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Ohio State vs. Michigan State: 2021 game preview and prediction

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With a spot in the CFP in view, Ohio State will try and close out their 2021 home schedule with a victory over Michigan State.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Michigan State at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio State will play their last home game of the season on Saturday, hosting the Michigan State Spartans in a clash that will go a long way in determining the outcome of the Big Ten East. 24 Ohio State senior student-athletes will be recognized prior to the game , and it is likely that a number of other Buckeyes will be suiting up in their final game at The Horseshoe.

Last week the Buckeyes left little doubt in the result, jumping out to a 35-7 lead early in the second quarter on Purdue, eventually dispatching the Boilermakers 59-31. The scoring output by Ohio State marked the ninth time in school history that the Buckeyes put up at least 50 points on the scoreboard against a ranked foe.


Welcome back

Not only did C.J. Stroud earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for the sixth time this year, Garrett Wilson was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. After missing the Nebraska game, Wilson returned to the field with a vengeance, scoring four total touchdowns against the Boilermakers. Wilson is one of those Ohio State underclassmen that could be playing their final home game in the scarlet and gray, as he is looking like a first round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Series at a glance

The Buckeyes close up their home schedule against Michigan State, who has three wins over Ohio State since 2011, which is the most of any Big Ten team, Overall, the Buckeyes hold a 34-15 edge over the Spartans in the all-time series. Ohio State has won five straight over Michigan State, with the latest being a 52-12 win in East Lansing last year in a game that head coach Ryan Day missed due to COVID-19.


Stiff arm C.J.

C.J. Stroud continued the roll he has been on, throwing for 361 yards and five touchdowns against Purdue. Now with 3,036 yards passing and 30 touchdown passes, the redshirt freshman has positioned him as one of the front runners for the Heisman Trophy. Not only has Stroud thrown a ton of touchdowns this year, he hasn’t made a lot of mistakes, getting intercepted just five times.


Nearing new records

Another freshman that is having a tremendous season is running back TreVeyon Henderson. With 98 yards rushing last week, Henderson cracked 1,000 yards rushing this year, and is currently sitting at 1,035 yards rushing this year. The true freshman is also on the verge of breaking Maurice Clarett’s freshman record for total touchdowns. Henderson currently has 17 touchdowns, which has him two shy of besting Clarett’s mark.

Even though Olave and Wilson are having stellar seasons, Jaxon Smith-Njigba is leading Ohio State with 59 receptions and 1,027 yards. Smith-Njigba is now the sixth Buckeye receiver with at least 1,000 yards in a season. With at least three, and possibly as many as five games remaining, Smith-Njigba has a shot of breaking David Boston’s single-season record of 1,435 yards.

Another of David Boston’s records that could soon fall is his mark of 34 career receiving touchdowns. Chris Olave caught a touchdown against Purdue last week, giving him 33 career touchdown catches. On Monday, Olave was named a semi-finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given annually to the best wide receiver in the country. Through 10 games this season, Olave has racked up 51 catches for 708 yards and 11 scores.


Rolling with a rotation

After struggling the last couple weeks to open up holes for the running game and keep C.J. Stroud clean, the offensive line returned to dominance last week against Purdue. Not only did Purdue not sack Stroud, the Buckeyes rolled 263 yards rushing.

When asked about the offensive line in this week’s press conference, head coach Ryan Day said that some of the recent issues with the offensive line have been because of injuries and absences. With everyone back in the fold, Day said the plan is to use a six-man rotation on the offensive line. If the Buckeyes can get production like they did against Purdue from the offensive line, there isn’t many teams in the country that can slow them down on offense.


Primed for pressure

Even though Ohio State wasn’t able to record any sacks last week against Purdue, it doesn’t mean they didn’t put any pressure on Aidan O’Connell. With Purdue using quick passes a lot instead of a running game, Ohio State didn’t really have much time to get in the back field. Despite getting shutout in the sack column last week, the Buckeyes still have 33 sacks on the season, which is the most of any Big Ten team.

We could see the Buckeyes get back in to terrorizing opposing quarterbacks this week, especially after what we saw Michigan’s defensive line do to the Spartans a few weeks ago. With the Spartans being more of a traditional pocket-passing team, Tyreke Smith, Haskell Garrett, and the rest of the Ohio State defensive linemen could be in for a big day.


C & C + T & T

Last week Steele Chambers got his first start at linebacker, and if his play is any indication, it won’t be his last start. Chambers responded by making four tackles, with 1.5 of those being behind the line of scrimmage. With Chambers and Cody Simon starting, as well as Tommy Eichenberg and Teradja Mitchell in the rotation, we are seeing improvement from the linebackers each week.


Secondary to none

After David Bell terrorized top-five squads Iowa and Michigan State earlier in the year, freshman Denzel Burke held his own against Purdue’s top receiver. Even though Bell caught 11 passes for 103 yards, it was a far cry from what he did against the Hawkeyes and Spartans, where he racked up over 200 yards receiving. The 11 tackles that Burke was credited with were a career-high.

The Buckeyes enter Saturday’s game with 11 interceptions, which ranks 15th nationally. Payton Thorne has thrown eight interceptions this year, and if the defensive line can put pressure on Thorne, they could force the Spartans into more turnovers. If Ohio State’s defense gets their hands on the football they are a threat to score, as their six defensive touchdowns is the most in the country.

Two of those interceptions, and one of those defensive touchdowns, belongs to Ronnie Hickman. The starter at the Bullet position now has 80 tackles this season, which leads the Buckeyes. If Hickman is able to record 20 more tackles this year, he’ll become the first Ohio State defender to record 100 tackles in a season since Raekwon McMillan. Expect Hickman to be active this week as the Buckeye defense tries to corral Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III.


Marvelous Mel

After losing to Purdue two weeks ago, Michigan State rebounded last week with a 40-21 victory over Maryland. The Spartans are now 9-1 in Mel Tucker’s second season as head coach. The job the former Ohio State assistant has done in East Lansing in his short time as head coach not only has him on the verge of a lucrative extension, he is also reportedly one of LSU’s targets for their vacant head coaching position. Tucker is 11-6 at Michigan State, and 16-13 in his three seasons as head coach.


Ohio State’s kryptonite

The Spartans have been a thorn in the side of Ohio State over the years. Not only has Michigan State beaten the Buckeyes three times since 2011, the Spartans have five wins over Ohio State when the Buckeyes are ranked in the top-five. The most recent of those upsets came in 2015, when the Spartans snapped Ohio State’s 23-game winning streak with a 17-14 win in Columbus.


Payton’s place

Speaking of thorns, taking the snaps for Michigan State will be Payton Thorne. The quarterback tied a career-high with four touchdown passes last week against Maryland. Thorne has thrown for 2,460 yards and 21 touchdowns this season. As mentioned earlier, Thorne has made a few mistakes lately though, tossing seven of his eight interceptions this season over the last five games.


Top transfer

While Thorne has been strong this year, Michigan State’s offense is powered by Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III. The running back is a bonafide Heisman Trophy candidate, rushing for 1,473 yards and 17 touchdowns through 10 games this year. Walker’s 147.3 rushing yards per game this year is the highest average in the country.

Walker started off the season with a ridiculous debut for the Spartans, rushing for 264 yards and four touchdowns against Northwestern. The second 200-yard performance of the year for Walker came against Rutgers, where he finished with 233 yards rushing against the Scarlet Knights. The best performance of the year for Walker came against Michigan, where he scored five touchdowns and ran for 197 yards against the Wolverines.


Thorne’s targets

While Walker demands a lot of attention, the Buckeyes can’t sleep on Michigan State’s wide receivers. Junior wide receiver Jayden Reed recorded his third 100-yard receiving game this year after grabbing eight passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns last week. Reed has already set career-highs with 45 catches for 829 yards and seven scores this year.

One important wide receiver for Michigan State that has been missing lately is Jalen Nailor, who hasn’t played since the Michigan game. Nailor was at his best during a two-game stretch earlier in the season, where he caught a combined 13 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns against Western Kentucky and Rutgers. Despite missing the last two games, Nailor has 31 catches for 587 yards and six touchdowns this year.

If Nailor isn’t able to return for this week’s game, expect for Michigan State to target Tre Mosley more. Mosley not only scored his only two touchdowns of the year in the loss two weeks ago against Purdue, last week Mosley caught four passes for 52 yards. The sophomore might still be finding his way in the offense, but with his height he could be a prime target for Thorne if the Spartans get into the red zone.


A lot of similarities

Michigan State’s defense is a lot like Ohio State’s. The biggest similarity is with the defensive line. The Spartans have 32 sacks so far this season, which is one fewer than Ohio State’s total that leads the Big Ten. Leading the brigade of pass rushers are Jacob Panasiuk and Jeff Petrowski, who both have 5.5 sacks this year. Panasiuk is a seasoned veteran, with the 54 career games he played being tied for most in school history.

Along with Panasiuk and Petrowski, Michigan State has five players on the defensive line with starting experience. Expect to see the Spartans rotate players along the defensive line throughout the game, much like we have seen from Ohio State this year. While neither team has a true standout defensive lineman, they get their power from the number of fresh bodies that they can use.


Michigan State’s middle

Head coach Mel Tucker was extremely active in the transfer portal during the offseason. While Kenneth Walker III gets most of the headlines as an impact transfer, linebacker Quavaris Crouch has been extremely important to the Michigan State defense. After starting 10 games for Tennessee last year, Crouch is second on the team with 72 tackles this year. Crouch missed last week’s game against Maryland with an undisclosed injury, and it’s unknown what his status is for Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes.

Sitting just behind Crouch when it comes to tackles is redshirt freshman Cal Haladay. With 71 tackles so far this year, Haladay was named to the Maxwell Club Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Award Watch List. Fifth-year senior Noah Harvey also took on more responsibility with Crouch out of the lineup last week, recording a season-high five tackles against the Terrapins.

One notable name at linebacker for Michigan State is Ma’a Gaoteote. The true freshman has appeared in six games this year, but has only seen 33 snaps on defense and 19 snaps on special teams. What makes him an interesting name is he is the younger brother of Palaie Gaoteote, who is an Ohio State linebacker.


X-Man

The heartbeat of the Michigan State defense is Xavier Henderson, who leads the team with 82 tackles. The Reynoldsburg product is essentially Michigan State’s version of Jamal Adams. Henderson leads the Spartans with 10 tackles for loss this year, recording at least one stop behind the line of scrimmage in all but one game this season. The senior has recorded at least seven tackles in nine games this year. Against Nebraska, Henderson recorded a career-high 17 tackles.


Leaky backline

Aside from Henderson, there hasn’t been much else positive about the play from the Michigan State secondary. The Spartans are giving up 329 yards passing this year. Even though they beat Michigan, the Spartans surrendered over 400 yards passing to the Wolverines. In half of Michigan State’s games this year opponents have passed for at least 350 yards. If this trend continues, it could be a long day for Angelo Grose, Chester Kimbrough, and the rest of the Michigan State secondary.


Summary

There’s no doubt that Michigan State is definitely an improved team from what Ohio State saw last year in East Lansing. The Spartans have won some tough games this year, traveling to Miami and winning, outlasting Nebraska, and coming back to defeat rival Michigan. The test they’ll face on Saturday might be a little too much for them, though.

Ohio State knows they are on the verge of earning a spot in the College Football Playoff if they can just handle their business against Michigan State, Michigan, and in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes survived some scares recently from Penn State and Nebraska before getting back on track last week against Purdue.

Even though the Spartans aren’t going to roll over, what Ohio State has working in their advantage is how well they throw the football, which is Michigan State’s weak spot on defense. If teams like Michigan and Miami can put up the numbers they did through the air on the Spartans, there is no reason C.J. Stroud can’t have another game where he throws for over 350 yards.

Ohio State needs to jump out to an early lead since it will force Michigan State to go away from their main weapon, which is Kenneth Walker III. Even if the Spartans are able to give the Buckeyes a healthy dose of Walker, it doesn’t necessarily mean Walker will be successful on the ground. We have seen games over the years where teams like Wisconsin come in with a strong rushing attack and Ohio State shuts them down.

If the Buckeyes can take the ball out of Walker’s hands, it will force Payton Thorne to make more plays. The Michigan State quarterback has been solid throughout the year, but asking him to win a game in Ohio Stadium might be asking a little too much, especially if Jalen Nailor isn’t able to play. If the Buckeyes can pin their ears back and get after Thorne, it could be a long afternoon for Michigan State.

Ohio State has seen this scenario before, with Michigan State coming into The Horseshoe looking to take down a top-five Ohio State team with the Buckeyes having Michigan on deck. While the Buckeyes weren’t prepared well enough for what they saw from the Spartans in 2015, it’s hard to see lightning striking twice within a ten-year period. Ryan Day will have his team ready to take care of business on Saturday.

LGHL Prediction: Ohio State 44, Michigan State 24