Biggest Matchups

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Last updated: 09/28/2012 7:42 AM

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Football
Looking at Saturday’s Biggest Matchups

By Brandon Castel

For the 11th time in his coaching career, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer will attempt to open conference play with a win. The Buckeyes’ first-year coach is a perfect 10-0 in previous stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.

Saturday’s trip to East Lansing will probably be one of the toughest league-openers Meyer has ever faced. The Spartans have one of the top defenses in the country, along with a smashmouth running back who will run through arm tackles.

Here’s a look at some of the top matchups to keep an eye on Saturday as these two teams battle for Big Ten supremacy.  

1. RB Le’Veon Bell vs. Ohio State’s front seven.

This could be the matchup that single-handedly determines the outcome of Saturday’s game in East Lansing. It’s not just about Bell. He will have the rock in his hands 25-30 times at least against the Buckeyes, but this is also about Michigan State’s offensive line being able to handle Ohio State’s defensive front in order to get Bell to the second level. Once he gets there, it’s going to be a long day for the OSU linebackers and defensive backs who are trying to bring down a 245-pound back with a head of steam.

Ohrian Johnson
Photo by Jim Davidson
Ohrian Johnson

Like safety Orhian Johnson said, the key is to get to him before he gets to them. That means the guys up front have to control their blocks and the linebackers have to do a much better job coming up and filling the gaps so that Bell has to bounce his runs outside. He’s a much less dangerous runner when he’s moving east and west. Get him going north and south and this could be another ugly day for the OSU defense.

2. Braxton Miller vs. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen

On the flip side, Michigan State will face an equally, albeit different, threat in OSU quarterback Braxton Miller. If they think they know anything about Miller from this game a year ago, they had better think again. That game will probably go down as the worst of Miller’s OSU career, at least in terms of production.

Braxton Miller
Photo by Dan Harker
Braxton Miller

He didn’t have a run of more than three yards in that 10-7 loss, but Miller might be the best player on the field Saturday, regardless of who has the football. As my colleague Tony Gerdeman’s points out, we will find out if Miller is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate this week as he faces the best defense he will go against all year.

The Spartans are loaded on that side of the ball, but the two key guys in stopping Miller will be middle linebacker Max Bullough and outside linebacker Denicos Allen. These two juniors have been around for a while, and Dantonio recently compared Bullough to former OSU middle linebacker Matt Wilhelm. Meyer has mentioned Bullough as the player who really grabs his attention on MSU’s defense, so it will be interesting to see how they fair against one of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the country.

3. John Simon and Nathan Williams vs. RT Skyler Burkland

John Simon
Photo by Jim Davidson
John Simon

There aren’t a lot of big names on this Michigan State offensive line, but the one guy to watch is Sunbury, Ohio, native Skyler Burkland. The 6-7, 315-pound sophomore out of Big Walnut High School has dealt with some injuries at Michigan State, but he’s healthy now and filled in for injured senior Fou Fonoti at right tackle against Notre Dame.

Burkland started the first three games last year as a freshman before hurting his ankle, but this will be one of the toughest tests he faces all season. Simon and Williams are both guys who are capable of playing at the next level, so it will be interesting to see how much help Mark Dantonio keeps in the backfield to help Burkland and left tackle Dan France against Ohio State’s front-four. The Buckeyes could also have Michael Bennett back this week, but the two key guys are still Simon and Williams.

4. DE Williams Gholston vs. OT Reid Fragel

Reid Fragel
Photo by Jim Davidson
Reid Fragel

Gholston will probably move around a lot on Saturday as they try to confuse sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, but it’s going to be interesting to see how Reid Fragel handles the freakish pass-rusher whenever he lines up across from Ohio State’s right tackle.

Fragel is a converted tight end who made the transition to tackle this off-seasons so he could fit into Meyer’s new system at Ohio State. It took him a while to get the nuances down of pass-blocking on the edge, but this Michigan native is coming off the best game of his career against UAB last week. That won’t help him a lot against one of the premier pass rushers in the conference.

Gholston has excellent physical size and athleticism, and he was a terror against the Buckeyes a year ago.

5. Corey Linsley vs. MSU nose tackle James Kittredge

Corey Linsley
Photo by Jim Davidson
Corey Linsley

Another key matchup to watch in the trenches Saturday is Ohio State center Corey Linsley against Michigan State nose tackle James Kittredge. This was another area where the Spartans dominated the Buckeyes a year ago. Handicapped by the lack of a passing attack, and a archaic snap count, Michael Brewster had a nearly impossible time keeping Jerel Worthy out of the OSU backfield.

Worthy is now in Green Bay, but Kittredge has filled in nicely this season as a transfer from Vanderbilt. A product of Don Bosco Prep High School in New Jersey, Kittredge was a center at Vanderbilt and he sat out last season while making the position change, but he posted five tackles (including 2.5 for loss) in the first start of his career a week ago. The Spartans also have a 330-pound senior named Anthony Rashad White who will rotate in with Kittredge.

6. Ohio State’s WRs vs. CB Johnny Adams

Jake Stoneburner
Photo by Jim Davidson
Jake Stoneburner

There is no question Michigan State will load the box against Ohio State on Saturday, and they will probably spy Miller most of the day. That means the Buckeyes will have to find a way to throw the football, so it’s going to be another big test for Devin Smith, Corey Brown, Jake Stoneburner and Evan Spencer.

Stoneburner might create the best mismatch against Michigan State’s defense, but the key battle will be cornerback Johnny Adams against whichever receiver he’s asked to cover. That will likely be Smith, who has proven to be Ohio State’s best go-get-it guy down the field.

Adams is an Ohio guy who plays with a chip on his shoulder in this matchup because he was overlooked by the Buckeyes. Nobody is overlooking him anymore, as Adams has become one of the best man coverage corners in the country.

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