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Brutally Honest To-Do List: What Ohio State needs to do in today’s Michigan State game

Two “simple” things the Buckeyes need to do to win today.

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We are now in the home stretch for the 2021 college football season, and the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes will take the field in one hour in their second of three-straight games against ranked opponents. Today, they host the No. 7 Michigan State Spartans on what will be the Scarlet and Grey’s 2021 Senior Day.

As of publication time, DraftKings Sportsbook has OSU as 19-point favorite in the game that will air at 12 noon ET on ABC. Ohio State has the most productive offense in the country and one of the best passing attacks in recent memory, while the Spartans are the literal worst passing defense in the country by yards allowed. However, MSU is led by a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender in running back Kenneth Walker III.

So, I am going to keep this week’s Brutally Honest To-Do List simple and just focus on the the two most obvious things that the Buckeyes need to do win the game today.

Resist temptation and stay balanced

As I said above, Sparty has been giving up scads and scads of yards through the air all season. They are 130th out of 130 FBS teams in terms of passing yards allowed per game, giving up an average of 329.0 yards per outing. However, that stat is incredibly deceiving. While yes, that is a ton of yards, their opponents are attempting 47.9 passes per game, which is by far the most in the country; the two teams tied for second nationally in that category (Hawai’i and San Diego State) are only allowing 39.0.

So yes, Sparty is giving up a ton of passing yards, but on average, it’s not as much as you would think. In fact, they are middle-of-the-packish in terms of passing touchdowns allowed, coming in at 75th with 17 TDs allowed, and they are a solid 34th nationally, giving up a nice 6.9 yards per opponent passing attempt.

The amount of passes that MSU has allowed is directly tied to two things, first, their stout rushing defense, which ranks 29th nationally allowing only 114.0 yards per game, and their rushing game, which has been dominant this season. The Spartans have averaged 197.80 rushing yards per game and have used that to build leads and keep opponents at bay all season.

I will talk more about Walker next, but Ryan Day can’t get caught up in the baseline stats. Obviously there will be plenty of opportunities for C.J. Stroud and the wide receivers to feast on the MSU defense, but Mel Tucker is a savvy coach, and he will have a plan to at least try to keep Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba in check. So, the OSU offense will need to continue to keep the Michigan State defense honest with a steady diet of TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams if they want the offense to be as productive as possible this afternoon.

Keep Walker from Running Wild

Let’s get this out of the way, Kenneth Walker III is the best college football transfer since Ohio State’s own Joe Burrow went to LSU. The former Wake Forest running back is averaging 147.30 rushing yards per game and coming into today leads the country in rushes of over 20 yards with 19 of them (yes, he has 19 carries that have gone for more than 20 yards), and he is second nationally with 40 carries that have gone for 10+ yards. So, there is no doubt that Walker is a dynamic and powerful runner.

But there have been games in which he has struggled to live up to his numbers. Walker only rushed for 61 yards on 19 carries (3.2 yards per carry) against Nebraska, and 84 yards on 23 carries (3.7 ypc) against Indiana. Currently, those defenses rank 38th and 57th nationally against the runs. Coming into today, Ohio State ranks 14th in rushing defense allowing on 105.90 yards on the ground per game.

Now admittedly, much of that has to do with the fact that the Buckeye offense gets out to such big leads early that opponents quickly abandon the run, but it is something to note.

If Matt Barnes and Kerry Coombs want to keep the MSU offense from keeping up with the OSU offense, they will need to find ways to keep Walker from turning three and four-yard runs into 10, 20, and 30-yard runs. That will likely have to do with how they employ their linebackers.

As Chris Renne mentioned in the Film Preview referenced above, you can’t let Walker have even slightest opening to run through, because he will take advantage. Because so many of OSU’s potential playoff opponents are loaded with dynamically athletic playmakers there has been a different approach for the Buckeyes at linebacker this season. They have moved to a 4-2-3 approach with two LBs and a bullet, and those backers have been smaller and quicker; Steele Chambers and Cody Simon being the best of the bunch.

But, when facing off against Walker and the MSU rushing attack, that might not be the best approach. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know enough about defensive schematics to tell the Buckeye coaches how to do this, but I am confident in saying that the linebackers are the key to keeping Kenneth in check. Whether that means playing the traditional run-stopping linebackers — like Teradja Mitchell, Palaie Gaoteote, and Tommy Eichenberg — or playing three LBs at a time, or simply bringing them closer to the line, I don’t know, but history shows that if you let Kenneth Walker III run free, it is going to be a bad day at the office for the defense.

Matt’s Prediction:

Ohio State 52, Michigan State 27