However, like the Athenians of the Third Peloponnesian War, the (Michigan State) Spartans find themselves vastly overmatched by the superior power of the Persian Emp—Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have proven their offensive weapons are enough to rout even opponents in the Big Ten. From a Heisman candidate at quarterback and a three-headed monster at running back, there is simply too much on the front for opposition to take heed of. Defensively, while not perfect, Ohio State is really good and has a proven ability to get off the field. Michigan State, meanwhile, is struggling on both sides of the ball with among the worst scoring defenses and scoring offenses in the Big Ten.
All signs point to another day in favor of the Buckeyes, but like Icarus flying too close to the sun, Ohio State must keep its ambitions in check and execute the game at hand to avoid an upset.
This is Sparta
Well, it’s East Lansing. Saturday is Ohio State’s first road game of the season after a rare five-game homestand to start the year. Things have been humming in Columbus for the Buckeyes, but it’s been nine months since they left the state of Ohio for a game. How the Buckeyes fare in their first road test remains to be seen, but it’s ideal that this first road game is coming in an afternoon game in front of a 75,000-person Spartan Stadium rather than, say, a white out in Happy Valley.
Michigan State is 2-1 at home this season, having notched wins over Western Michigan and Akron to open the season before falling to Minnesota.
Fighting for land (grant)
The land grant universities of the Big Ten are sort of like Greek city states, I guess. Anyway.
The Buckeyes own the overall series with Michigan State 35-15, with Ohio State winners of six-straight. The last time Ohio State lost to the Spartans was in 2015—we all remember. Moreover, Ohio State hasn’t lost in East Lansing since 1999. Unfortunately, Michigan State has five wins over top-five-ranked Ohio State squads.
Most recently, the Buckeyes brought home a 56-7 win in Columbus last year. C.J. Stroud was a monster in that game, his first career six-touchdown performance. The Buckeyes amassed 655 yards and eight total offensive touchdowns. Ohio State’s defense was far more Spartan than the actual Spartans, giving up just 224 yards.
Similar to this season’s game against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes entered the matchup in 2021 with an expectation of a much narrower contest. Seven first-half touchdowns later, and the second half became something of a snoozer as Stroud played just one series after the break.
The Spartan king
Mel Tucker, Michigan State’s head coach, had a breakout season in 2021 behind a core of transfer players anchored by running back Kenneth Walker III. Michigan State notched an 11-2 record, including a win in the Peach Bowl. Unfortunately, the transfer game is hard to maintain, and Sparty is struggling this season.
Tucker came to Michigan State in 2020 and had a down year with the Spartans before his big turnaround last year. Overall, Tucker is now 15-10 overall, including an even 9-9 in conference play.
Tucker signed a 10-year, $95-million contract with Michigan State last November just days before taking home Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. That made Tucker the highest-paid coach in the conference until Ryan Day signed his new contract in May, tying the two coaches in terms of take-home pay.
An uphill battle
The Spartans are losers of three-straight games, having fallen to Washington, Minnesota and Maryland. While that record might look rough at first glance, those teams are all 4-1 now. At second glance, things get back to being really ugly, especially when looking at Michigan State’s ugly, 34-7 loss to Minnesota in which the Spartans didn’t score in the second half. Moreover, all three losses came by double digits.
The early season is no doubt bringing gruesome memories for Tucker, who finished last in the Big Ten East in his first season in 2020. The last time before 2020 that Michigan State finished at the bottom of the conference (because can we really count the COVID regular season?) was 2006 when the Spartans tied with Illinois for worst. Before that it was 1958.
What does a rebound look like for the Spartans? They have not won a game since Sept. 10, and facing the nation’s third-ranked total offense feels like a tall order to get back on track.
In what’s been a down season for Sparty, Michigan State’s most important asset might be their punter. Bryce Baringer is a sixth-year senior, another veteran from the COVID era. Baringer is best in the FBS in punting, averaging more than 53 yards per attempt—the only player in the FBS putting up more than 50 yards per punt. He’s also had four 60-plus-yard punts this season which, for an anemic offense, is a pretty important weapon.
Baringer was busy last year against the Buckeyes, as you might have guessed, kicking a season-high nine punts. He averaged just under 50 yards per attempt last November, including one punt that went 74 yards (!).
Of course, is field position all that important when you have an offense as efficient as Ohio State?
A Thorne in our side
Quarterback Payton Thorne is in his second season as a starter in East Lansing, though things have been a little rougher for the junior than they were last year. He’s thrown eight touchdowns and six picks on the season. Half those touchdowns came in the Spartans’ season opener against Western Michigan.
Notably, though, three of Thorne’s other touchdowns came against what has turned out to be a good Washington squad. In the matchup against the Huskies, Thorne completed 71% of his passes.
While not all that impressive against the Buckeyes last season, Thorne at least played a clean game, going 14-for-36 for 158 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
Thorne has been markedly inconsistent this season as the offense as a whole has worked to find its identity.
The loss of Walker to the NFL last season is still stinging the Spartans, who have struggled to find the balanced offensive attack that propelled them into the top-10 in 2021. Still, Michigan State has a set of running backs who have kept the Spartans alive during some games. The trio of Jalen Berger, Jarek Broussard and Elijah Collins had six rushing touchdowns against Akron in a game when Thorne was ice cold.
Unfortunately for the Spartans, like Thorne, the running game has been spotty at best. Michigan State has only had a rusher cross the century mark twice, both times coming against MAC opponents. In the last three games, no rusher has had more than 36 yards.
Behind enemy lines
While the transfer portal has not gone as well for Michigan State this year as it did last year, one bright spot has been linebacker Jacoby Windmon, who joined the team this year after three seasons at UNLV.
After an impressive junior season with the Rebels, in which he led the team in sacks and total tackles, Windmon now leads the Big Ten in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (8) on the season. Both those marks place him among the top-15 in the FBS. He’s also best in the nation with five forced fumbles on the season (granted, three of those came against Akron, but it’s an impressive stat nonetheless).
The senior will be facing the Buckeyes for the first time Saturday. While it will be the most multi-faceted offense he’s faced since joining the Big Ten, even a fractional impact from the linebacker could still be disruptive to the Ohio State offense.
Seizing the objective
On the note of forced fumbles, Windmon is not alone on the Spartan defense in knocking the ball loose. Senior cornerback Kendell Brooks is second in the FBS in the same stat with three forced fumbles of his own this season.
Overall, the Spartans are tied for third nationally in fumbles recovered with seven through five games. Ohio State has fumbled thrice this season, losing two of them. While the offensive advantage is on the side of the Buckeyes, they cannot afford to cough off the ball to a team who seems to know how to Heimlich it out.
Interestingly, though, the Spartans haven’t had a single interception on the season.
Air raid advantage
Speaking of which, remember that scene in 300 when the Persians rained so many arrows on the Spartans that they blotted out the sun? That’s kind of what Ohio State brings to the table when it comes to the passing attack. Unfortunately for Michigan State, their defense is not quite so arrow-proof as the Spartans’ shields in the movie.
The Spartans are 105th in the FBS in team passing efficiency defense. Opponents are completing 67% of pass attempts against Michigan State. None of Michigan State’s opponents up to this point are close to Ohio State when it comes to passing efficiency (the closest is Maryland, who is 24th in the FBS).
Breaking their defenses
There are clearly bright spots and not-so-bright spots for the Spartan defense. Unfortunately, as Ohio State found out last year, one area that’s absolutely crucial to fix is third-down defense, because it doesn’t matter how well you play on the first two downs if you can’t get off the field.
Michigan State gives up a lot on third down, allowing a first down on 44.2% of opponent attempts. In fact, they’re even worse at getting off the field than they are at passing defense, ranking 106th in the FBS.
Offensively, as one might expect from a top-five offense, the Buckeyes are converting 60% of their third-down attempts (second in the nation behind Minnesota, coincidentally). Given that Ohio State is averaging eight yards per play, it’s not as though there are lots of third-down opportunities, though.
A kick in the groin
Yep, it’s a low blow. Unfortunately for the Spartans, their kicking is just not good. They’ve made just one field goal this season and missed three. They’ve actually had zero red zone field goals, which may be a reason their red zone conversion is just 76%. Against Maryland, two different kickers missed field goals and a botched snap eliminated an extra point attempt that, at the time, would have tied things up.
The Trojan Horse
If a fake punt were an ancient battle maneuver, it would be the Trojan Horse. Because when you expect to get the gift of the football back, you don’t expect that gift to be a trick built for the enemy’s advantage.
The alt story of this game is the punting battle. Mirco’s 22-yard run on a fake punt in the fourth quarter against Rutgers was the highlight of the second half and rendered him the hero we didn’t know we needed. While the fake was entertaining, when it comes to his actual punting prowess, Mirco is no slouch. Not one of his 15 punts has been returned this season.
Saturday, however, Ohio State’s special teams player of the week might not punt at all. Last year, it took until late in the third quarter for the Buckeyes to punt, and this year’s matchup of Ohio State’s offense and Michigan State’s defense appears even more skewed than in 2021.
“This is where we hold them”
The Ohio State offensive line has been bananas this season, allowing just three sacks in five games. That’s tied for seventh nationally and first in the Big Ten. It’s a positive trend because last season the line allowed 17 sacks on their quarterback. The line is currently on pace to halve that this season.
Given what happened against Michigan in 2021 (sorry to bring up the bad memories), it’s refreshing to see a shored up line that will (hopefully) be able to handle a tough defensive front seven. They’ll get a test Saturday against Windmon et al.
Cerberus: The three-headed war dog
The Ohio State rushing attack did not miss a beat last week despite being without TreVeyon Henderson. The Buckeyes finished with 252 yards on the ground on the work of Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden (and Jesse Mirco, at least 22 yards of it). Add Henderson back in and the attack becomes an unstoppable three-headed monster. The Ohio State rushers are averaging 6.2 yards per carry on the ground, which is good for fifth in the FBS.
It wasn’t what we expected heading into the season when it seemed Ohio State would have Henderson as its feature back. It’s even better.
Stroud-ing to Sparty
Quarterback C.J. Stroud has continued to execute at the highest level and continues to be the Heisman favorite heading into this week. He’s doing most everything right, so let’s highlight just one of the most impressive things about Stroud and the offense: red zone efficiency.
The Buckeyes are 25-for-25 in trips to the red zone this year. Of those, 23 turned into touchdowns. Obviously, that’s tied for the best in the country and is the best in-conference. Ohio State can hit teams quickly with the big play to be sure, but the attack has also shown a keen ability to wear defenses down with sustained drives that end up in the red zone. Those time-sucking drives benefit the Ohio State defense and keep the Buckeyes in control.
The real titans
Speaking of defense, Ohio State is 14th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing under 15 points per contest. It’s a massive improvement over last season: At this point in 2021, the Buckeyes were 42nd in the nation in the same category.
The Buckeyes also improved drastically in third-down conversions, allowing a mere 27% of opponent attempts. See above for why that’s important.
While we’re here, let’s just address the ugly real quick. Ohio State is tied for 10th in opponent red zone attempts with just 10 all season (meaning teams simply don’t make it to the red zone), but the Buckeyes are 108th in the nation in red zone scoring defense, allowing scores on 90% of opponent drives. Woof.
Ohio State has been beat up for a few weeks at different position groups, including TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba on offense and Cameron Brown, Jordan Hancock and Kourt Williams in the defensive secondary. Fortunately, players have been able to rest and recoup given how recent games have gone. Even more fortunately, Ohio State has a bye week next week before the Buckeyes face Iowa later this month.
While facing the mighty Spartans once struck fear in the hearts of Ohio State fans, that anxiety has abated in recent seasons. That’s what happens when you’re winners of six-straight, we forget ancient history. The Oracles (Vegas, not Delphi) have the Buckeyes as 27-point favorites. Given what we’ve seen out of Ohio State against Big Ten opponents, that number might be a little low.
Michigan State has struggled this year as they’re working to find an offensive identity while plugging up a defense with serious structural flaws. It’s also generally problematic when your best player is your punter (no offense, punters), even if that punter is really good. Unfortunately for Michigan State, those special teams impacts only make a difference in the proverbial game of inches. It’s like shaving your legs for a swim meet—it might shave a few tenths of a second, but you’re losing by a lot more than that.
As has been the theme thus far this season for Ohio State opponents, it feels like Michigan State is overmatched in every aspect of the game. No one has been able to stop Stroud et al, and the defense has done more than enough to keep opponents at bay.
Still, the Buckeyes can’t sleep on Michigan State. It might be missing pieces from last year, but many of the members of this Spartan squad were part of a top-10 team from last season. And we’ve seen that Mel Tucker, like the Proteus of myth, is a master of using the transfer portal to shape-shift his units.
Who will come out on top? Let the Fates decide.