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Michigan State Spartans vs. Ohio State Buckeyes Game Preview and Prediction

Connor Cook

Connor Cook

The Big Ten has spent most of 2014 out of the national spotlight, but the Michigan State-Ohio State showdown on Saturday night carries significant playoff implications. This matchup is easily the biggest game of the year in the conference and is a rematch of last year’s Big Ten title game. In last season’s contest, the Spartans won 34-24 and eliminated the Buckeyes from earning a spot in the BCS title game.

Both teams enter Saturday night’s matchup with one loss. However, there’s a different narrative following each team’s defeat. Michigan State’s defeat came at the hands of Oregon – ranked as the No. 4 team in the college football playoff standings after Week 10. Ohio State’s loss was to a Virginia Tech team that is struggling just to get bowl eligible. And the Buckeyes’ loss to the Hokies is clearly hurting coach Urban Meyer’s team in the playoff poll, as Ohio State ranks No. 14 and needs a lot of help to get into the top four.

Ohio State owns a 28-13 series edge over Michigan State. The Buckeyes are just 1-2 in their last three matchups against the Spartans. Two out of the last three meetings were decided by three points or less. From 1987-2008, Ohio State went 12-2 against Michigan State.

Ohio State at Michigan State

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Michigan State -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Ohio State’s Offensive Line
Outside of J.T. Barrett’s development, this unit was the biggest concern for Ohio State in 2014. The Buckeyes gave up seven sacks in the loss to Virginia Tech but has allowed just 10 in the other seven contests. However, the line has rarely been tested over the last few weeks, and Michigan State’s defensive front is likely the best Ohio State will play this year. How far as the Buckeyes’ offensive line developed in recent weeks? Left tackle Taylor Decker will have his hands full with ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, as the duo headlines a Spartans’ defensive front that leads the Big Ten with 28 sacks. While pass protection is a concern, Barrett has the mobility to make plays outside of the pocket (second on the team with 496 rushing yards), and the offense is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Are the Buckeyes up to the challenge in the trenches? Or will Calhoun and Rush win the battle at the point of attack?

2. Quarterback Play
Through 10 weeks of the 2014 season, it’s clear Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Michigan State’s Connor Cook are the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Barrett stepped into a difficult situation with ease, leading the conference with 294 total yards per game. Cook doesn’t have Barrett’s mobility, but the junior is completing 60.6 percent of his throws and has only five picks on 198 attempts this year. In the Big Ten Championship last year, Cook easily outdueled Braxton Miller, completing 24 of 40 passes for 340 yards and one score. Miller completed just 8 of 21 throws and was held to 101 yards and a score. Michigan State doesn’t need Cook to throw for 300 yards on Saturday night, but the junior needs to be efficient and limit his mistakes. Despite completing 61.7 percent of his throws against Oregon, Cook tossed two picks. Ohio State’s defense is holding opponents to 19.8 points per game in Big Ten action and has allowed only seven passing plays of 30 yards or more. That’s an improvement off last season, and Cook will be facing the best pass rush he has played in 2014. Both quarterbacks are going against elite defensive lines and pass defenses that have been stingy. With a tight game expected, the play of Cook and Barrett will be under the microscope. Cook torched Ohio State’s secondary for 304 yards and three scores last year. However, the Buckeyes have showed improvement on defense in 2014. For Barrett, this is his toughest road test of the year. With an offensive line that’s still developing, can Barrett avoid the rush and make plays against a secondary that has allowed 11 passing plays of 40 yards or more – nearly as many (17) as last year?

3. Style of Play

It’s no secret Michigan State wants to control the pace of the game with a vicious defense and a methodical, yet very successful offense. The Spartans lead the Big Ten by averaging 36:02 in time of possession, while Ohio State is third with a 32:24 mark. The Buckeyes’ rush defense has been solid this year, limiting opponents to just 3.4 yards per carry and 118.6 yards per contest. Expect Michigan State to challenge that total with a heavy dose of Jeremy Langford. The senior has five consecutive 100-yard efforts and gashed Michigan for 177 yards and three scores two weeks ago. If Langford has success on early downs, the Spartans will have a chance to control the tempo and later hit on play-action passes to standout receiver Tony Lippett. When Ohio State has the ball, expect Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman to push the tempo. The Buckeyes want to speed up the tempo, which should allow Barrett to get some easy (and quick passes) against the Michigan State defensive front. If the Buckeyes control the pace of the game and jump to an early lead, they will force the Spartans out of their comfort level on offense.

Final Analysis

The roles are reversed in 2014. Last season, Michigan State played spoiler, eliminating Ohio State from the national title conversation with a 34-24 win in the Big Ten Championship. The Buckeyes have a chance to do something similar on Saturday night, as a win by Urban Meyer’s team would eliminate Michigan State from the playoff picture. If Ohio State wins, it should get a bump in next week’s rankings. However, even if the Buckeyes win in East Lansing, they need some help to reach the top four. Regardless of the playoff implications, these two teams are the best in the Big Ten. So what’s the difference in the game? Michigan State’s defense and quarterback Connor Cook. The Spartans aren’t as dominant on defense as they were last season, but this unit is still capable of carrying this team to a playoff spot. Barrett has performed well in relief of Miller. However, a road trip to East Lansing against Michigan State’s defense will be too much to overcome.

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Prediction: Michigan State 30, Ohio State 20