Tell me if you heard this before. The Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan State Spartans do battle with one hoping to continue its push towards a national championship. This seems to be the theme when OSU coach Urban Meyer meets Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio late in the season.
Despite Sparty’s 3-7 overall and 1-6 Big Ten record, the motif of win-or-go-home motivates the No. 2 Buckeyes in the heart of the College Football Playoff discussion.
The back-and-forth blows by the Scarlet and Gray and the Green and White have built the matchup as one of the year’s most anticipated games each season. For the past three years, the winner of the Big Ten battle has altered college football’s national landscape.
In 2015, one celebratory windmill at a time, Michigan State then-junior kicker Michael Geiger triggered tears in the eyes of OSU fans after hitting the game-winning field goal as time expired. This year OSU finds itself in the same spot, but determined to keep its season alive.
“(We) just want to beat Michigan State,” Meyer said. “It means a lot.”
The Spartans offense has a much different look in 2016 than it did a season ago. No Connor Cook under center, no Aaron Burbridge or Macgarrett Kings at wide receiver and no Jack Conklin on the esteemed offensive line highlight the amount of talent that departed from an offense that returned just four starters.
Senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor — a name that might be familiar to Ohio State — is the starter. O’Connor played for the injured Cook last season against OSU and controlled the offense enough to dethrone the Buckeyes from the undefeated ranks and destroy OSU’s chance at a second straight national title.
This year, O’Connor hasn’t lit up the stat sheet, but he remains in the top half of the Big Ten in passing efficiency. The senior from Lima, Ohio, is completing more than 61 percent of his passes, but averages less than 200 yards passing per game.
His favorite target is senior wide receiver R.J. Shelton. The Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, native has reeled in 47 passes this season for 710 yards and five touchdowns. He averages just under five receptions per game and is averaging more than 15 yards per catch. Shelton is O’Connor’s most targeted wide receiver on passes 20 yards or more.
“As a coach, there’s always concern,” said co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. “When you put the tape on and I watch (Michigan State’s) explosive play reel and it’s 30 plays of passes alone, you’re talking three explosives a game. If that happens to you, that could be 21 points.”
In the running game, another Ohio native, L.J. Scott from Hubbard, leads the Spartan backfield with 775 yards and five touchdowns. Statistically, the Spartans rank 67th in the nation in total offense, which plays right into the hands of OSU, which is ranked third in the nation in scoring defense.
“They go deep into their roster and got some outstanding football players,” Dantonio said on Tuesday regarding OSU’s defense. “They run and tackle very effectively.”
OSU had its single worst offensive output with Meyer on the sidelines last season against Michigan State. OSU gained just 132 total yards in an abysmal performance that caused former running back Ezekiel Elliott to call out the coaching staff for only getting 12 carries, just four in the second half. However, to credit Michigan State, the Spartans’ front seven always present a physical challenge to the Buckeyes.
“Even when we won 49-37 two years ago, you walk away from that game saying, ‘wow, that was physical,’” said redshirt junior guard Billy Price. “You have to respect those guys. They’re cut from the same fabric we are.”
The biggest departure from the 2015 Michigan State defense that won the Big Ten was three-time, second-team All-American Shilique Calhoun. Now playing for the Oakland Raiders, Calhoun had been an integral part of a defense that made it difficult on Price and the rest of the offensive line.
However, junior defensive lineman Malik McDowell is still on the Spartans’ defensive front, and requires a great deal of attention from opposing teams. McDowell sat out last week’s game with an injury and Dantonio said that either McDowell will either be starting or won’t play on Saturday.
The Spartans rank sixth in the Big Ten and 30th in the country in total defense. Junior linebacker Chris Frey leads their defense with 81 tackles and will play with a chip on his shoulder, having grown up down the street from OSU in Upper Arlington.
OSU redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett said that to have success against the Spartans this year, the offense will need to pick up yardage on first and second downs.
“First down, (we) weren’t getting positive yardage and were playing behind the chains and weren’t able to get in rhythm,” he said.
Barrett’s breakout game came against Michigan State in 2014 when he threw for 300 yards and accounted for five total touchdowns. He said the preparation for that game enabled his success.
“I think we were playing well as a team and we knew we were the underdogs in that game so we wanted to come out, play hard for each other and it came to be a good game for us, especially offensively,” Barrett said.
The 2016 Spartans have been the biggest bust in the Big Ten this season. They started the conference season ranked in the top 10 and quickly plummeted down the rankings with seven consecutive losses.
Despite all that, Meyer sees a team that is still capable of pulling off a colossal upset.
“(They’re) extremely dangerous,” Meyer said. “As well-coached as any team in the country.”
Barrett and the offense are playing at a very high level at the right time of the season and are going into East Lansing with a lot of confidence. OSU scored 60-plus points in two straight games for the first time since 1996. On paper, Ohio State should dominate the game on both sides of the ball. If history says anything about the two teams, the game will be decided in the late stages of the game. However, expect OSU to roll through this one pretty handily.
Score: Ohio State 41-16