Conquer the Spartans: Ohio State – Michigan State Preview

The college football gods giveth, the college football gods taketh away. One week after an emotional, fulfilling win over Penn State, The No. 13 Ohio State University Buckeyes (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) no-showed a road game in Iowa City. The Bucks still control their own destiny in the Big Ten East, but so does this week’s opponent – the No. 12 Michigan State Spartans (7-2, 5-1). All other division clubs have at least two losses so the winner of Saturday’s game will be in the catbird seat to reach Indianapolis. Let’s preview the Bucks’ biggest game of the season.

Ohio State leads the all-time series with Michigan State 30-15. OSU won last year’s game 17-16, but the schools have alternated wins of late, each going 3-3 in the past six matchups. That includes Sparty’s 34-24 win in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game. Ohio State has not defeated Michigan State in Columbus since 2007. The Spartans’ last win in the Arch City, 2015, sunk the Bucks’ division, conference, and playoff hopes. Needless to say, these schools do not like each other.

Clearly last season’s 3-9 campaign was an aberration. In 2017, the Green and White defeated two MAC schools to open the year before dropping a contest to Notre Dame. That game has aged well as the Irish continue to rise in the standings. Sparty won their first conference games against Iowa, No. 7 Michigan, Minnesota, and Indiana before dropping a triple overtime contest at Northwestern. MSU righted the ship with a walk-off field goal last week over No. 7 Penn State. The schedule makers were kind to MSU; they close at home against Maryland and at Rutgers. So the Buckeyes cannot bank on a late stumble to bail them out in case this weekend’s game goes south.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke has come into his own under head coach Mark Dantonio. Lewerke has thrown for 192-of-315 passing for 2,207 yards, 16 touchdowns, and five interceptions. His two favorite targets are junior Felton Davis III (45 receptions, 586 yards, 8 TD’s) and redshirt sophomore Darrell Stewart Jr. (40 catches, 427 yards, two scores). Junior LJ Scott anchors the ground game for 554 yards on 127 attempts (4.4 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. On defense, ballhawking safety David Dowell has four picks on the season.

Ohio State’s loss at Iowa seemingly came out of nowhere. The Hawkeyes were heavy home underdogs, and the Buckeyes appeared destined for their third playoff appearance in four years. One game later the entire complexion of the OSU season appears altered. While it is not impossible for a two-loss Ohio State team to reach the College Football Playoff, it would be unprecedented and considering the field appears extraordinarily unlikely. There is, however still plenty to play for. The Buckeyes need to defeat Michigan State if they want to win the East Division. The following week OSU gets to play Illinois for the Illibuck Trophy – the school’s only trophy rivalry. Those games both serve as mere appetizers for The Game on November 25. A division title would send Ohio State back to Indianapolis for the first time since 2014 for a likely clash with Wisconsin. The Rose Bowl serves as a Playoff Semifinal this season, but the Big Ten Conference Champion will assuredly play in the Cotton, Orange, Fiesta, or Peach Bowl in the New Year’s Six slate. Those are admirable consolation prizes.

The Iowa loss provided a few unfortunate firsts for the Urban Meyer Era in Columbus. OSU has lost two regular season games for the first time under Meyer’s tutelage and the school has not suffered multiple regular season losses since The Lost Season of 2011. Previously, Iowa had not defeated Ohio State since 2004. Meyer’s club looked ineffective in all phases in Iowa City and similar lethargy against the Spartans will yield the same result.

It’s easy to blame playcalling after a loss, but questions remain surrounding the pass-to-run ratio in a few of Ohio State’s games. During the Iowa loss OSU ran 64 offensive plays; 34 were passes (53% passing, 47% rushing). Of the thirty run plays, however, fourteen went to J.T. Barrett. The Bucks’ QB is a talented rusher who can move well with the ball, but it raises eyebrows to see J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber receiving six and five touches, respectively. It’s true that the Scarlet and Gray trailed almost the entire game, but there was no reason to snub Dobbins and Weber so completely. Even against Penn State, a game in which the Bucks did not hold a lead until the fourth quarter, Dobbins took thirteen carries for 88 yards while Weber took 7 for 21. Ohio State’s coaching staff would do well to remember their tailbacks against Sparty.

The Spartans will offer a stern test for the Buckeyes. After the past couple weeks, it’s tough to know what to expect from Ohio State. The Spartans were the last visiting team to win a Big Ten game in Ohio Stadium, and they will not be intimidated at kickoff. Still, the Buckeyes should have an advantage at the defensive line, and if J.T. Barrett can protect the ball then Ohio State will have a fighting chance. More likely than not, the winner of this game will win the division and play for a conference title. Let’s see which OSU team shows up with the season on the line.