Ohio State's backloaded schedule kicks into high gear tomorrow as the Buckeyes welcome No. 7 Michigan State for a do-or-die matchup with the winning squad staying in the hunt for not only a league title but a College Football Playoff bid.
The upstart Spartans arrive in Columbus powered by Heisman Trophy candidate Kenneth Walker III on offense but also with what is statistically the worst pass defense in the nation.
Can Ohio State slow down Walker and the Michigan State running game? Will C.J. Stroud and company feast on the Spartan secondary?
Many fans are licking their chops thinking about Ohio State's elite passing offense going against a Michigan State squad ranked No. 130 - dead last - in pass defense giving up 329 yards per contest. What kind of day do you foresee for C.J. Stroud and company?
Kyle: With everything on the line, I expect to see a much more aggressive game plan from Mel Tucker's secondary than they've shown throughout the season. Purdue picked them apart when MSU sat back in coverage, blitzing just 20% of the time. Stroud, meanwhile, has been blitzed on 30% of his dropbacks this season per PFF, and he's thrived when able to sit back in the pocket. I'd imagine the Spartans will do whatever they can to disrupt the pocket knowing the secondary isn't going to do much against these wide receivers.
Griffin: I envision a big day from Stroud through the air, but perhaps not as effortless or mistake-free an afternoon as he had against the likes of Purdue. Expecting a repeat performance from the redshirt freshman in such a high stakes game would probably be asking too much, although even an impressive day – if not an otherworldly one – could be enough to keep Stroud at the front of the Heisman Trophy leaderboard if the Buckeyes get a win on Saturday.
Andy: If there was ever an extreme case of “strength versus weakness,” it’s this matchup. Ohio State just fans just saw firsthand how good Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell is at quarterback – in the Boilermakers upset of Michigan State, O’Connell threw 54 times for 536 yards and three touchdowns. Purdue only ran for 58 yards that day – 58! – and still put up almost 600 yards of total offense. Just imagine C.J. Stroud and his trio of all-world wide receivers out there this week. It’s going to be a track meet, and the Spartan secondary may wish they’d stayed in East Lansing by the time it’s all over.
Stroud’s best day in terms of total yardage was the loss to Oregon when he threw for 484 yards. His best performance was last week versus Purdue, however, when he completed nearly 82% of his passes for 361 yards and five touchdowns… he’s thrown for five three times this season (Rutgers, Maryland and Purdue), and it wouldn’t shock me to see him go for a career-record six scores Saturday.
Related to the first question, how important is it for Ohio State to achieve some level of offensive balance? Day is calling more pass plays than run plays for the first time since he's been here and while it deviates from the norm - is that an issue at all or just a product of not only the changing landscape in college football but also a reflection of this year's offensive personnel?
Griffin: Assuming that Michigan State will provide no resistance against the pass just because of where they rank statistically would be a mistake for the Buckeyes. Just like any other game, the run must be established to help the Ohio State aerial assault be as effective as we know it can be, and Day should not lose sight of that. However, with a wide receiver trio as lethal as Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba – not to mention the Heisman Trophy frontrunner delivering them the ball – I can certainly understand why Day has been tempted to utilize the pass with more frequency this season.
Andy: Balance is one of those goofy things that people cling to for some reason… and it’s only really important if it works. Yes, Day is calling more passes than runs, but he’s also called enough rushing plays that TreVeyon Henderson reached the 1,000-yard mark faster than any freshman in history, so it’s hard to say that he’s abandoned the ground game.
I think the big “issue” is that there have been times when we would have expected an Ohio State team to run the ball, to pound it down the defense’s throat, and Day hasn’t always done that. So it’s more a matter of expectation than necessity, in other words. Going back to the team’s only blemish – that bothersome loss to Oregon – would running the ball more, or more effectively, have made a difference in the outcome? I say no – the problem that day wasn’t the offense, it was the pitiful showing from the defense… ironically, against the Oregon rushing attack.
As long as you have Chris Olave, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Garrett Wilson on the roster, throw the ball all you want. It’s pretty effective.
Kyle: OSU must be able to stay ahead of schedule on early downs, making sure Stroud isn't forced into converting 3rd & long regularly. That means staying unpredictable more than it means simply 'establishing the run,' however. We may, in fact, see just the opposite, with OSU attacking the edges early to make sure Sparty doesn't load up the box against Henderson and the OSU run game.
On defense, Ohio State is challenged to slow down Kenneth Walker III. He currently leads the nation in rushing yards per game (147.3) and averages 6.49 per carry. The Buckeye defense has been fairly stout against the run, ranking No. 11 in yards per carry allowed (3.10). What will Ohio State do in an effort to stop Walker on Saturday and what kind of success will it have?
Andy: This is the thing that makes me just a titch nervous about this game, actually. Thinking back to the Oregon loss, it was Ohio State’s inability to stop the run that ultimately doomed the Buckeyes. Oregon ran for an eye-popping 269 yards, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. More than half of the team’s 505 total yards came on the ground.
Since Matt Barnes took over in Week Three the Silver Bullets have been better against the run as noted in the question, but Oregon and Minnesota are the only two teams Ohio State has faced this season to rank among the Top 25 rushing attacks in the country in terms of yards per game (Oregon at 227.4, Minnesota at 205.6). Michigan State, for comparison, clocks in at No. 28 (197.8 yards per game) and Ohio State is No. 31 (196.8… although the Buckeyes are No. 2 in the country in yards per carry at 5.97).
Michigan State’s offensive line is not great. This game feels like one where Barnes dials up a lot of blitzes and simulated pressures like what the Buckeyes did versus Penn State, and Payton Thorne feels like he’s spent the afternoon eating turf. He’s been sacked nearly twice a game all season; three Big Ten opponents recorded three sacks each. Although Penn State certainly didn’t have a running back like Walker on the roster, the Buckeyes held them to a staggering 33 yards on the ground that night.
Kyle: Fundamentals will be much more important than scheme when it comes to stopping Walker. His offensive line gives up a surprising amount of penetration, but his ability to shake tacklers is second-to-none. OSU's front seven must not only wrap him and bring him to the ground when given a chance, they must gang tackle as a team, maintaining leverage on Walker and corralling him before he breaks a long run. The Buckeyes have been quietly solid at preventing big plays since Matt Barnes took over the defense, but they'll face their biggest such test from Walker on Saturday.
Griffin: The success of Ronnie Hickman at the bullet position has meant that the Buckeyes have not often elected to put a third traditional linebacker on the field this season, and that hasn’t been necessary for Ohio State to stop the run for the vast majority of the season. The Buckeyes had the No. 1 run defense in the country in the month of October, but they also haven’t seen a running back the caliber of Walker since at least Week 2. I wouldn’t expect Ohio State to get too out of character to stop the run given its recent success in that area, but I also wouldn’t bet against Walker having a 100-yard game against any defense.
Griffin's not old enough to remember the loss to Michigan State in 1998 plus he's an actual reporter so this one might be weird for him to answer but between the '98 and 2015 losses to Michigan State, which one stung more and why?
Griffin: My de facto answer here would have to be the one that I actually experienced live. The 2015 Buckeyes were considered one of the most talented teams in college football history, but they just couldn’t get it all figured out until after that Michigan State loss. It was the culmination of a season that featured a host of underwhelming performances for Ohio State, which was made all the more frustrating because of the ceiling everyone knew that team had. The program might have been taken to a whole new stratosphere in the modern era had the Buckeyes won back-to-back national championships, and the 2015 Michigan State loss was the game that took that opportunity away from them.
Andy: That 2015 mess still rankles me. The rain, that freaking kicker windmilling his way around the Horseshoe, knowing that the loss would keep the most-talented Buckeye team ever out of the playoff… god, that was awful. Truly a nightmare scenario, thanks for asking, ya big jerk.
In ’98 we were all so used to Cooper’s teams laying an egg against a team from That State Up North, even though Joe Germaine and David Boston’s squad were No. 1 in the country that one got washed off a couple of years later when Jim Tressel took the Buckeyes to the promised land for the first time in three decades. The 2015 loss is sill with us, seven years and zero national titles later. That 2015 was destined to win a natty – we all knew it!
Yeah, that one still stings.
Kyle: '98 still hurts as much as ever because it effectively marked the end of a great era of Buckeye football and the beginning of the only real 'down' period of my lifetime, which saw the program go from perennial contender to Outback Bowl participant. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes returned to the CFP in 2016 and have remained near the top of the sport ever since, making that 2015 loss hurt less and less as time goes on.
Ohio State enters as a, surprising to some, 21-point favorite over the Spartans. Do the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and game MVP.
Kyle: I think the Buckeyes get an early lead through the air with Olave finding the end zone multiple times and earning the attention after seeing his fellow receivers do so in recent weeks. The big lead neutralizes Walker and forces the Spartans to throw more than they'd like to catch up. Buckeyes win 49-21.
Andy: That is such a fat line, but I’m loathe to dismiss Vegas on this one after last week when I thought the line against Purdue was plenty wide. We all saw how that one turned out… considering that my score prediction of 45-17 was the score for the first half, yeah, I think Ohio State covers this one. The Buckeye offense is the kind that gives Sparty’s defense fits, and they’ve yet to face a single offense anywhere near as effective as Ohio State’s best-in-class unit.
Stroud is your MVP after throwing for a career six touchdown passes, topping the 400-yard mark for the fourth time this season. Final score: 49-24.
Griffin: I wouldn’t put it past this Ohio State team to beat the Spartans by three touchdowns on its best night, but I also wouldn’t put money on that happening on Saturday. I don’t think the Buckeyes cover, but a 10-point win will work just fine for Ohio State, which will likely name Stroud its MVP after another performance that adds to his Heisman Trophy resume. Ohio State 45, Michigan State 35.