8:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Michigan State -3.5
Big Ten heavyweights clash tonight in East Lansing, as the seventh-ranked Michigan a State Spartans host the fourteenth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in a matchup that will likely decide the East Division, go a long way towards deciding the conference as a whole. In fact, these teams met in last year’s Big Ten Conference Championship Game in which the Spartans ultimately proved victorious in the 34-24 affair. That night, the Buckeyes managed to run up a whopping 273 yards on the ground, a season-high, but were in turn shredded in the passing game by Connor Cook, who threw for 300 yards for the first time in his young career. However, Ohio State (7-1, 4-0 in Big Ten) will have quite a different look about them tonight in comparison to last November; returning Quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during the Summer, leaving Urban Meyer and his staff to turn to J.T. Barrett today the team this season.
In many respects, the offense hasn’t lost a step with Barrett under Center, for the Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in five out of their last six games now. On the season, Meyer’s offense has averaged 40.6 points on a ridiculously balanced 505.1 yards, with 235.9 coming through the air and another 259.3 coming on the ground. With the exception of a 31-24 overtime thriller against Penn State in which they were limited to 293 yards, this team has amassed at least 500 yards of offense in Big Ten play. Last weekend at the Horseshoe, the hosts dismantled Illinois in a 55-14 victory where Barrett and Co. put up 545 yards, 296 of which came via the run. Before Meyer relived him of his duties, Barrett completed 15-of-24 passes for 167 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, while also rushing for another 38 yards on seven carries. In his first extensive run as the starter, the Redshirt Freshman has been largely stellar, completing 64.7% of his passes for 1,856 yards (9.0 yards/attempt), with 23 touchdowns to seven interceptions, while churning out another 496 yards (4.7) and six scores with his legs. And speaking of the rushing attack, it’s no coincidence that Barrett’s success has come band-in-hand with the reinvigorated ground game; since their 31-25 loss at Virginia Tech back on September 6th in which they were relegated to a season-low 108 rushing yards on a mere 2.7 yards per carry, Ohio State has averaged a hefty 295.3 yards, the fifth-most in the FBS over that span.
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes have once again solid, ranking towards the aummit of the Big Ten in a number of categories. Through eight games, Meyer’s defense has allowed 17.7 points on 299.5 yards, including just 181.4 versus the pass and another 118.1 versus the run. Most notably, this unit has done a tremendous job limiting big plays; this far, Ohio State has yielded seventeen plays of twenty or more yards, the fewest in the country. Furthermore, in conference play they are relinquishing 284.5 yards per game, including a scant 84.3 against the run on 2.5 yards per carry. Opposing Quarterbacks have struggled against them, completing 58.9% of their attempts with fourteen interceptions, all but five of which coming over the past four games. And where there picks, there are often sacks, and the Buckeyes have been adept at bringing down opposing passers; the defense has amassed twenty-five sacks this far, with Defensive End Joey Bosa racking up ten all by himself. The Sophomore has now rung his career total up to 17.5 in just nineteen contests, with 6.5 over the last four outings alone.
Meanwhile, the reigning Big Ten Champions can virtually book a second consecutive trip to the conference title game tonight with a win over the Buckeyes in East Lansing, which is something that the Spartans (7-1, 4-0 in Big Ten) haven’t done since 1999, losing each of their past four meetings there, including 2012’s 16-14 defeat. However, after last year’s huge victory in the Conference Title Game, Mark Dantonio’s charges must feel confident in lieu of this clash; Michigan State torched Ohio State for 438 yards, including 304 on the arm of Connor Cook, who completed 24-of-40 for three touchdowns in the win. Defensively, they struggled to contain the run, but made Braxton Miller and Co. when they attempted to pass the ball, holding the Big Ten Year of the Year to a miserable 8-of-21 passing (38.1%).
Now that defense will be asked once again to bottle up the Buckeyes’ explosive offense, and from the looks of things lately the Spartans seem readily up to the task. Through eight games, Michigan State has permitted just 18.0 points on 279.4 yards, including 183.5 versus the pass, and only 95.9 versus the rush. Opposing passers have had a hell of a time at picking these guys apart, completing just 50.0% of their passes and tossing ten interceptions. Dantonio’s defense has been excellent at forcing turnovers, with twelve recovered fumbles bringing their total this season up to a staggering twenty-two takeaways. Two weeks ago they completely snuffed out bitter rival Michigan, limiting the Wolverines to a scant 186 yards of total offense, with their Quarterbacks going a dreadful 13-of-29 (44.8%) for 121 yards. In the trenches, the pass rush has generated a ridiculous theory-one sacks, led by Ed Davis and reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Shilique Calhoun accounting for six drops apiece.
However, the biggest difference between these Spartans and last year’s Spartans is the play of their offense, which has improved by leaps and bounds with the aforementioned Cook leading it. When you think of Michigan State and the Big Ten in general, immediately staunch defenses and conservative, yet physical offenses come to mind. Well, throw that notion out the window, for this offense has been as explosive as any in the country; thus far, Cook and Co. have averaged 40.4 points on 515.3 yards, ranking fifth and ninth nationally respectively. And if you thought theat Ohio State was balanced, wait until you get a look at this unit; Michigan State has averaged 260.4 yards through the air and another 254.9 on the ground. Cook’s rise from a relative unknown last season to a potential top-ten pick in May’s NFL Draft has been the biggest reason for the rapid improvement, with the Junior Quarterback completing 60.6% of his passes for 1,868 yards (9.4 yards/attempt), seventeen touchdowns and five interceptions. Furthermore, since earning the starting job earlyast year, Cook has thrown 39 touchdowns to eleven interceptions, with the offense as a whole breaking the 45-point threshold on six occasions this term.