The monkey is off Michigan State’s back. The Spartans snapped a 7-game losing streak with a 49-0 win against Rutgers last Saturday, ending the longest losing stretch for the program in 34 years. It was the first shutout for Michigan State since 2013 and allowed the Spartans (3-7, 1-6) to exhale for a moment in what has been a stressful and disappointing season.
Celebration time is over. Ohio State (9-1, 6-1) comes to East Lansing this Saturday in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten East with Michigan and Penn State and eager to continue shoring up its resume for a possible College Football Playoff berth. The Buckeyes have beaten Nebraska and Maryland by identical scores of 62-3 the last two games. Ohio State needs to beat Michigan State and then Michigan at home on Nov. 26 to have a shot at returning to the CFP.
The Buckeyes also have the memory of Michigan State’s 17-14 win last year in Columbus on their minds, whether they want to admit it or not. The Spartans went into that game 9-1 but a decided underdog as Tyler O’Connor replaced injured Connor Cook at quarterback. The Spartans held Ohio State to 132 yards of total offense and won on a 41-yard field goal by Michael Geiger on the game’s final play.
Urban Meyer’s teams are 59-5 in his five seasons at Ohio State. Two of those losses have come against Michigan State and Mark Dantonio.
Kickoff is scheduled for noon ET on ESPN.
Here are five story lines to watch:
1. What does Mark Dantonio have up his sleeve for Urban Meyer this time?
It’s not as if anyone has Meyer’s number, but if there is one coach in the Big Ten who has been successful against him it’s Dantonio. He’s one of just four coaches to have beaten a Meyer-coached team multiple times (Nick Saban, Les Miles, Tommy Tuberville). They’ve split four games, with the road team winning three times and Michigan State winning the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis in 2013. Michigan State won’t be intimidated by the Ohio State name.
If Michigan State is to pull the upset, it has to play a mistake-free game. It can’t afford turnovers, penalties or settling for field goals in the red zone. It will need to create some turnovers. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 153 pass attempts. Trickery won’t be good enough to beat Ohio State. The Spartans have to play their best game of the season.
2. How well can the Spartans run the ball against Ohio State?
Michigan came into its game with Michigan State three weeks ago with the Big Ten’s best run defense, allowing just 96 yards a game. The Spartans ran for 217 yards against the Wolverines. Ohio State is No. 2 in the Big Ten, allowing 111.6 yards per game. Michigan State has to run the ball well not only to set up its passing game but to limit the time its defense is on the field.
LJ Scott, a Columbus-area native, has rushed for 100 yards or more in three of the last four games. Gerald Holmes had most of his 78 yards against Illinois come in the game’s fourth quarter two weeks ago. The offensive line has played more consistent in those games but faces an Ohio State defense that has given up just 60.5 yards rushing and 1.8 yards per carry the last two weeks.
3. Who wins the turnover battle?
Michigan State is minus-3 in turnovers this season and has created just 12 of them defensively. Safeties Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson each had interceptions against Rutgers last week, with Cox returning his 30 yards for a touchdown. It was the first time this season the Spartans got 2 interceptions in a game. It was the first time since Oct. 1 at Indiana they had forced 2 takeaways in a game. The offense didn’t commit a turnover for the first time all season.
Ohio State, by contrast, is plus-13 in turnover margin. Barrett has thrown just 4 interceptions, while five different players have combined to return 6 interceptions for touchdowns for the Ohio State defense.
Aside from a 3-interception game against Wisconsin, O’Connor has done a good job of protecting the ball this season. Can he continue doing that against the Buckeyes?
4. What does Michigan State’s defense do about slowing down Ohio State’s offense?
The Buckeyes have scored 124 points the last two weeks and are second in the nation averaging 46.5 points per game. They’ve scored at least 30 points in eight of their 10 games. Michigan State’s shutout of Rutgers brought down its defensive scoring average to 27.1 points per game.
Barrett has accounted for a school-record 98 touchdowns, including a school-record 68 touchdown passes, in his career. He’s the top-rated passer in the Big Ten and leads the conference with 23 touchdown passes. Barrett has 617 yards rushing this season, making him one of three players for the Buckeyes with at least 600 yards on the ground along with Curtis Samuel (637) and Mike Weber (935).
Samuel also has 750 yards receiving on 57 catches and has scored 13 touchdowns combined rushing and receiving.
Bottom line is that Ohio State has a lot of weapons and Michigan State has given up a lot of big plays.
5. Michigan State has a chance to ruin Ohio State’s Big Ten title and CFP chances. How much of a motivator is that for the Spartans?
Dantonio has said everyone needs to play for something. The Spartans’ season has been a disappointment but they’ve got an opportunity in the final two games against Ohio State and Penn State to play a role in deciding who wins the Big Ten and who goes to the CFP. This can’t be the only motivating factor for Michigan State but the longer the Spartans can stay in the game the more that possibility exists.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo