It was not long after Ohio State trounced Illinois 55-14 that the Buckeyes turned their attention to Michigan State.
In fact, quarterback J.T. Barrett said coach Urban Meyer addressed it immediately after the win in the OSU locker room.
“Yeah, it’s the real one. This is why you come to Ohio State, you go play Michigan State at Michigan State,” said Barrett. “This is what it is. It’s big time.”
It’s big time because Ohio State is ranked 13th in the latest AP and 11th in the Coaches’ rankings. Michigan State is 7th and 6th respectively.
It’s big time because each of these teams has lost once, and another defeat would almost certainly squash a squad’s playoff hopes for the season.
And it’s big time because of what happened last season. Buckeye players vividly remember the 34-24 loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten title game.
This, however, is not that same team. Michigan State, always known for their defense, has ramped it up on offense this year and is currently ranked 5th nationally in scoring. They average 45.5 points a game.
Interestingly, that puts them right behind OSU, whose average is 45.6 points a game.
Something else the two teams have in common? An efficient quarterback. Barrett is 4th nationally in passing efficiency. Michigan State’s Connor Cook? The Hinckley, Ohio native is seventh, and he has never lost to a Big Ten opponent with a 13-0 record against conference foes.
Cook’s top target, Tony Lippett, leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game. The only two times he’s come up short of triple digits this season were Michigan State routs, games in which continuing to pass would have been bad form. Still his average is 111.1 yards every time out. That number actually jumps to 117 yards game in conference play.
Michigan State has won most of their games handily (six victories of 15+ points), so Lippett’s production in the first quarter of games is partly the result of the Spartans backing off in the second half, but it’s still notable how much they involve Lippett early. Seven of his 9 touchdowns have come in the first quarter. Nearly half his catches (20 of 42) have come on first down.
The Spartans second-leading receiver is their 6’4″ tight end, Josiah Price. He has 26 fewer catches and is 631 yards shy of Lippett, so that tells you how much Michigan State depends on #14.
When it comes to their run game, the Spartans are, statistically speaking, even more impressive. While they are 43rd nationally in passing yards, their ground attack is ranked 17th. Jeremy Langford (841 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Nick Hill (482 yards, 6 touchdowns) handle the bulk of the load, but Delton Williams shouldn’t be forgotten. He has five touchdowns and is averaging 7.2 yards a carry.
Helping both aspects of their offense is their incredible balance. Michigan State is averaging 254.9 rushing yards and 260.4 passing yards a game. Over and above that is an offensive line, which is ranked third nationally in only allowing 5 sacks all year.
Meanwhile the Michigan State defense features sack machines Shilique Calhoun and Ed Davis. They have each gotten to the opposing quarterback six times. Calhoun is part of a defensive line that averages 6’5″, 275 pounds. Davis is a 6’3″ linebacker out of Detroit.
The Spartans actually get defensive contributions from everywhere, so much so that their leading tackler, safety Kurtis Drummond is 47th in the Big Ten. In addition, Drummond has 6 pass breakups and 2 interceptions.
That feeds into a larger trend: Michigan State leads the Big Ten in forcing 22 turnovers, while they have only given away the ball 10 times.
Finally, the Spartans defense is led by the highly respected coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who–because his team is coming off a bye week–had extra time to devise exotic blitzes to confuse Barrett.
So it will be difficult, but if Ohio State wins they will set a record with 21 straight regular-season league victories.
ESPN Game Day will be there Saturday. So, of course, will 97.1 The Fan.