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Football: Ohio State aims to keep Big Ten hopes alive in matchup against Michigan State

Ohio State redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) signals to the offense in the third quarter of the Ohio State-Iowa game on Nov. 4. Ohio State lost 55-24. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

When No. 13 Ohio State (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) welcomes No. 12 Michigan State (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) to Columbus on Saturday, both teams’ Big Ten East title hopes will be on the line. Both the Buckeyes and the Spartans are tied for first in the division, and a loss likely spells the end of the line for either team. Here is a preview of the matchup between the two teams at noon Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

Ohio State offense vs. Michigan State defense

The matchup between Buckeye offense and Spartan defense is one between two units that come limping into the game. Ohio State put up its second-worst offensive performance of the season against Iowa, mustering only 24 points in a 55-24 loss and racking up just 371 total yards. It also turned the ball over four times.

Michigan State enters with no defensive momentum of its own, however, as it is coming off its two worst defensive games of the season. It gave up 432 yards and 39 points in a double-overtime loss to Northwestern two weeks ago and 466 yards and 24 points to Penn State in its win last week.

Despite recent struggles, Michigan State has one of the top defenses in the nation, and remains in that position even after two rough games. It has allowed the 58th-fewest passing yards per game (245.8) and offenses averaged 6.9 yards per attempt, which is tied for 23rd-lowest in the nation. Led by safety David Dowell and his four interceptions, the Spartans have amassed nine interceptions, tied for 42nd in the country.

However, for as much as the pass defense for the Spartans has worked this season, it has been their rush defense that has truly paid dividends for head coach Mark Dantonio. The team’s 87 rushing yards allowed per game are the third-fewest of any school, and the 2.85 yards per carry are fourth-fewest allowed. Though the defense has not been especially dominant at stuffing running backs and quarterbacks for losses — Michigan State averages 5.67 tackles for loss per game, which is tied for 73rd in the nation — its defensive front does not allow running backs to go far beyond the line of scrimmage.

Led by linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive end Kenny Willekes, the defense has had little problem shutting down star running backs, like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (14 rushes for 63 yards), Notre Dame’s Josh Adams (nine rushes for 56 yards) and Iowa’s Akrum Wadley (17 rushes for 30 yards).

Even if neither the Ohio State offense nor Michigan State defense comes in with momentum, this will be the battle of statistical strengths for the two teams. Ohio State has been among the top offenses in the league, ranking in the top 12 in the nation in total offense, scoring offense, rushing offense and passing offense. If Ohio State is going to find much success, it will have to come from the arm of quarterback J.T. Barrett, being that the Spartans’ passing defense has been the most inconsistent aspect of its defense. Though freshman J.K. Dobbins and redshirt sophomore Mike Weber make up a potentially dynamic duo of running backs, both could struggle against one of the best rushing defenses in the nation.

If Barrett has a game like he did against Penn State, Ohio State should be able to put up points on Michigan State. However, if Barrett struggles, the run game might not be able to provide that usual backbone of support.

Ohio State defense vs. Michigan State offense

The Buckeyes’ defense is coming off its second worst week of the season, having just surrendered 487 total yards and 55 points — the most ever allowed by head coach Urban Meyer — in the loss to Iowa. Michigan State, on the other hand, is coming off its third-best offensive week of the season, after racking up 474 total yards and 27 points against Penn State in its 27-24 win.

The Spartan offense has been reliable, if unspectacular this season. The 5.4 yards per play is tied for 93rd in the nation, and its 24.1 points per game is 97th.

Michigan State gets the bulk of its offensive productivity from dual-threat quarterback Brian Lewerke. In his first year as the starting quarterback for the Spartans, Lewerke has thrown for 2,207 yards and completed 61 percent of his passes. He has 16 touchdowns to only four interceptions. He also has proven to be threatening on the ground, ranking second on the team in rushing yards with 368 and averaging the second-most yards per carry over any rusher with at least 10 attempts (4.5). He has scored three times on the ground. Lewerke will enter Ohio Stadium on a hot streak as he has surpassed 400 passing yards in back-to-back games.

Lewerke’s favorite target this season has been 6-foot-4, 195-pound wide receiver Felton Davis III. The junior has hauled in 45 receptions for 586 yards and has caught half of Lewerke’s 16 touchdowns. The tall wideout could give Ohio State issues as the Buckeyes struggled to contain Indiana’s Simmie Cobbs Jr., a 6-foot-4, 220-pound wideout who caught 11 passes for 149 yards in Week 1.

The Spartans’ rushing offense has not been near as potent, but Ohio-native running back L.J. Scott has at times been one of the best weapons in Michigan State’s arsenal. He has 554 yards on 127 carries and has scored five times on the ground. He has struggled lately, however, as he comes into this game with just 146 rushing yards on 44 carries over his past three games (3.3 yards per carry).

What will likely determine Ohio State’s success will be the performance of its defensive line. It was unable to sufficiently pressure Iowa quarterback Nathan Stanley, and he often made them pay for it by escaping the pocket and opening a receiver up downfield against a struggling Ohio State secondary.

The Buckeyes won their game against Penn State and held the Nittany Lions to just 283 total yards of offense because the pocket closed around Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and limited the time he had available to complete passes. If Lewerke is able to escape the pocket enough and create time for his receivers, the Buckeyes’ secondary might again be burned.

Predictions:

Edward Sutelan: Ohio State wins 30-27

Colin Hass-Hill: Ohio State wins 24-23

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