Saturday is Senior Day for Michigan State. The season hasn’t been the one this senior class envisioned when preseason camp began in August, but a win over No. 2 Ohio State would give the class a memorable sendoff.
Michigan State is the decided underdog (as many as 22 points, says Las Vegas) for the second straight year, but the Spartans pulled off the upset in Columbus last season, 17-14. That Michigan State team was a Top 10 unit, however, while this team is 3-7 after stopping a seven-game losing streak and earning its first Big Ten win of the season last week against Rutgers, 49-0.
Ohio State (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) is playing to keep its hopes alive for a Big Ten East championship, a trip to the Big Ten title game and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Kickoff is at noon (EST) on ESPN.
Here’s a closer look at this week’s Michigan State-Ohio State matchup:
When Michigan State has the ball
LJ Scott has run for 100 yards or more in three of the last four games for Michigan State. He rushed for 139 yards against Michigan when the Wolverines entered the game allowing an average of 96 yards per game. Ohio State is allowing 111.6 rushing yards per game, including just 60.5 yards the past two games against Nebraska and Maryland.
The offensive line played its best game of the season last week in the 49-0 win against Rutgers. Redshirt freshman Cole Chewins, who started at left tackle for his first career star, played well. That change allowed senior Kodi Kieler to move back over to the right side and bring stability to the line. The loss of redshirt freshman left guard Tyler Higby hurts, but Brian Allen will switch to that spot from right guard. Senior Brandon Clemons returns from the defensive side of the line to regain his right guard spot.
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor wasn’t asked to do much passing in last year’s game when he started in place of injured Connor Cook. O’Connor is capable of more this year, but Ohio State has been opportunistic in forcing turnovers. The Buckeyes have 15 interceptions, returning six for touchdowns.
Edge: Ohio State
When Ohio State has the ball
Junior quarterback J.T. Barrett leads an offense that is averaging 511.4 yards per game, No. 1 in the Big Ten, with an equal balance between rushing (267 yards) and throwing (244.4 yards). He has 23 touchdown passes compared to just four interceptions. Running back/receiver Curtis Samuel and running back Mike Weber have each topped 1,000 all-purpose yards.
Michigan State is starting a defensive line that includes true freshmen Josh King and Mike Panasiuk, redshirt freshman Raequan Williams and sophomore Robert Bowers. The defense has been prone to allowing big plays and third-down conversions, while not getting enough pressure on the quarterback. Malik McDowell, who didn’t play against Rutgers because of an injury, is not listed on the depth chart this week.
None of that bodes well for the Spartans.
Edge: Ohio State
Weather conditions on Saturday will make special teams a vital part of the game. The high temperature is expected to reach just 40 degrees with rain turning to snow showers during the afternoon.
Michigan State punter Jake Hartbarger has been solid all season kicking for field position. Hartbarger has put 17 punts inside the 20, with only two touchbacks. He’s also forced 11 fair catches, minimizing returns. The farther he can back up Ohio State into its own end, the better for Michigan State.
Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston hasn’t gotten as much work as Hartbarger (only 36 punts), but he leads the Big Ten in average at 47.2 yards.
Michael Geiger converted a 41-yard field goal as time expired last season to beat Ohio State. The Spartans would love to call on him again for a similar situation. He is 10-of-14 on field goals this season, including a career-best 52-yarder made against Michigan.
Ohio State’s Tyler Durbin hasn’t missed in his 15 field-goal attempts, with a long of 45 yards.
Edge: Ohio State
Urban Meyer has Ohio State peaking at the right time. Ohio State’s lone loss was at Penn State, 24-21, on Oct. 22 when it failed to hold onto a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. Since then, the Buckeyes have gone 3-0 and outscored opponents 148-26. Ohio State has played 30 of its 44 freshmen this season, including 12 true freshmen, and the team also featured 16 new starters. Meyer has found a way to get all that talent to play to its potential.
Mark Dantonio has had as much success against Meyer as any coach, splitting four games since Meyer took over at Ohio State in 2012. That puts Dantonio in rarefied air as only Les Miles, Nick Saban and Tommy Tuberville have coached teams to multiple wins against Meyer-led teams. Dantonio has been tested more this season when it comes to his philosophies and resolve than ever before. It paid off last week against Rutgers.
Ohio State has everything on the line during the next two weeks. It can’t afford a slip-up against Michigan State, not with a showdown against Michigan looming next week. Last season’s defeat is fresh in the minds of the Buckeyes. It’s also fresh in the minds of the Spartans, who gained confidence with last week’s win. It might have been against Rutgers, but Michigan State needed to know that the work it was putting in each week was paying off. Michigan State won’t be intimidated by Ohio State. But it will take more than confidence to win a second successive year against the Buckeyes.
Kevin Goheen’s prediction: Ohio State 35, Michigan State 17.
Luke Srodulski’s prediction: Ohio State 34, Michigan State 23
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo
Luke Srodulski covers Michigan State recruiting for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @lsrodulski