It was a cold, rainy day in Columbus last November when Michigan State beat Ohio State 17-14 with a suffocating defense and an efficient-enough offense. Michigan State snapped Ohio State’s 23-game winning streak and gave itself the edge to winning the Big Ten East title, which it clinched a week later with a victory over Penn State.
The weather is supposed to be cold and rainy — with possible snow showers thrown in — this Saturday when the teams meet in East Lansing. The scenario is different for Michigan State this season, which is now 3-7 after beating Rutgers 49-0 last Saturday for its first Big Ten win of the season.
Things haven’t changed much for Ohio State, which is 9-1 overall and tied with Michigan and Penn State for the Big Ten East lead with two games to play. The Buckeyes are playing for a shot at not just the conference championship but also a return to the College Football Playoff. They won it in 2014 but Michigan State ended its hopes of a repeat with the win at Ohio Stadium last season.
Ohio State is ranked No. 2 in this week’s CFP poll. Does it have more than revenge on its mind when it enters Spartan Stadium? The Buckeyes have won four in a row since giving up a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter in a 24-21 loss at Penn State, including consecutive blowouts against then-No. 10 Nebraska and Maryland.
Landof10.com Ohio State beat writer Ryan Ginn (@rmginn) took time this week to answer five questions about the matchup between the Buckeyes and Spartans with colleague Kevin Goheen.
Q: Ohio State has beaten Nebraska and Maryland by identical 62-3 scores the last two weeks. Are the Buckeyes on a similar late-season run like 2014? Can it get them to the College Football Playoff?
Ginn: I’m not completely convinced they’ve figured everything out, but it certainly bodes well. The Nebraska game was more of a lightning-in-a-bottle situation, and Maryland is just plain bad. With that being said, the Buckeyes are definitely playing better now than they did against Penn State and Northwestern. This is a difficult stretch for Ohio State to end with, however, and I don’t think you’ll see scores remotely approaching that in the final two games. But yeah, the Michigan State game will serve as a big indicator of whether Ohio State has changed for good.
Q: Two years ago, J.T. Barrett lit up Michigan State at Spartan Stadium. Last year Michigan State’s defense held the Buckeyes to 132 yards. Which scenario is more likely to happen this year? Why?
Ginn: I’ll cheat and say it’s more likely that the offense as a whole lights up Michigan State — but not by much. The weather looks like it won’t really be conducive to a productive offensive day by either team. At the same time, it’s hard to envision this Ohio State team replicating the worst-ever performance by an Urban Meyer-coached team. Barrett likely won’t throw the ball too well if it’s freezing and windy, but Ohio State can still deploy super-human Curtis Samuel. That’s a huge difference maker for the Buckeyes.
Q: Ohio State’s defense has been impressive. Who, in your opinion, has been the most impressive player for the defense, and why? Has he also been the most important player? Why or Why not?
Ginn: Safety Malik Hooker has been Ohio State’s most impressive player. He was a high school basketball star who didn’t play football until his junior year of high school. After two years adjusting to the college level, he’s broken out in a big way as a redshirt sophomore. Ohio State lost Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell to the NFL and hasn’t missed a beat because of Hooker’s play. He leads the team with five interceptions and returned two of those for touchdowns.
Linebacker Raekwon McMillan is the defense’s most important player. He is the best player on the defense and also the glue that holds the unit together. He’s often the smartest player on the field, too. He’s flown a bit under the radar this season statistically speaking but that’s largely been when defenses try to avoid him. If something were to happen to him, the defense would be much worse off.
Q: There has been a lot of talk about how Michigan State has played nine true freshmen this season. That’s a record for Mark Dantonio, but Ohio State has had 12 true freshmen play this season. How are the Buckeyes succeeding with such inexperience?
Ginn: It never hurts to recruit well. Mainly, though, Meyer has been able to pick his spots. The sheer amount of blowouts this season has led him to give some of the freshmen a shot in the second half. Most of them are far too talented to stick around for five years, so a redshirt offers OSU no benefit.
Q: How much is Ohio State looking for revenge after Michigan State stunned the Buckeyes in Columbus last year?
Ginn: In different circumstances, the answer might be “a lot.” However, I think the current tone of the season has changed that. Ohio State has to win at all costs, and I think the Buckeyes are treating this like any other game. The focus hasn’t been so much on avenging last year as it has on making sure they don’t slip up with a season-ending loss. With that being said, I think if they win they’ll enjoy the celebration a little more than they might have otherwise.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo