3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Ohio State -14, Over/Under: 52.5
Major Playoff implications are abound at Ohio Stadium today, as the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes host the ninth-ranked Michigan State Spartans in a matchup that will very likely decide not just the Big Ten East, but the conference as a whole. Granted, undefeated Iowa would definitely have something to say about that, but dating all the way back to the summertime, this was the game that we all had circled on the Big Ten schedule. After all, either the Spartans or Buckeyes have gone on to win the conference in each of the last two seasons; two years ago, it was Michigan State who shocked Urban Meyer’s charges 34-24 in the Big Ten Title Game, en route to a triumphant 24-20 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, while Ohio State returned the favor by dumping Mark D’Antonio’s outfit 49-37 in East Lansing on their way towards winning another Conference Championship and crashing the first annual College Football Playoff. So needless to say, with both teams entering today’s contest ranked in the AP Top Ten, there is plenty on the line. For the visiting side, a win would no doubt vault up the rankings, while propelling them into the Big Ten Title Game, which would give them one last opportunity to impress the Selection Committee; the general consensus is that if Sparty managed to upset undefeated Ohio State AND Iowa, then they would be a lock for one of the top four seeds on New Year’s Eve. After suffering their first loss of the season in insane fashion at Nebraska, Michigan State (9-1, 5-1 in Big Ten) managed to get things back on track against hapless Maryland, in a game that was not very easy on the eyes. To call their 24-7 win sloppy would be an understatement; eight turnovers marred the contest, as both teams failed to surpass the 300-yard threshold offensively. The Spartans only totaled 262 yards of offense last Saturday, with a healthy dose coming via the ground game (141 yards). Tailback Gerald Holmes led the way with eighty-three yards and a score on eighteen carries (4.6 y/c), while as many as eight of his teammates carried the ball out of the backfield. However, the big story was the health of Quarterback Connor Cook, who departed the tilt early after suffering a shoulder injury. The Senior’s play left a lot to be desired, completing a mere 6-of-20 attempts (30.0%) for seventy-seven yards and interception, before D’Antonio relieved him of his duties in favor of Tyler O’Connor, who went on to throw for forty-four yards, a touchdown and an interception on just 6-of-11 passing (54.5%). When asked earlier in the week about his shoulder, Cook replied that it felt good, which it better be by today, for it will be tested often against the Buckeyes’ loaded defense today.
For Michigan State to leave Columbus, Ohio with their second victory over the Buckeyes in three years, they will no doubt need an impressive showing from Cook, who seems like he has been in East Lansing forever now. Forty games into his career, and the Senior has racked up thirty-two victories as a starter, which is not only for the most in school history, but believe it or not ties him with Stanford’s Kevin Hogan for most by an active Quarterback. Projected by many to be the first passer selected in next May’s NFL Draft, this kid is your prototypical pocket passer with the size, arm and quick release that so many decision-makers on the professional level covet. Ten games into his final campaign as a Spartan, No. 18 has completed 56.1% of his passes for 2,472 yards (8.0 y/a), twenty-one touchdowns and just four interceptions. And in regards to facing Ohio State, this guy won’t flinch, for he has performed very well against them in the past; in two showdowns with the Scarlet and Silver, Cook has completed 57.6% of his passes for an average of 331.0 yards (7.8 y/a), five touchdowns and just one interception, while splitting the pair of encounters. He will be piloting a physical offensive attack that has averaged 32.9 points on 406.3 yards per game, including 252.9 through the air and another 152.4 on the ground. It’s been very much a Tailback by Committee approach this season, what with Jeremy Langford starring for the Chicago Bears these days, but don’t fret, for the Spartans are not wanting for talented ‘Backs. The triumvirate of Madre London (405 yards, three touchdowns), LJ Scott (519 yards, nine touchdowns), and the aforementioned Holmes (392 yards, six touchdowns) have comprised bludgeoning ground game that while not overly flashy (just 3.9 yards per carry), gets the job done. In the passing game, it’s been the Aaron Burbridge show, who has saved his best for last in this, his Senior season. Perhaps No. 16 is just a late bloomer; Burbridge hauled in eighty passes for 916 yards and three touchdowns in his first three years in East Lansing combined, but through ten games of his final stay has emerged as Cook’s go-to guy racking up sixty-four receptions for 1,011 yards (15.8 y/r) and six touchdowns. He saw a four-game stretch of at least 128 receiving yards snapped against Maryland last weekend, posting a career-high 164 yards on ten catches in the loss at Nebraska. However, D’Antonio will also need his defense to step up in a major way against the Buckeyes, who absolutely torched them for forty-nine points and a staggering 568 yards in last year’s meeting. Think about it, folks, Ohio State threw for 300 yards, ran for another 268, and scored seven total touchdowns against one of the better defenses in the country, despite committing a pair of turnovers. Those are foreboding numbers for a defense that D’Antonio himself will tell you isn’t quite on par with some of the groups he’s coached in years past. This season, Michigan State has allowed 20.3 points on 364.0 total yards, including 243.0 against the pass and another 121 versus the rush. On five occasions thus far, the defense has yielded at least 380 total yards, of which include opponents such as Western Michigan and Central Michigan, while also being gouged for 499 two weeks ago at the hands of the Cornhuskers. Fortunately, these guys have absolutely owned the turnover battle in 2015, enjoying a very healthy plus-13 advantage in that regard. While the offense has coughed up the ball just eight times, the defense has forced a whopping twenty-one turnovers, including at least a pair in all but three outings. Sophomore Safety Montae Nicholson has been a bonafide playmaker, racking up fifty-two tackles, three interceptions, and a deflected pass. Pressure on opposing Quarterbacks has played a major factor in all these takeaways, with D’Antonio’s charges logging 29.5 sacks, with Senior Defensive End Shilique Calhoun chief among them with 8.5 sacks to go with his eleven tackles for loss.
Meanwhile, for the defending National Champions, it’s a very simple proposition: win out, and they are virtually guaranteed one of the four College Playoff seeds. Winners of twenty-three straight games, Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 in Big Ten) has walked through a soft schedule that has been maligned by many pundits. However, notice we used the word “walked” instead of “ran”, “rushed” or “sprinted” per say. That’s because of the overwhelmingly high expectations heaped upon this team after their dominating performance last January. After all, Urban Meyer had so much talent returning to the fold, it was embarrassing. Indeed, their roster was a true embarrassment of riches this season. Look no further than the situation at Quarterback (which we’ll get into a little later), as both J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones have played a game of musical chairs under Center, while Braxton Miller has made a seemless transition to Wide Reciever. No, the campaign thus far has had the look of one grand experiment conducted by Meyer, who continues to tinker with his roster in an effort to find their best combination of talent. Critics would say that they aren’t beating their opponents as convincingly as they should, but a quick look at the numbers and we would encourage them to reevaluate their opinions; the Buckeyes have won all ten of their outings this year by a sizable 20.5 points, or in other words, nearly three touchdowns per game. Defensively, all they’ve done is relegate the opposition to a mere 12.5 points per contest, the second-lowest figure in the nation. In fact, over their last four tilts they’ve outscored the likes of Penn State, Rutgers, Minnesota, and Illinois a cumulative 143-34. If that’s not convincing enough, then we would really appreciate it if someone could explain to us what is. However, as we explained once already, expectations really are a mother$&@!#*.
With all that said, winning out will go a long way towards silencing thier critics; in addition to today’s meeting with the Spartans, the Buckeyes will have the Regular Season Finale against bitter rival Michigan, and a date with undefeated and fifth-ranked Iowa in the Conference Championship Game. As of now, Michigan State represents their first real challenge of the campaign, as they are the first AP Top Ten opponent to face them this season. However, as we stated earlier in this column, Meyer’s charges trounced them in East Lansing last year, so they should have plenty of confidence today. In fact, Ohio State has won four consecutive games versus AP Top Ten teams, which is tied with Alabama for the longest such streak in the country. Furthermore, in addition to thier current twenty-three-game win streak, they have also triumphed in an impressive thirty straight conference regular season games, with thier last such loss happening at Michigan in 2011. Extending that streak will likely mean a heavy dose of Ezekiel Elliott, who has been one of the most dominant Tailbacks in the country over the last two seasons. The Junior was the driving force behind thier National Championship run last year, churning out a staggering 696 yards on the ground against the likes of Wisconsin (Big Ten Title Game), Alabama, and Oregon (CFB Playoff). In last year’s rout of the Spartans, Elliott proved unstoppable, rushing for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just eighteen carries. This season, it’s been more of the same, for if not for LSU’s Leonard Fournette, then this kid would be at they of the Heisman list; through ten games, Elliott has rushed for 1,425 yards on 220 carries (6.5 y/c) and sixteen touchdowns. Believe it or not, this kid has a streak of his own that could meet a bit of history today; Elliott has rushed for at least 100 yards in fifteen straight games, and is one shy of tying another Heisman, Eddie George, for the second-longest streak in school history. Apart from Elliott’s excellence on the field, the major storyline in Columbus has been the Quarterbacks, particularly who Meyer would choose to be the starter. Truth be told, with the regular season nearly in the books, we don’t know if Meyer even knows which one is his starter. With the aforementioned Miller making the switch to Reciever, the innovative Head Coach has switched back and forth between Jones and Barrett almost randomly. Perhaps the shift between the two has prevented the offense from truly reaching the otherworldly heights that were expected of them. While each is effective in thier own right, these two guys couldn’t be more different on the field; the slighter Barrett is the more accurate of the two (65.9% passing), and is a much more dangerous runner (403 yards, 8 touchdowns), while the hulking Jones is much more of a pocket passer, with a far stronger arm to match (8.3 y/a). Then there is the added caveat that it was Jones who filled in for an injured Barrett, to lead the Buckeyes through the Conference Championship, National Semfinals and Final. Meyer has insisted that last season’s heroics would not play into his decision, and for he most part he’s been true to his word, deploying either of the two as he sees fit. Expect both to see plenty of action against Michigan State, if not for nothing but to keep their defense on thier heels.