While undefeated, the Ohio State Buckeyes sit precariously atop the Big Ten East headed into Saturday's game against the Michigan State Spartans. Ohio State (4-0) was forced to cancel last weekend's game against Illinois due to an unspecified number of positive COVID-19 cases within the program. Those impacted include head coach Ryan Day, who will not be on the sidelines in East Lansing.
The Buckeyes are eager to play the Spartans because they need a minimum of six games to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game. With two games already called off (Nov. 14 game at Maryland was canceled earlier this season), Ohio State cannot afford any more missed opportunities, or the Buckeyes, currently ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, would become an interesting test case for the selection committee.
The Spartans (2-3) are coming off a surprising 29-20 home win over previously undefeated Northwestern. Under first-year head coach Mel Tucker, the Spartans have played well against ranked opponents, and will be looking at the opportunity to upset Ohio State with great enthusiasm. Michigan State has played a spoiler to Ohio State in recent seasons (2013, 2015), and would use this victory as a springboard into 2021.
No. 4 Ohio State at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -24
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Under ordinary circumstances, Ohio State fans would be eager to see quarterback Justin Fields throwing the ball to his talented wide receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. As 2020 has given college football fans numerous examples of how this season does not allow for ordinary circumstances, it is entirely possible that the Buckeyes may be taking the field minus several of their offensive starters.
In the event Ohio State is without Fields at quarterback or any of their starters at wide receiver, a conservative strategy may be to rely upon the running game to control the clock and reduce the possibilities of turnovers by an inexperienced signal-caller. The Buckeyes may turn to a group of running backs that include Master Teague, Trey Sermon, Steele Chambers, Demario McCall, and Marcus Crowley.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Spartans quarterback Rocky Lombardi has had his moments, especially last week in the win over Northwestern when he threw for 165 yards and two touchdowns (with an interception) while also running for 65 in helping Michigan State upset then-No.l 8 Northwestern. Lombardi is only completing around 54 percent of his passes on the season, so the Spartans' game plan may be to establish the running game, allowing Lombardi to hit Ohio State on deep play-action passes.
Michigan State's running game is a committee approach, led by Connor Heyward (179 rushing yards) and Jordon Simmons (147). The deep passing game for the Spartans is formidable, with Jalen Nailor (23.7 yards per catch) and Ricky White (22.3) the primary big-play threats. It will be worth watching how much success Lombardi and his receivers have against an Ohio State secondary that could be depleted due to COVID-19 protocols. The Buckeyes enter this game ranked last in the Big Ten and 117th nationally in pass defense (291 ypg, 9 TDs, 2 INTs).
Ohio State is going on the road against an opponent that knows the Buckeyes are not going to be at full strength. Head coach Ryan Day will not be on the sidelines because he tested positive for COVID-19, meaning long-time Ohio State assistant Larry Johnson will serve as acting head coach. With a talented but potentially inexperienced lineup, look for the Buckeyes to focus upon getting the win by relying upon their depth, and grinding out an unexciting but satisfying win in their quest to get back to the Big Ten Championship Game, and the College Football Playoff.
Prediction: Ohio State 28, Michigan State 10
Podcast: Coaching Carousel and Week 14 Preview and Predictions