12:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Ohio State -19, Over/Under: 66.5
All eyes will be fixated on Columbus this afternoon, as the (No. 7) Michigan State Spartans look for another MAJOR upset of a traditional BIG Ten power, as they take on the surging (No. 4) Ohio State Buckeyes in a showdown that carries SERIOUS Playoff implications. With the regular season nearly at its conclusion, arguably the biggest surprise in the BIG Ten (and perhaps college football at large) has been Michigan State (9-1, 6-1 in BIG Ten), who have done a complete 180 following a disappointing 2-5 finish to last season. (Head Coach) Mel Tucker faced no shortage of obstacles in his first year with the school, which was left in rather poor shape from the previous regime; (Former Head Coach) Mark Dantonio’s delayed decision to retire after thirteen successful years in East Lansing put his successor in a real bind, as Tucker was left to pick up the pieces on the recruiting front far later than he would have preferred. And as if that wasn’t enough of a setback for the 49-year-old, COVID-19 happened, effectively killing off any possibility to implement his vision and evaluate his personnel throughout the Spring, Summer, and early Fall. As you can imagine, the Spartans struggled mightily, ranking last in the conference in points scored (18.0), allowed (35.1), and total offense (330.3), all the while suffering from a Minus-9 turnover differential placing them at 121st in the nation. With that said, one of those two victories came against (bitter rival) Michigan, in Ann Arbor no less, providing the program with a sense that they were indeed close to turning the proverbial corner. A year later and it’s safe to say that they’ve left said corner in the rearview, for Michigan State is off to their best start since 2015 in which they went unbeaten through eight games en route to winning the BIG Ten championship and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. With nine victories out of ten thus far they have risen to seventh in the rankings, which is subsequently the highest they’ve managed to ascend since 2016. So, what’s changed in East Lansing, you ask? Well, it certainly hasn’t hurt that the Offense has improved EXPONENTIALLY this season, with (Offensive Coordinator) Jay Johnson’s troops averaging 34.6 points per game (26th in FBS) on 450.8 total yards, including 251.8 through the air on a healthy 8.9 yards per attempt, while rushing for another 199.0 on 5.3 yards per carry. Though the Spartans looked to upgrade at Quarterback via the Transfer Portal with (former Temple signal-caller) Anthony Russo, the incumbent Payton Thorne (63.4%, 2,460 YDS, 9.0 Y/A, 21 TD, 8 INT) secured the starting gig over the Summer and hasn’t looked back; the Sophomore saw spot duty in 2020 only to grow by leaps and bounds in 2021, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 246.0 yards on 9.0 yards per attempt, with twenty-one touchdowns opposed to eight interceptions. Thorne emerged in their 38-17 stomping of Miami (Fla) with 261 yards and four touchdowns, while matching that scoring total in last weekend’s 40-21 drubbing of Maryland. (Junior Receivers) Jayden Reed (45 REC, 829 YDS, 18.4 Y/R, 7 TD) and Jalen Nailor (31 REC, 587 YDS, 18.9 Y/R, 6 TD) have been playmakers in the vertical passing game, combining for 1,416 yards and thirteen touchdowns on an explosive 18.6 yards per reception. However, the biggest proponent of their offensive success thus far has been (Sophomore Tailback) Kenneth Walker III (228 CAR, 1,483 YDS, 6.5 Y/A, 17 TD), who has been arguably the most dominant playmaker in the country. A transfer from Wake Forest, this kid has been the biggest addition that Tucker has added to the roster, leading the FBS with 1,483 rushing yards and seventeen touchdowns. In a campaign in which there haven’t been many favorites to distinguish themselves in the race for the Heisman memorial trophy, Walker very well may be in pole position to bring those honors to East Lansing, particularly after his outrageous performance in Michigan State’s 37-33 upset of (No. 6) Michigan; trailing 30-14 late in the third quarter, the prolific rusher spurred a furious 23-3 rally over the final eighteen minutes of action en route to amassing 197 yards and a career-high FIVE touchdowns on twenty-three carries. Trailing the Buckeyes by one game in the BIG Ten East Division standings, a win today would in all likelihood vault the Spartans into their first conference championship game since 2015 (provided they beat Penn State in the regular season finale, of course). However, despite being the last side other than Ohio State to claim a BIG Ten title, they’ve since lost five consecutive meetings, including last year’s 52-12 romp in East Lansing. While they certainly have the playmakers to keep pace with the Buckeyes, Tucker must coax an inspired effort out of his Defense, which has been gashed for a porous 444.0 total yards thus far. The former “No-Fly Zone” has been open for all forms of business this season, permitting 329.4 yards against the pass on 6.87 yards per attempt, with opposing Quarterbacks completing 63.7% of their passes. Five different Quarterbacks have torched them for 350 or more passing yards, including each of their last three opponents who have also tossed multiple touchdowns. Where this group has compensated for all those yards has been in the takeaway department, logging sixteen turnovers in ten games. Tucker’s 4-2-5 scheme has been in the “bend-but-don’t-break” mold throughout his early tenure with the program, and one has to imagine that they’re going to need a few big plays to flip the field and knock off the Buckeyes.
Meanwhile, after getting embarrassed in last year’s National Championship Game, Ohio State (9-1, 7-0 in BIG Ten) has overcome some early stumbles to position themselves as the favorites to appear in a sixth consecutive conference championship game, and by extension a sixth straight league title. Coming into 2021, there was much speculation as to who would be the Starting Quarterback for the Buckeyes, who were set to break new ground with a freshman at the game’s most important position. After a tightly-contested battle over the offseason, C.J. Stroud (68.8%, 3,036 YDS, 9.8 Y/A, 30 TD, 5 INT) eventually earned the favor of (Head Coach) Ryan Day, who called upon the underclassman to fill the void left by Justin Fields, who went 33-3 in his three years in Columbus. So, how has the frosh fared, you ask? Pretty damn well, in our opinion. Apart from a brief stint on the sidelines with an ankle injury and tossing some early interceptions in his first three games, including a costly touchdown return in a stunning 35-28 loss at home to (No. 4) Oregon, Stroud has gone on to light up the opposition to the tune of 2,073 yards and twenty-two touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions over the last six outings. Furthermore, he’s thrown for four or more scores in four of those contests, growing into an Offense that continues to be an embarrassment of riches. Indeed, few programs in the country recruit better than Day’s Buckeyes, with his young passer benefitting greatly from a supporting cast featuring the likes of (Freshman Tailback) TreVeyon Henderson (141 CAR, 1,035 YDS, 7.3 Y/A, 14 TD) and (Receivers) Garrett Wilson (53 REC, 813 YDS, 15.3 Y/R, 9 TD) and Chris Olave (51 REC, 708 YDS, 17.9 Y/R, 11 TD). Olave returning for his senior year was a huge boost to the Receiving Corps, though the most impactful pass-catcher thus far has been (Sophomore) Jaxon Smith-Njigba (59 REC, 1,027 YDS, 17.4 Y/R, 5 TD), who leads the team in receptions (59) and receiving yards (1,027). The youngster burst onto the scene with seven receptions for 145 yards and a pair of touchdowns in that aforementioned encounter with the Ducks, and over the last five games has been nothing short of dominant with forty-one catches, 678 yards, and two scores, including a career-high FIFTEEN catches and 240 yards two weeks ago against Nebraska. Leading the country in scoring at a robust 46.3 points per game on 550.3 total yards, Ohio State has once again proven to be a juggernaut on this side of the football that few opponents have had the horses to compete with. Case in point: in that defeat to Oregon, they still rolled up 612 total yards on the Ducks, including 484 from Stroud, marking the first of three 600-yard performances for the Scarlet & Gray. Needless to say, this does NOT bode well for the Spartans, who have been BLOWN out of many of their recent meetings with Ohio State, who have averaged a whopping 40.0 points over their last four encounters, outscoring them by a considerable 31.7 margin. If there is a weakness to be found with this group, it’s on the defensive side of the football; last season the Buckeyes fell well short of their usual standards allowing 25.8 points per game (43rd in FBS) on 401.6 total yards (59th in FBS), with a young Secondary falling apart in some of their biggest games, including the National Final where Alabama torched them for fifty-two points and 621 yards. The Secondary was on the hook for 464 passing yards and FIVE touchdowns on that fateful night, prompting Day and (Defensive Coordinator) Kerry Coombs to count on more experience being the remedy for what has annually been one of the most talented position groups in the nation. This season, the Defense as a whole has been better in relinquishing an improved 20.2 points per game (23rd in FBS) on 368.8 total yards, even with a completely retooled Linebacker Corps. The Pass Defense has been better too, allowing 261.5 passing yards on 6.8 yards per attempt and 62.0%, though there is still a way to go before they can count themselves in the same vein as some of their predecessors. Much like their opponent today, this unit has been excellent at forcing turnovers, logging seventeen takeaways with twelve different players adding to that total. And if that wasn’t enough, they’ve developed a knack for scoring once they get their hands on the football, accounting for SIX touchdowns. (Sophomore Safety) Ronnie Perkins (81 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 1 TD) leads them with two interceptions and a touchdown return, while (Cornerbacks) Denzel Burke (27 TKL, 1 INT, 8 PD, 1 TD) and Cameron Brown (20 TKL, 1 INT, 6 PD) have each picked off a pass en route to combined fourteen deflections. Up front, (Senior Defensive End) Haskell Garrett (19 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 4.5 SK, 1 PD, 2 FR, 1 TD) has been banged up, but has nonetheless been impactful with a team-high 4.5 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss. Currently occupying the last spot in the CFP Rankings, Ohio State will have plenty of opportunities to bolster their CV before the final rankings are released in three weeks; after today’s showdown with (No. 7) Michigan State, they’ll travel to Ann Arbor for their annual date with (No. 8) Michigan, before a potential meeting with in all likelihood (No. 18) Iowa or (No. 19) Wisconsin in the BIG Ten Championship Game.