The 10th-ranked Buckeyes (8-1, 5-1) head to East Lansing this weekend to take on a Michigan State team (6-3, 4-2) that is ranked 18th in the nation. They are not separated by much in the polls, and Ohio State comes into this game as 3.5-point favorites.
It’s a matchup of strengths — OSU’s offense against MSU’s defense.
The Buckeyes have the No. 5 offense in the nation, averaging 547.2 yards of total offense per game. The Spartans, meanwhile, have the No. 3 defense in the Big Ten, allowing just 325.1 yards per game. Most of those yards come through the air, as MSU is No. 1 in the nation against the run, allowing just 71.7 yards rushing per game.
While the Buckeye running game is going to have its difficulties on Saturday, the Michigan State pass defense could be an area of concern for head coach Mark Dantonio.
“When you look at [Ohio State] offensively, it’s a daunting task,” Dantonio said this week. “You’ve got a quarterback that’s thrown 32 touchdowns and very few interceptions; 3,000-plus yards in nine games; two 600-yard rushers; a couple wide receivers that have caught over 50 passes; outstanding group of wide receivers. Their offensive line is pretty much back with the exception of one guy intact, sort of, and so they have got a lot of returning starters on offense.”
Defensively for the Buckeyes, Dantonio immediately noted the loss of Nick Bosa and the impact that it has had on Ohio State, but also added that there is still talent roaming the defense for the Scarlet and Gray.
“They are rebuilding a little bit with the loss of Bosa,” he said. “That’s obviously a big loss for them. With him out, they are replacing three defensive linemen that are playing in the NFL, so that’s tough duty. Their linebacker, (Tuf) Borland, is coming off an Achilles’ injury. So playing in and out.
“Little bit younger secondary. Talented, but a little bit younger secondary. They had I think three guys left from their secondary last year which was extremely talented. But athletic, active, outstanding secondary, run and tackle. I’m very, very impressed always with their special teams, and should be a great football game.”
Even with plenty to like about the Buckeyes, Dantonio is also well aware that Ohio State has not been playing its best football. Or if it has, then their best is definitely beatable.
The Buckeyes’ last three games have been a 16-point win over a Minnesota team that suffered worse losses against Nebraska and Illinois; a 29-point loss to a Purdue team that lost to Eastern Michigan; and a 5-point win over Nebraska that saw Ohio State trailing at the half.
This is a very vulnerable Buckeye football team, and the Michigan State coaching staff is looking to see what has worked for other teams.
“We’ve got to look at it and say, this is what other people are doing, and they have had some success,” Dantonio said. “The games have been closer. They are still 8-1. Everybody is acting like, ‘poor Ohio State;’ they are still 8-1 and ranked in the Top-10. They are pretty good and they have got some playmakers up front.”
Dantonio enjoys beating Ohio State way too much to ever have sympathy for any plight they may be going through. And for the most part, the games have gone a long way toward deciding the Big Ten Championship.
“In the past number of years, we’ve played basically for the championship in that game,” he said. “I would say in 2015 we did and certainly in 2013 that we did and it had a major impact. In 2014, that team that won was probably going to go to the playoffs and that’s what happened, they won the National Championship.”
Even though this particular game may not carry the same weight as the games that Dantonio mentioned, it is still just as important for the two teams involved.
“If you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Dantonio said. “And at this point in time, Ohio State is still the defending Big Ten Champion, I believe, so you’ve got to beat the best.”