The Big Ten has an easy target for criticism through the first four weeks of the season. The conference doesn’t have a team ranked inside of the top 10 and the lack of a marquee win in non-conference play has been a black eye. However, Week 5 brings a much-needed change of scenery for all 12 teams. Conference play begins this Saturday and there are a few games that will draw national interest, which should help stop the bleeding from the awful start to the season.
Ohio State is the Big Ten’s only undefeated ranked team and is arguably the best team in the conference. Michigan State is off to a 3-1 start, with the only defeat coming to Notre dame. However, the Spartans looked sluggish in wins over Boise State and Eastern Michigan.
Five Things to Watch in Ohio State vs. Michigan State
1. Will Ohio State stop Le’Veon Bell?
Expect the Buckeyes to employ a simple gameplan on defense this Saturday. Ohio State will load the box to stop Bell, which will force Michigan State to lean on quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Bell rushed for 210 yards in the win over Boise State and 253 against Eastern Michigan but was held in check against Notre Dame (77 yards). The Buckeyes rank 33rd nationally against the run and only one opponent has managed more than 150 rushing yards against them this year (California, 224). Ohio State’s defensive line is one of the toughest in college football, especially with 322-pound tackle Johnathan Hankins in the middle. If the Buckeyes stop Bell, Michigan State will have a hard time moving the ball on Saturday afternoon. Which brings us to our next question…
2. Is this the game Andrew Maxwell steps up for Michigan State?
Replacing Kirk Cousins was no easy task, but most expected Maxwell would play better through the first four games of the season. The junior is completing 56.6 percent of his throws and has failed to eclipse more than 200 yards in each of his last two starts. Maxwell hasn’t thrown an interception since the season opener, but his performances have been uninspiring so far. He can’t be blamed for all of the woes in the passing game, especially with a revamped receiving corps that could feature two sophomore starters on Saturday. With the Buckeyes loading up to stop Bell, Maxwell will need to have the best game of 2012 in order to lead Michigan State to victory.
3. Can the Buckeyes take some of the workload off Braxton Miller?
As expected, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has been a perfect fit in Urban Meyer’s spread offense. The sophomore has rushed for 441 yards and seven touchdowns while throwing for 754 yards and seven scores this year. Despite his strong start, the Buckeyes want to reduce his workload. Miller is averaging 17 rushes a game and may not last a full season at this pace. The sophomore is still developing as a passer but has thrown for 754 yards and seven touchdowns. Michigan State’s defense leads the Big Ten in total, scoring and rush defense so far this year and ranks 13th nationally against the pass. Miller needs to make a few big plays with his legs, but he also has to have some help from the supporting cast. Running back Jordan Hall has been steady in his first two games back from a foot injury, recording 192 yards and two receptions. Hall’s emergence should be a huge positive for Ohio State’s offense, and Carlos Hyde could return from injury this week. With Michigan State’s defense looking to stop Miller, it’s up to Hyde and Hall to step up on the ground.
4. Who will win the battle in the trenches?
Although Braxton Miller needs his supporting cast to step up, and Le’Veon Bell has to have more help from Andrew Maxwell, neither player will have much of an opportunity to succeed if the offensive lines don’t perform. Ohio State’s line entered the year as a question mark and has allowed nearly two sacks a game. Michigan State’s front five is allowing just one a game, but four came against Notre Dame. Although senior Nathan Williams has been dealing with the effects from knee surgery, the Buckeyes still have plenty of talent up front, including Johnathan Hankins at tackle and John Simon at end. Both players will have opportunities to take over the game this Saturday. Michigan State’s defensive line is stocked with talent, including All-American candidate William Gholston. End Marcus Rush is another player to watch (three tackles for a loss), while there’s plenty of size on the interior. This will be the toughest challenge for Ohio State’s offensive line and could be the perfect opportunity for Gholston to get on track this year.
5. Special teams
With Saturday’s matchup is expected to be a close one, a play on special teams could decide the outcome. Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy has connected on 7 of 11 attempts but is just 3 of 7 from 30-49 yards. Ohio State kicker Drew Basil hit his only attempt of the season, while punter Ben Buchanan is averaging 41.3 yards per punt. In last week’s win over UAB, the Buckeyes had a punt that was blocked and returned for a score. Can Michigan State find something on tape that UAB was able to exploit? Considering this game probably won’t be decided until deep in the fourth quarter, one mistake on special teams could be very costly.
With a light week of games this Saturday, Ohio State-Michigan State has a chance to be the best game on the slate. The Buckeyes have won seven out of the last eight contests in this series, with the Spartans winning 10-7 in Columbus last year. Points should be at a premium in this matchup, with Braxton Miller outdueling Anddrew Maxwell to earn a hard-fought win for Ohio State.
Ohio State 23, Michigan State 20
by Steven Lassan
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