COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Ohio State plays Michigan State, there is never a shortage of storylines.
With a young Ohio State team traveling to East Lansing this Saturday looking to avenge a loss, it feels like 2014 all over again. The big difference is that the Spartans (3-7, 1-6 Big Ten) have been downright dreadful this season. The Buckeyes (9-1, 6-1), on the other hand, are ranked No. 2 in both the AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll.
Ohio State has not won consecutive games against Michigan State since 2007-08. Can the Spartans keep it close in hopes of continuing that trend? Here are five keys to watch for.
1. The first quarter
Ohio State has not started well in recent years against Michigan State. The Buckeyes also spent half of this season floundering in the first quarter. That problem has disappeared recently, however — Ohio State has scored a touchdown on its opening drive in each of its last three games. Furthermore, the Buckeyes have dominated the entire first quarter of those contests. A fast start against Michigan State would help shake memories of past struggles against the Spartans.
2. Malik McDowell’s health
Per Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, DT Malik McDowell is either going to start or miss the game altogether. The Spartans removed him from the depth chart because of an ankle injury. Whether or not the monstrous lineman is able to play could have a huge impact. Ohio State’s running game is impressive enough as it is; removing a preseason All-American from the equation wouldn’t be great for the Spartans.
3. The red zone
Ohio State excels in the red zone. Michigan State … does not. The Buckeyes rank third in red-zone defense and 24th in red-zone defense nationally. Conversely, the Spartans rank 103rd in red-zone offense and 125th in red-zone defense. Michigan State’s performance this year indicates it’ll be a long night for the Spartans regardless. But any chance of an upset hinges on what happens in that 20-yard box. The red-zone execution of each team thus far this season would need to flip for Michigan State to have a chance to win.
4. The weather
Ohio State has no excuse for the 2013 loss to Michigan State, which was played in a dome. However, the 2015 upset occurred in some of the grossest weather Ohio State has seen during the Urban Meyer era. As of Tuesday, the Saturday forecast for East Lansing looks like another nightmare. With a predicted high of 40, 23-mph winds and a chance of morning showers for a noon ET kickoff, Ohio State might need to prepare for it to get ugly.
5. Turnover battle
Games like this are typically won with turnovers. Ohio State in particular has been at its best this season when the defense is generating turnovers (and scoring on them). Michigan State, known in the past for a stingy defense and steady offense, has posted a negative turnover margin this season. Conversely, Ohio State is No. 4 nationally in turnover margin at plus-13, 88 spots ahead of the Spartans and their minus-3. If the Buckeyes can continue to find success in that area, it’s hard to envision them losing.