Big Ten supremacy and a spot in the College Football Playoff could be on the line Saturday in Columbus, as Ohio State hosts Michigan State in one of the biggest remaining matchups of the 2015 season. The Buckeyes ranked No. 3 in the latest committee rankings, with the Spartans at No. 9. Saturday afternoon’s contest won’t necessarily decide the Big Ten East champ – Michigan will have a chance to stake its claim after a matchup against Ohio State next week – but this game will have major ramifications in the national landscape.
Ohio State has its share of imperfections, but the Buckeyes are 10-0 and poised to make another late-season run at the national championship. The upcoming schedule isn’t kind to coach Urban Meyer’s team. According to the playoff committee, Ohio State does not have a win over a team currently ranked in the top 25. However, the Buckeyes have arguably the toughest three-game stretch to close the regular season. After Saturday’s game against Michigan State, Ohio State plays at Michigan on Nov. 28. Assuming the Buckeyes beat the Spartans and Wolverines, they will face Iowa (No. 5 in this week’s rankings) in the Big Ten Championship.
Just like Ohio State, Michigan State has showed flaws through the first 10 games but also had the misfortune of questionable officiating in a 39-38 loss at Nebraska on Nov. 7. Despite the defeat to the Cornhuskers, the Spartans are still alive for a playoff spot. If Michigan State wins out, it’s safe to assume coach Mark Dantonio’s team will be one of the four remaining teams battling for the national championship in late December.
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Ohio State leads the all-time series 29-14 over Michigan State. The Buckeyes have won nine out of the last 11 matchups in this series. The Spartans won the 2013 Big Ten Championship and claimed a 10-7 victory in Columbus in 2011.
Michigan State at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Ohio State -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan State’s Defensive Line Versus Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
It’s a battle of strength versus strength in the trenches on Saturday afternoon. Michigan State owns one of the nation’s best defensive lines, headlined by standout end Shilique Calhoun (11 TFL, 8.5 sacks), and there's depth and talent on the interior with rising star Malik McDowell (10.5 TFL) and Joel Heath. The front seven is also anchored by a solid group of linebackers, including Riley Bullough (79 stops) and Darien Harris (65 tackles). In Big Ten-only matchups this season, the Spartans are limiting opponents to 122.5 rushing yards per game and only one opponent over the last four matchups has managed to eclipse more than 110 yards. Those totals will be put to the test this week. Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott is quietly building an impressive Heisman resume and enters this matchup with 15 consecutive games of 100 rushing yards or more. In last year’s game, Elliott rushed for 154 yards and two scores on 23 attempts. This defense also has to contend with quarterback J.T. Barrett’s mobility. Ohio State’s passing attack is working to find its rhythm under Barrett, and this offense thrives off establishing the ground attack. If Michigan State can force Barrett into third-and-long situations and keep him in the pocket, that’s a win for Mark Dantonio’s defense.
2. Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook suffered a shoulder injury in last week’s win over Maryland and finished with just 77 yards on six completions. Just how healthy is Cook? While Dantonio won’t discuss injuries, Cook is not expected to miss any snaps on Saturday. But is the senior quarterback at full strength? That’s the million dollar question surrounding this matchup. When healthy, Cook is one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. Through 10 games, the senior has passed for 2,482 yards and 21 scores and tossed only four picks. Michigan State has a standout supporting cast, but the offensive line – largely due to injuries – hasn’t lived up to preseason expectations. One area the Spartans have to find answers to before Saturday is with the rushing attack. Michigan State is averaging only 3.9 yards per carry. That’s a huge concern against an Ohio State defensive line giving up only 3.6 yards per rush and has generated 30 sacks in 2015. Cook can put this team on his back and keep the Spartans in the mix for the win. However, he also needs a lot of help from his supporting cast.
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3. Ohio State’s Passing Game
Looking for a spark on offense, Ohio State made the switch from Cardale Jones to J.T. Barrett under center prior to the Oct. 24 game against Rutgers. In his first start of the season, Barrett helped the Buckeyes tie their highest point total of the season (49) and averaged a healthy 7.5 yards per play mark. Barrett was suspended due to an off-field incident for the Nov. 7 game against Minnesota but returned to the lineup against Illinois and completed 15 of 23 passes for 150 yards and one score and rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts. While Ohio State’s offense wasn’t bad with Jones at the controls, Barrett is more dynamic and his mobility is a huge asset. The sophomore has connected on three passes of 30 yards or more this season. In 10 games (with seven starts), Jones only has 11 completions of 30 or more yards. If Ohio State was looking for a week to turn in a breakout performance for its passing attack, Saturday afternoon against Michigan State’s secondary has plenty of potential. The Spartans “No Fly Zone” has been more vulnerable than in recent years, surrendering 14 touchdown tosses and 17 passing plays of 30 yards or more. Receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller each average just over 14 yards per catch. This could be the week Barrett and his receivers turn in a breakout performance.
Ohio State entered 2015 as the favorite to repeat, but the Buckeyes are still working to put all of the pieces together for a run at another playoff title. Saturday’s game against Michigan State is the biggest test so far on Ohio State’s schedule and the start of the most critical stretch for this team in 2015. How will the Buckeyes respond? The guess here is the switch is flipped on this weekend and Ohio State shows why it was the favorite to win the national title this preseason. Michigan State’s defensive front presents some challenges, but Barrett’s mobility and ability to make plays on the run is a huge asset against an aggressive front seven. The Spartans need Connor Cook to be at full strength to have a shot at the upset, and the rushing attack has to perform better than it has over the last four games (3.2 yards per carry). Michigan State battles and keeps it close into the fourth quarter, but Ohio State just has too much on both sides of the ball and has its eyes set on moving one step closer to the Big Ten title.