Eleven Warriors Roundtable: Ohio State Looks to Stay Perfect in Primetime Date with Sparty

By Chris Lauderback on October 4, 2019 at 8:35 am
J.K. Dobbins is averaging 130.8 rushing yards per game so far this season.
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Dantonio's squad invades the Shoe tomorrow to square off against Ohio State's wrecking crew in another primetime affair.

This week's roundtable trio - Colin Hass-Hill, Jake Anderson and Matt Gutridge - are full of deep thoughts so I'm just gonna get out of the way.

Ohio State slots No. 7 nationally in rushing offense at 281.6 yards per outing behind J.K. Dobbins (130.8 ypg) and a retooled offensive line. Meanwhile, Sparty ranks No. 4 nationally in stopping the run, giving up a mere 55.8 yards per game.  Something’s gotta give, so what will it be? Can Michigan State slow down the Buckeyes? What kind of night do you expect from Dobbins, Master Teague and the OSU ground attack?

Colin: This is the facet of this game that I’m most interested in watching. 

Last week, we saw Ohio State’s defense take on the best offense and quarterback it’s played this season, and we’ll now get a chance to see Ohio State’s offense face its toughest opponent yet on Saturday. In J.K. Dobbins’ most recent game against the Spartans, which was a 26-6 win last year, he managed just 28 yards on 14 rushes.

To me, this comes down to whether or not you believe in the offensive line’s improvement. The Buckeyes have run the ball with consistency the past four games largely due to the gigantic holes opened up by Thayer Munford, Jonah Jackson, Josh Myers, Wyatt Davis, Joshua Alabi and Branden Bowen. I see Ohio State getting enough movement up front, tilting that matchup in the home team’s favor, but the Spartans won’t fold quickly or easily.

I wonder whether we’ll see Justin Fields have a slight uptick in carries early in the game in order to force Michigan State to account for the quarterback run. The more the Spartans have to worry about him, the better the chances are of Dobbins and Master Teague gashing the defense.

Jake: The Spartans have quite the defense, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves; they have not played anyone that is comparable to J.K. Dobbins. Michigan State’s opponents have been terrible at running the ball all season long. The best run-game they have faced is Western Michigan; no other offense they have played is ranked in the top-60 in rushing yards per game. 

Ohio State may not dominate the line of scrimmage as much as they did against the Cornhuskers, but I expect a heavy dose of Dobbins/Teague with Fields getting in on the action in the red zone. Altogether, 225 yards and two touchdowns sounds like a good starting point for the trio. 

Remy: To help the crystal ball focus in, let's take a look at how Ohio State's running game performed against the Spartans in recent contests. Last year, Michigan State's defense came into the battle as the best in the nation against the run allowing 71.7 yards per game. How did the Buckeyes do? Mike Weber went for over 100 yards and Ohio State's pass-first offense was able to gain 135 on the ground.

In 2017, Sparty was ranked third in the nation allowing 87.0 rushing yards. The Buckeyes were in trouble, right? Wrong. Weber rushed for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns, Dobbins added 124 yards and the team finished with 335 yards on the ground, 4 touchdowns and averaged 8.0 yards per carry. Not a bad day's work against the third best rush defense in the country.

It's cliché, but if Ohio State's offense continues to have a nice balance of running and passing the combination of Dobbins and Teague should have a big day. The Buckeyes' run game will have success against Michigan State if Fields and the receivers force Sparty to respect the air attack. Add in the threat of Fields burning MSU with his feet and the ground game should feast...again.

On the other side of the ball, Brian Lewerke and Michigan State actually average more passing yards per game than the Buckeyes (269 to 254) and rely on the throw to set up what has been a pretty weak running game (No. 83 nationally, 144.6 ypg). What can the Buckeyes do to disrupt Lewerke and company through the air? Is Lewerke a legit threat to move the ball on the Buckeyes?

Remy: Lewerke and company have faced two quality defenses. They found success against Northwestern, but how did MSU do against Arizona State? Oh yeah, they scored seven points and lost by three. Lewerke completed 24 of his 38 passes for 291 yards. However, he did not throw a touchdown pass and his team only scored seven points.

Besides only facing two teams with a defensive pulse, Michigan State's 2019 offense is set up for failure against Ohio State's defensive line. The Buckeyes' defensive strength is the pass rush. If Dantonio's team throws the ball 38 times against the Silver Bullets, it is going to be a long day for Lewerke as he gets chased down by Chase Young and Company.

Young might have a little extra motivation on Saturday as he is only two sacks away from becoming the second player in Ohio State history to have back-to-back seasons of double digit sacks. There is a high probability he achieves that goal tomorrow.

Jake: If Brian Lewerke throws for over 250 yards against the Buckeyes, Jeff Hafley might be on the hot seat. For those who may have forgotten, last year’s “terrible defense” allowed Lewerke to complete just 11 of his 28 attempts for 128 yards. 

Greg Mattison does not need to do anything special to affect Lewerke. They have the talent advantage at every position and simply need to stick to the gameplan and let the players play. 

Colin: Michigan State has only allowed four sacks in its first five games. Brian Lewerke, meet Chase Young.

Through five games, Lewerke has looked far more  – and healthy – than he did in his 11-for-28, 128-yard, one-interception performance last year. But he also hasn’t faced a defense nearly as talented as the one it’ll line up against on Saturday night.

With the Buckeyes allowing so few rushing yards per carry, the pressure will be on Lewerke, and he’ll have a top-three NFL draft pick rushing him and be throwing against a secondary of future NFL draft picks, including Jeff Okudah.

So, no, I don’t think Lewerke will be able to move the ball consistently on Ohio State. Now, does a scenario exist in which he maximizes good field position and his defense takes pressure off the offense, leading to him doing just enough? Sure. But based on how the Buckeyes’ defense has played to open the season, I’d bet on Ohio State to have a healthy advantage on that side of the ball.

Outside of quarterback depth, there doesn’t appear to be any major flaws on this team. I assume you’ll have to nitpick here but what is maybe one aspect of this team that you think could potentially be problematic down the road? There’s gotta be something that could pop up against an elite opponent, right?

Jake: It may sound a little unconventional, but Ohio State’s kicking has been anything but perfect this season. Haubeil has converted on all 35 of his extra-point attempts but is just 3-4 on field goals this season. 

Continuing, there have been three instances of Ryan Day going for it on fourth down in the red zone and not getting the first down. He could have easily sent out the field goal unit but opted against it. These choices tell me that Ryan Day is either super
aggressive (which could also come back to bite him) or he does not trust his

Here’s the bottom line: if Ohio State gets into a close game and needs a 40-yard field goal from the right hash to tie the game up, is Haubeil up to the task? 

Colin: This is, in my opinion, the single most impressive part of this year’s Ohio State team. We haven’t seen anything quite like it in recent years. Five weeks into the season, and the biggest obvious question marks might be the backup quarterback and the lack of a third-string safety. 

Quarterback? No problems with Justin Fields’ performance. Running back? All set with J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague. Wide receiver? In a good place with a mix of veterans and underclassmen. Tight end? Deeper than ever. Offensive line? As good as it has been in recent years if not better. Defensive line? Chase Young exists, even if Mark Dantonio doesn’t consider him in human form. Linebackers? Arguably the most improved unit. The secondary? No issues.

Needless to say, you have to really nitpick to find any issues. So I’ll go ahead and take a look at a few areas.

  • Can any team force Justin Fields to either make throws into tight windows or run when he doesn’t want to? Ryan Day has done a remarkable job of playing to Fields’ strengths and getting him to take what the defenses give him. Eventually, some team might manage to play tight coverage on the receivers, forcing Fields to either make tougher throws or run more often than he and Ohio State would prefer.
  • Are the linebackers fast enough for the best of the best? We’re talking about Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia. Those types of teams. We’ve seen them play well against Nebraska, which has athletic skill position players. But the teams loaded with five-star athletes can take it to another level.
  • Can an offensive scheme get Ohio State’s defense on its heels then topple it over? We’ve seen the Buckeyes open up a game in primarily Cover 3 and then make an early switch to press man-to-man coverage. When that happened against Miami (Ohio), the RedHawks folded, having no answer  to man coverage. Teams have to attempt to get one step ahead of Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison and remain one step ahead. So far, that hasn’t come close to happening.

Remy: Let me adjust this neutron microscope so the flaws can look as big as possible. As we have all witnessed, the defense has made an incredible rebound from last season. However, with Isaiah Pryor leaving the team, Ohio State has unexpectedly developed a legitimate lack of depth at safety. 

Last week, Jordan Fuller played 50 snaps against Nebraska. His backup, Josh Proctor, saw six plays before leaving the game with what appeared to be a shoulder injury. To shed more light on the disparity in playing time, Fuller has played 253 snaps to Proctor's 32. If No. 41 is on the shelf for an extended period of time, that leaves Marcus Hooker as the next man up. Moving Brendon White or Jahsen Wint back to safety might be something to keep an eye on.

Also concerned about the rush defense when they face a run first team like Wisconsin in a couple of weeks. Ohio State's defense is phenomenal when forcing an opponent to become a one dimensional passing team. How will the Buckeyes' defensive front respond against the Badgers' powerful run game? This will be very concerning if Paul Chryst's cronies jump out to an early lead.

A few analysts such as Herbie, Joel Klatt and even David Pollack had Ohio State at the top of their rankings following the Nebraska game. Where would you have the Buckeyes within your ranking of the four best teams in college football at the moment? Briefly justify your slot the scarlet and gray.

Remy: What the hell, Chris? I always have Ohio State ranked No. 1. Seriously though, through five games, the Buckeyes are the most complete team. Alabama is still a juggernaut, but it is a juggernaut that has legitimate concerns on defense. That leaves a jumbled mess for the other teams to fill out the final four. I have Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma and Clemson. Impatiently waiting for a six (or eight) team playoff where every conference champion has a chance to play for the title.

Jake: I would put the Bucks at No. 2, just behind Alabama. Clemson deserves to drop to No. 4, with LSU at No. 3. You can easily make the argument for both Ohio State and Alabama for the top spot, but I’ll give it to the Tide for their year-over-year consistency. Until someone not named Clemson knocks them off, they are, and this pains me to write, at the top of college football.  

As for LSU at No. 3, the Tigers easily have the best win in college football this year. Ohio State’s jump over them may be an example of recency bias (Burrow and co. were idle last week) but the Buckeyes’ advantage in nearly all of ESPN’s advanced analytics should not be forgotten. 

Clemson sneaks in at No. 4 mostly due to their offensive potential, but Trevor Lawrence, my preseason Heisman Pick, is looking more and more mortal every week. 

Colin: No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Clemson.

This is likely purely due to me having watched every snap of the Buckeyes with limited viewing of the others, but even knowing that I just can’t pick any team ahead of Ohio State. Ryan Day has his team performing at a remarkably high level right now.

Mark Dantonio’s crew arrives in Columbus as a 20.5-point underdog. Do the Buckeyes cover the hefty line? Give us your final score and game MVP. 

Colin: I’ve got the Buckeyes winning 41-17. That might be overshooting it a bit since it would be the second-largest margin of victory over the Spartans since 2008, but that’s just where I’m at with this team right now.

Game MVP? How about a boring pick: Justin Fields. I’ll say he scores three touchdowns through the air and two on the ground.

Jake: Ohio State beat the Spartans last year in East Lansing 26-6 with an inferior team. Of course the 2019 Buckeyes, at home, in a primetime game, will cover. Chase Young will add three tackles and another sack to his season total as he continues to close in on Vernon Gholston’s record.

Remy: If I was using my head, I'd go Ohio State 45, MSU 17. Instead, let's go with a random historical number. The last time Ohio State was ranked No. 4 and played Michigan State was 1979. That was a home game and Earle Bruce's first year as head coach.

40 years later, Day is in his first year, history has a funny way of repeating itself. Ohio State 42, Michigan State 0. Drue Chrisman, Mr. 62 punts inside the 20, is always the MVP. However, let's go with Justin Fields as the Offensive MVP and Malik Harrison as the Defensive MVP.

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