Ohio State’s lowest point total in the 2019 season is 42, which it collected in a shutout win against Cincinnati.
Forty-two points is more than all but 12 teams in the country average per game.
No. 4 Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) has been prolific on offense so far this year, but No. 25 Michigan State (4-1, 2-0) rolls into Columbus allowing 254 yards per game — seventh-fewest in the nation and 282 less than Ohio State gains per game.
“We’re up against one of the best run defenses in college football in the last two decades this week, so we’re going to have to bring our A-game,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said.
Ohio State mounted 368 yards on the ground against Nebraska, which ranked a respectable No. 41 in rush defense entering the game.
Michigan State is No. 4, the only current top 40 rush defense the Buckeyes have faced so far. It works both ways, however, as Ohio State’s No. 7 rush offense will be the first top 40 attack the Spartans have faced. Ohio State junior running back J.K. Dobbins is second in the country with 654 rushing yards, accrued at a blistering 7.1 yards per carry.
Against the pass, Michigan State fairs slightly worse, allowing 198 yards per game — No. 7 in the Big Ten.
When Michigan State does have success against the pass, it’s often because it’s pressuring the quarterback. The Spartans are No. 2 in the Big Ten with 16 sacks this year. Ohio State is No. 1.
Sophomore quarterback Justin Fields is placing an emphasis on quick decision-making, hoping to avoid sacks on Saturday.
“I have to get a better feel of throwing the ball away and when to try to make a play,” Fields said. “Some of the sacks this year, they were really on me. I should’ve just thrown the ball away and moved onto the next play.”
Leading the Spartan defense is senior defensive end Kenny Willekes, a first team All-Big Ten performer in 2018.
Seeing a defensive lineman attain more than 50 tackles is abnormal, with no Buckeye frontman accomplishing the feat since 2016. Willekes accumulated more than 70 in both 2017 and 2018. He’s on pace to do that again in 2019, with 34 stops through five games. He’s consistently in the backfield, too, with six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks this season.
“I feel like he’s in on every play when I watch a clip of film,” Day said. “His hands, he’s got to be really, really strong because he gets off blocks better than anybody I’ve ever seen in the last couple years on film in this conference.”
Backing him in the front seven is senior linebacker Joe Bachie, another 2018 first team All-Big Ten selection. Bachie is looking for a third consecutive season with 100 tackles, leading the Spartans with 47 this season. The team captain adds 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception to that total.
Day said that when scheming against great defenders like Ohio State junior defensive end Chase Young, Bachie or Willekes, it’s important to devote some time to it, but not too much.
“I think that’s kind of the art of coaching, again, is how much do you spend time on a great player?” Day said. “There’s a couple great players on Michigan State; how much time are we going to spend figuring out how to neutralize those guys? Because they are the difference makers.”
Day said what stands out most about Michigan State’s defense, however, is its simplicity, adaptability and versatility.
“They’re not super complicated, but they have answers to everything that you do. So the minute you run a play, they’re on top of it, and they’ve got it defended the next play,” Day said. “These are guys who have played in this system for a while, and there are coaches who have coached in this system for a while, so it’s a tremendous challenge.”
The Michigan State defense also does well in generating turnovers. Fields has yet to throw an interception in his collegiate career, but the Spartans are tied for No. 8 with several teams nationally with six picks this season.
Even against a team with a plus-6 turnover margin, tied for No. 2 in the Big Ten with the Buckeyes, Day said Ohio State hasn’t been playing conservatively, and it doesn’t plan to Saturday.
“I think you have to be aggressive,” Day said. “You can’t not be aggressive. That’s kind of the way we are. We like to be aggressive.”
Ohio State and Michigan State kick off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium.