (and by B1G rule, presumably next week as well). I will also be interested to see who plays in their place. Will the coaches stick to the players that had been playing most, just with less of a rotation, or will some younger guys get the opportunity to show what they are capable for the first time this season?

Following the Indiana game, I advocated for some semi-drastic changes on the defense. If any of them happen, some might be because the coaches saw things the same way that I did, and some might happen because COVID forced their hands. Either way, knowing the depth of talent that Ohio State has on its roster, I am excited to see who gets and seizes this opportunity.

3) Will there be any rust for the Buckeyes?

Ohio State hasn’t played a game since Nov. 21, and some might say they haven’t really played since the first half of that game. Since then, they have had a game and a handful of practices cancelled, not to mention other adjustments and interruptions to their schedule.

So, I am anxious to see what level of performance they will be at today. I am a bit torn on whether or not I think that they still need style points to make the playoff, or if they just need to play and win as many games as possible. But, I think a slow start could hurt their ability to turn in the type of performance that they are expecting from themselves.

It will be interesting to see if this week’s offensive play-caller, Kevin Wilson, will look to hit a home run early — as has been the gameplan throughout the season — or if he will try to start with a few more simple concepts to get the offense’s feet under them.

As I said before, I was hopeful that following the IU win that we would see some changes on the defensive side of the ball. However, given the circumstances, I would not be surprised if they stuck to what they’ve been doing all season, just in case there is any rust that needed to be shaken off.

4) Will Mel Tucker get his team up for another big game?

Mel Tucker has gotten his team to play well in its two biggest games of the season — against their big brother rival and B1G West leading Northwestern — and they won both. I certainly don’t think that even on their best day that this Spartans team could beat even an undermanned Ohio State, but I do think that given Tucker’s history in Columbus, he will be able to get his team ready to go when the Buckeyes come to town.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

So, if OSU is rusty, and Sparty is as feisty as it has been, I can see the first half being a bit rocky. I know that MSU is not a good team this year, but I do think that Tucker is a very good coach and motivator, and I believe that he will get the program turned around soon enough. And even just playing well against the Buckeyes could be big for them, and very bad for OSU.

5) Will Larry Johnson and Kevin Wilson pour it on if given the chance?

If you go back and look at some of my articles from before the season started, I assumed that Ryan Day would be looking to score as often as possible in an effort to accumulate as many of those aforementioned style points as he could given that they were playing a shortened season compared to the other playoff contenders.

However, that does not seem to be the plan that Day brought into the season as there have been noticeable changes in playcalling, effort, and clock management in the second half of all four OSU games this season, and none of them lent themselves to scoring more points.

But, while the boss is away, I wonder how the assistants will play. Today might be the only time in his entire career that Larry Johnson is the head coach for a college football game; he might as well make a statement. Have Fields keep throwing bombs late in the game. Start blitzing on every play when you’re up three scores and you know Rocky Lombardi will have to be throwing. Go for two after every touchdown and never punt. What do you have to lose, Lar?

Then there’s Kevin Wilson. Though he is an experienced head coach, he is getting the opportunity to call plays again after a few years of giving that responsibility to Day. So today he might be looking to throw a little extra zazz into the mix, either just for fun, or to show another school looking for an offensive-minded head coach what he is capable of with full control of a high-powered offense.

Down to potentially only six or seven games to present before the CFP committee, the Buckeyes desperately need as many pluses on their resume as possible, and blowing out Sparty after the two weeks that OSU has had would be a solid addition to the win column, imo.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!