Following a 36-31 win against Nebraska, Ohio State still has a lot to prove in order to find itself in the College Football Playoff at the end of the season.
Ranked No. 10 in the recent rankings, the Buckeyes now see a route that once looked to be all in their control growing slimmer and slimmer each week.
No. 18 Michigan State is the next roadblock for Ohio State (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten), and head coach Urban Meyer understands the difficult task his team faces in East Lansing, Michigan.
“A big one this week against Michigan State, very strong rivalry,” Meyer said. “We have a lot of respect for that team and they’re playing as good a defense as there is any in the country.”
The Spartans (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) come into the game winning three of their past four, including key victories against No. 20 Penn State and Purdue. Their loss came in a 21-7 defeat against No. 4 Michigan.
The Michigan State defense ranks No. 16 in the NCAA with 19.0 points allowed per game, and giving up 71.7 yards per game on the ground, the fewest in the country.
“They penetrate. The defensive line is big and strong and then the linebackers don’t sit back,” Meyer said. “When the run surfaces, they hit it hard and they pull off double teams. Just a very good defense.”
Junior linebacker Joe Bachie leads the Spartans’ defense with 68 tackles, 6.5 of which are for loss, including a sack. He also had an interception, five pass breakups, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery on the season.
Redshirt junior defensive end Kenny Willekes is Michigan State’s major difference-maker on the line, with 51 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, including 7.5 sacks on the year. The sacks are tied for No. 19 in the NCAA.
Meyer said he expects more of the same from Michigan State in comparison to matchups in previous years..
“Their defense hasn’t changed that much,” Meyer said. “Well-coached defense, tough guys, defensive front is outstanding and their backers are outstanding.”
Prior to last season, Ohio State and Michigan State split their past six matchups, with each game decided by 12 points or fewer. But in 2017, after the Buckeyes lost 55-24 to Iowa, it took out its frustration on the Spartans, rushing for 335 yards in a 48-3 rout.
Redshirt junior cornerback Damon Arnette said he knows, even with last year’s game, the team has to be ready for a battle in East Lansing.
“Games like this, it’s just going to come down to toughness,” Arnette said. “Every year, it really don’t matter what their record is, what our record is, going into that game, just need to know who you going in, you gotta go in swinging, it’s gonna be a fist fight, just everybody gotta be getting ready for it.”
Offensively, it is not the same story for the Spartans.
Michigan State ranks in the bottom 20 in scoring offense with 23.4 points per game, and earns 360.3 yards per game, the 25th-worst offense in the NCAA.
Redshirt junior quarterback Brian Lewerke, who was confirmed to be the starter by Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio earlier this week, has been in and out of the starting job in recent weeks. He has eight passing touchdowns and eight interceptions on the season.
Lewerke has been without his main threat, senior wide receiver Felton Davis III, who is out for the season with a torn achilles.
Meyer said, even with the recent struggles, that Michigan State’s offense still has weapons to worry about.
“Very talented running backs, very talented receivers and a very good offensive line. A quarterback can run and throw and do the whole package,” Meyer said. “You’re facing a team that does a lot of stuff on offense.”
In the run game, the Spartans have switched running backs from senior LJ Scott to sophomore Connor Heyward, who is averaging 5.1 yards per carry on the season. Heyward rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries in Michigan State’s most recent win against Maryland.
Ohio State-Michigan State games are always hard to predict, but this year feels especially difficult. With the Buckeyes coming in slumping and Michigan State starting to look a little stronger, especially defensively, a lot of this matchup feels like a toss up.
The Spartans defense has the opportunity to stall out running backs, sophomore J.K. Dobbins and redshirt junior Mike Weber, much like they were against Purdue. But Michigan State struggles against the pass, allowing the 32nd-most passing yards per game in the nation.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins has the opportunity for a big game, but he had that same opportunity against Nebraska, who had the 30th-worst pass defense. Instead, he had his lowest completion percentage on the season.
Ohio State’s defense has been nothing short of terrible in the past two games, regardless of injuries playing a factor. The emergence of sophomore safety Brendon White will help, but Meyer has not confirmed whether he or redshirt freshman Shaun Wade will be the starter alongside junior Jordan Fuller, though he said both will get reps.
If Lewerke, Heyward and Michigan State’s offense can take advantage of the Buckeyes’ porous defense, I think it has enough pieces on the defensive side to officially take Ohio State out of the playoff conversation.
I just don’t think the Spartans can do that.
Haskins, Dobbins and Weber strictly need to play remotely well in this game to escape with a victory, because I do not see Michigan State scoring more than 24 points in this matchup after failing to do so in its past six games.
If the Buckeyes get the offense going, they could win in a dominant fashion. If it gets completely stalled early, the Spartans have a terrific chance at the upset.
Ohio State is an ugly team right now, but it is fortunate Michigan State’s offense is even uglier, because that may just give the Buckeyes enough to hold on for the win.
Wyatt Crosher: 23-20 Ohio State
Colin Gay: 28-21 Ohio State
Edward Sutelan: 31-28 Ohio State