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Quite the B1G Game: Ohio State-Michigan State Preview

Before a game was played this season, November 8th was a date circled in both green and scarlet. For the green team, it meant another step towards confirming to the Big Ten that their recent success wasn’t just an aberration, but a step towards maintaining their status among the conference’s elite. For the team in scarlet, nothing might be sweeter than serving up a cold dish of revenge to the team that ruined their undefeated season and national title hopes in last year’s Big Ten championship game.

There was a tad bit of uncertainty about whether Saturday’s showdown between Michigan State and Ohio State would retain that feel when Braxton Miller went down with injury in preseason practice. That sentiment became magnified even more when Miller’s replacement J.T. Barrett had a game to forget in a losing effort against Virginia Tech combined with the Spartans getting hammered in Eugene against Oregon in week two. However, both teams appear to have either righted the ship or taken advantage of an easy schedule since then, going a combined 12-0 as this crucial clash in East Lansing looms over the weekend. I’ll leave it to the individual reader to choose which side they want to take there.

Big Ten hate or love aside, the ESPN College Gameday circus will be live and in living color on the MSU campus Saturday morning. Lee Corso will be expected to don the headgear of Sparty whose team is a slight 3.5 point favorite. While I’m on that subject, I would actually be intrigued to find out not how many times he actually picked the winner, but how often he actually went with the favorite in Vegas over the course of his 251 selections.

Enough with the betting line, let’s get into the bare bones details on what it’s going to take for either side to come out victorious and improve their standing in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee. It’s an uphill road for both teams but even more so should the Buckeyes come out on top, given the aforementioned loss to Virginia Tech that has increasingly been referred to by pundits nationally, locally, and personally (talking about myself) as an “albatross.”

Ohio State-Michigan State Preview

Both OSU and MSU are led on offense by two immensely talented quarterbacks. Within the conference, J.T. Barrett has garnered the most attention given the fact that he’s a redshirt freshman and has amassed some impressive numbers while taking decisive command of the Buckeyes offense. Don’t sleep on Connor Cook though. The junior quarterback for the Spartans who, ironically enough, is from Hinckley, OH, has quietly established himself as not just one of the most statistically efficient quarterbacks in the Big Ten, but the entire nation.

Through eight games, Cook ranks in the top ten nationally in passing yards per completion (fourth, 15.57), passing efficiency (sixth, 163.1), and ESPN’s Total QBR metric (seventh, 81.8). His standing in those last two categories indicates he doesn’t make very many mistakes and makes big-time throws in crucial situations. So far on the season, he’s thrown for 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. That said, in the Spartans’ previous big game of the season against Oregon, he had his share of struggles, particularly in the second half when the Ducks outscored MSU 28-3 en route to the 46-27 win.

Both teams are exceptionally balanced on offense and possess a great deal of weaponry on the ground. Though much of the attention in the Big Ten from a running back standpoint has focused on Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, the Spartans and Buckeyes have some capable runners of their own.

Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford is one of 25 backs in FBS who currently average over 100 yards rushing per game (105.1) and is tied for 20th nationally with ten rushing touchdowns. As I’ve written before, Ezekiel Elliott has (predictably, I might add) assumed the role of feature back for the Buckeyes and leads the team with 709 yards on the ground. Still, the OSU run game isn’t lacking in the personnel department when it comes to running head coach Urban Meyer’s diverse package of zone read and jet sweep plays including Barrett himself, who leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.

We can talk about offense all we want, but ultimately this hugely important Big Ten clash will be won on the defensive side of the football. Both teams were expected to excel defensively in their own unique ways and haven’t disappointed. Ohio State’s defensive front is about as physical and punishing as they get. Sophomore Joey Bosa is doing his best J.J. Watt impersonation this year and is among the nation’s sack leaders with ten total quarterback takedowns for loss which ranks sixth nationally. Though the Spartans lost some key players in the secondary, including Darqueze Denard who now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, they’ve certainly picked up where they left off from last season. So far, they’ve intercepted opposing quarterbacks ten times, with three Spartan defensive backs, Kurtis Drummond, RJ Williamson, and Trae Waynes getting two apiece.

Pay attention to which team does a better job converting on third down, as it could be a crucial X-factor that helps determine the outcome. Both teams are among the nation’s best in keeping the offense on the field and getting first downs, with Ohio State 11th and Michigan State 17th in third down conversion percentage at 48.5% and 47.4% respectively. There are few things that contribute to breaking down an opposing defense’s momentum than continuously moving the chains on third down.

If you’re a Big Ten homer that above all else wants to see the conference represented in the Playoff, you’re probably pulling for the Spartans to hold serve at home. Currently ranked eighth in the selection committee poll, they’re certainly the most favorably positioned of teams in the conference that might be able to move up into that fourth spot should teams ahead of them slip up and they themselves run the table. There is a chance that if Ohio State wins convincingly enough on Saturday night, they could swap spots with MSU in the polls and benefit from the same scenario. The issue facing the Buckeyes, though, is that bad loss to Virginia Tech that could come back to haunt them if the committee has to choose between them and a one-loss team from either the Big 12 or Pac-12.

The Big Ten has traditionally been reticent to schedule night games when the month of November comes along, but they’ve thrown that out the door for this one. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has built the Spartan program into a conference powerhouse reminiscent of their glory years of the mid-1960s under Duffy Daugherty when they claimed two national titles in 1965 and 1966. The Buckeyes are looking for a massive road win in Spartan Stadium that will somewhat alleviate the sting of their defeat in Indianapolis last December. For at least one week, the conference can have the spotlight to itself in primetime and the vitriol from the Big Ten haters can be tuned out at least somewhat.

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