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Opinion: 5 questions ahead of showdown in East Lansing

(Left) Michigan State's Connor Cook (18) is forced into intentional grounding on the rush by Michigan's Courtney Avery and James Ross III, right, in the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, on Saturday, November 2, 2013.  Credit: Courtesy of TNS (Right) OSU sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa (97) reacts after sacking Illinois sophomore quarterback Aaron Bailey (15) during a Nov. 1 game at Ohio Stadium. OSU won, 55-14. Credit: Ben Jackson / For The Lantern

(Left) Michigan State’s Connor Cook (18) is forced into intentional grounding on the rush by Michigan’s Courtney Avery and James Ross III, right, in the first half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, on Saturday, November 2, 2013.
Credit: Courtesy of TNS
(Right) OSU sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa (97) reacts after sacking Illinois sophomore quarterback Aaron Bailey (15) during a Nov. 1 game at Ohio Stadium. OSU won, 55-14.
Credit: Ben Jackson / For The Lantern

It’s the game Buckeye, Spartan and Big Ten fans have been looking forward to all season long.

No. 13 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan State are set to square off in a game that will in all likelihood decide the Big Ten East division champion Saturday night in East Lansing, Mich. 

With the big game quickly approaching, The Lantern sports editors have come up with five things you should look for during the Buckeye-Spartan matchup. 

1. How will J.T. Barrett perform on the big stage?

The redshirt-freshman quarterback struggled to handle the combination of the Penn State defense and the Beaver Stadium crowd two weeks ago, and will be facing a very similar environment and defense on Saturday. 

The good news for Buckeye fans is that under Urban Meyer, OSU has yet to lose a true road game.

Barrett played average at best in his last game against Illinois, completing 15 of 24 passes for 167 yards and two scores in a half of football before being pulled for redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones.

Whether the lackluster performance was because of the brisk weather or the sprained MCL sustained in the first half of the Penn State game, Barrett’s performance could very well mean the difference between playing for a Big Ten championship, or watching the game back in Columbus.

2. Will Connor Cook once again dismantle the Buckeye secondary? 

Coming into the 2013 Big Ten championship game, MSU now-redshirt-junior Connor Cook was known mostly as a game manager. 

Then he met the OSU secondary. 

Cook threw for his first career 300-yard passing game as the Spartans ruined a likely OSU appearance in the last installment of the BCS National Championship Game. 

Cook’s three touchdown passes along with 304 passing yards led the way to a 34-24 win over the Buckeyes and propelled the Spartans to the Rose Bowl, which they won over Pac-12 champion Stanford. 

Fast forward nearly a year, and the Buckeye defense is much improved as it ranks 13th in the country in pass defense, allowing just 181.4 yards per game through the air.  

Cook is averaging 233.5 yards per game through the air this season and has 17 touchdown passes versus just five interceptions. 

Cook’s play against the Buckeye secondary will be just as crucial as Barrett’s play in determining the game’s winner. 

3. Will sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa continue putting up ridiculous numbers?

Bosa — not even two full seasons removed from playing high school football — has already been selected as a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik and Lombardi awards, which are two of the most prestigious awards in college football.

And he’s certainly deserving of the recognition.

In eight games this season, Bosa has put up Big Ten-bests in sacks with 10 and tackles for lost with 14.5. He ranks among the best nationally in both categories as well, and easily leads the Buckeyes in being really good at tackling guys behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, his closest teammate — redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee — has just 3.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss on the year.

With Cook playing at such a high level, Bosa’s disruptive pass rushing could be the difference between a win and a loss for the Buckeyes.

4. Who will be the featured back for the Buckeyes?

After starting the first seven games of the season, sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott did not start against Illinois as freshman Curtis Samuel took the field for the Buckeyes instead. 

Samuel did not disappoint either, as he scored from 23-yards out on OSU’s first drive against the Fighting Illini. 

With the matchup against the Spartans looming, Elliott is listed as the starter on the Buckeyes depth chart, but Samuel could still see multiple touches. 

Expect Elliott to get the start as the more experienced player in a hostile environment. 

5. Can redshirt-senior Spartan running back Jeremy Langford break down the OSU defense?

In the seven games since matching up with Navy’s triple-option attack, the Buckeyes have given up more than 100 yards on the ground just three times. 

It took 41 carries for Virginia Tech to make it to 125 yards on the ground, 38 carries for Rutgers to reach 149 and Illinois 42 carries to just pick up 106 yards rushing. So even if the final number has been in the triple-digits, OSU has repeatedly proven it can stop the run.

But the Buckeyes haven’t faced a back as good as Langford yet, and he’s been at his best over the Spartans’ past two games. In those two games — two big wins against Indiana and Michigan — Langford has totaled 286 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground.

If he can keep up that form under the lights on Saturday, it could open up even more space for Cook in the passing game and cause huge problems for OSU when Michigan State has the ball.

OSU and Michigan State are scheduled to kick off at 8 p.m.

 

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