The intrigue surrounding the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis is more intense than ever before. Michigan State and Wisconsin in the inaugural bout was one of the better, more exciting conference title games in any league of recent memory. But there wasn’t a trip to the BCS National Championship game on the line in that tilt like there is at Lucas Oil Stadium this Saturday.
The dust has settled on the Big Ten regular season, and the two teams that survived unscathed will appropriately battle for the league crown and a guaranteed trip to the Rose Bowl. Michigan State boasts the nation’s best statistical defense after giving up a paltry 237.7 yards per game this season. This physical, experienced unit has seven seniors starting dotting the depth chart and it allowed a nation’s low 11.0 points per game in conference play. In fact, the Spartans have held its opponent out of the endzone in five of the last six games (Nebraska).
This is the challenge that faces Ohio State’s dynamic backfield duo of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Urban Meyer deploys a power zone-read with his 235-pound tailback and versatile and explosive quarterback to the tune of 321.3 yards rushing per game — good for second nationally to only Army. Hyde has been huge in the second half of important games against Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan. Miller, however, has been downright brilliant in conference play, leading the Big Ten in total offense (295.0 ypg) and passing efficiency (164.51) in conference play.
When the Buckeyes offense is on the field it will be a match of strengths. But the other half of the game could end up being more critical and entertaining. Ohio State’s defense has given up plenty of yards and points this season, culminating in a 603-yard performance by a Michigan offense ranked 96th in the nation in total offense. Michigan State’s offense, also considered the weaker Spartan unit, is vastly underrated. Tailback Jeremy Langford has seven consecutive 100-yard games and led the Big Ten with 16 rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Connor Cook takes care of the ball (only four interceptions) and the receivers have made big plays all season.
Be it a shootout or a defensive struggle, fans in Indy should expect a close game. Despite Ohio State winning eight of the last nine meetings, these two have split the last two games by a grand total of four points. Ohio State owns a 28-12 all-time record in the series.
Michigan State vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: 8:17 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Ohio State -5.5
Three Things to Watch
Can Connor Cook make plays?
Michigan State’s gameplan on offense is pretty clear: Run, run and run some more. Jeremy Langford has been a star for this team with seven straight 100-yard games. But Connor Cook will be called upon to be the difference maker when OSU stacks the box. Cook passed for just 176.6 yards per game this year but was much better over the final month, averaging 217.8 per game with a couple of elite performances. He completed 93.8-percent of his passes and three touchdowns against Illinois, he threw for 252 yards and scored twice over Michigan and posted a career-high 293 yards and two TDs in the division clinching road win over Northwestern. Ohio State is ninth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and the banged-up secondary will provide chances for Cook to make plays with his arm.
Protecting the quarterback
Michigan State leads the nation in pass efficiency defense (91.79), leads the Big Ten in passing defense (172.9) yards per game and is third in the Big Ten in both interceptions (16) and sacks (29.0). This will give Braxton Miller a huge challenge in the passing game. On the flip side, Cook could be running for his life as the Buckeyes boast the nation’s No. 1 pass-rush (39.0 sacks). Obviously, both teams want to run the ball and the defenses know it. So with two defenses geared up to stop the ground game, the outcome may hinge on whichever quarterback has the time to complete critical third-and-longs late in the game. Additionally, both defenses will look to punish the quarterback so survival might be the name of the game.
Special teams battle
The all-important third phase of the game will be huge this weekend for both teams, especially if it becomes a low-scoring, tightly played affair. Ohio State leads the Big Ten in punting (43.5 ypp) and has blocked three kicks or punts this season. And while Ohio State has made 8-of-9 field goals, the Buckeyes haven’t asked Drew Basil to make key kicks as OSU has attempted the fewest number of field goals in the Big Ten. Conversely, the Spartans Michael Geiger has made 12-of-13 kicks and MSU is 16-of-19 overall. The Buckeyes should have a big advantage in the return game as well. Michigan State is dead last in the league in kickoff returns while Ohio State is No. 2 in the league. Both coaches love to use the fake punt at unexpected times, so don’t take any bathroom breaks on special teams as they are sure to be critical this weekend.
Key Player: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Star quarterbacks are always the most important players but even more so for Ohio State. Miller will be the most dynamic and important player on the field for either team on Saturday. Michigan State has the talent and experience to stop the Buckeyes' offense in its tracks but no amount of discipline or physicality can overcome the improve skills of a player like Miller. The Spartans will look to hit the Ohio State quarterback as hard and as often as possible as Miller has demonstrated an issue with injuries. So if No. 5 can survive the entire game, he will likely do something that drops jaws and pops eyes. This is what keeps great coordinators like Pat Narduzzi up late at night.
This should be a great chess match battle between two hard-nosed coaches and two hard-nosed teams. Both teams are undefeated in Big Ten play, which sets up a perfect winner-take-all situation in Indianapolis. Michigan State is playing for its first Rose Bowl bid since 1987 and Ohio State is playing for a trip to the BCS National Championship game. It is a battle of strength on strength when Ohio State has the ball and weakness on weakness when Michigan State has the ball. Look for a trick play or fake of some kind to play a huge role in the second half, but No. 5 in Scarlet and Gray is the difference. Braxton Miller will make one or two miraculous plays that no defense can stop, which translates to a victory for the Buckeyes.
Big Ten Championship Predictions:
B1G Season Record
Ohio State, 31-30
Ohio State, 27-21
Ohio State, 27-24
Ohio State, 24-20