Saturday will mark the 41st meeting between #14 Ohio State (4-0) and #20 Michigan State (3-1). The Buckeyes have more than doubled up the Spartans in the series, owning the 27-13 all-time advantage.
Ohio State has won seven of the last eight against the Spartans, and six of the last eight in East Lansing, including the last three.
The Buckeyes are 70-24-4 in Big Ten openers all-time.
Michigan State is 3-2 in Big Ten openers under head coach Mark Dantonio.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
The Spartans' offense will go as far as running back Le'Veon Bell takes them. He already has 117 carries on the season for 610 yards and five touchdowns.
Bell has been feast or famine this season, carrying the ball 80 times for 453 yards in wins against Boise State and Eastern Michigan, and just 37 times for 147 yards in a win over Central Michigan and a loss to Notre Dame.
Much of the concern this week for the Buckeyes is their ability to tackle Bell, but the good thing for them is that Bell isn't necessarily a big-play threat, and one missed tackle shouldn't lead to an 80-yard touchdown run.
In fact, against Central Michigan, Bell's longest run was just eight yards. The Ohio State defense should be able to swarm him in order to bring him down, but if they end up bringing him down six or seven yards down the field, then that's still a win for the Spartans.
While the lack of tackling has been the fervent talking point of the Ohio State defense, the more disturbing aspect is how often the defensive line has gotten pushed around. The Buckeye front four is too good to get beaten the way they have this season.
Ohio State will play more of a base defense this week, which means we will see a middle linebacker on the field. How much of that will be Curtis Grant and how much will be Storm Klein remains to be seen, but you should probably expect it to be Klein.
Regardless of who is at middle linebacker, Ryan Shazier will be on the weakside and involved all game long. He is averaging ten tackles per game, which is also a probable number for this game. If he gets above 15 or so, that means the Michigan State offense is running too many plays and the Ohio State defense isn't getting off the field.
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell has struggled at times this season, but he hasn't been helped out by his receivers much either. Drops have plagued the team, especially in last week's 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan.
Maxwell does not rate in the nation's top 100 in passing efficiency, nor does he rate in the top ten of the Big Ten. He is completing 56.6% of his passes and has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Buckeye corners will move closer to the line of scrimmage in order to keep the Spartan receivers from getting cheap yards on quick hitch passes. The quick passes were about the only production Michigan State got from their wide receivers last week.
Maxwell will need to attack the Buckeyes over the top and over the middle. Tight end Dion Sims is a super weapon, and the Buckeyes can't afford to lose him because Maxwell will be looking for him at every available opportunity.
Michigan State has only allowed four sacks on the season, so they have protected the quarterback well. The Buckeyes could be getting defensive end Michael Bennett back this week, but coming back from a groin injury will make it difficult for him to be productive.
Much like Ohio State, the Spartans have not had a memorable year in the special teams. Placekicker Dan Conroy is just 7-11 on field goals, going just 3-7 on kicks between 30 and 49 yards.
Running back Nick Hill is a very dangerous returner on both punts and kickoffs, but he has had ball security issues this season.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
As is the case with Michigan State and Le'Veon Bell, the Buckeyes can only go as far as quarterback Braxton Miller can take them.
In last season's 10-7 loss to the Spartans, Miller was an unprepared freshman who was doused in gasoline and then thrown into the fire. He had no chance.
This year, he is at the helm of a much more capable offense, and one much better suited to utilize his strengths. But don't expect Michigan State to change up what they did last year – they will come at him relentlessly.
The Spartans only have three sacks on the season despite having talented pass rushers and terrific blitzers. However, they just haven't been able to get home as much as they have in the past.
Last week, right tackle Reid Fragel had his best week as a Buckeye. Expect the converted tight end to be a very busy man on Saturday with defensive ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush trying to get to Miller.
Even despite the possibility of a lacking pass rush, offensive coordinator Tom Herman will likely move the pocket now and then in an attempt to get Miller out into the open and away from a menacing pocket.
The Spartans have two talented cornerbacks in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. They will be very aggressive with Buckeye receivers Devin Smith and Corey Brown. The winner of these battles will go a long way in deciding who ultimately wins the game.
The Spartans will likely spy Miller, which will free up room for the tight ends to get involved. Michigan State has had issues defending the tight end this season, and the Buckeyes have three good ones to attack with.
Much like every other game of late, Ohio State's success will rise or fall with Miller's ability to hit open receivers.
Tailback Carlos Hyde will be back after missing the last two weeks. This will be the first time that both Hyde and Jordan Hall will be on the field and healthy together. Granted, neither will be 100%, but the Buckeyes will finally be able to implement formations and plays that they have worked on during the spring and throughout fall camp.
Michigan State is tenth in the nation against the run, allowing just 69.3 yards rushing per game. The Buckeyes come into this game second in the Big Ten rushing, averaging 229.3 yards on the ground per game. One way or another, somebody's average is going to take a hit on Saturday.
Hyde will get the tough carries inside, and Hall will be the pitch man on various triple option looks out wide. Miller will have no limit to his carries in this game because the coaches and players will do whatever it takes to get this win.
The Ohio State special teams have been a dark spot all season. There is absolutely no threat in the return game, though that may change as Jordan Hall regains his health.
Urban Meyer removed some of the freshmen from his punt protection unit in an effort to avoid the catastrophe that resulted in a blocked punt and touchdown last week for UAB. This will be a more veteran unit overall heading to East Lansing.
How It Will End Up
The Michigan State offense is actually the type of offense that this Buckeye defense should have success against. The receivers are inconsistent, and the tailback isn't a speed freak.
Basically, this offense will allow the Ohio State defense to swarm to the ball, which will negate some of the impact of each missed tackle.
Still, Le'Veon Bell is going to get the ball as much as he can handle it. The Spartans will control the clock, and when they do that, they usually win.
The Ohio State defense will need to get off the field, and if they can't, that makes each successive Buckeye possession that much more important.
Ultimately, this is a game that Ohio State should win, but until they can avoid the offensive lulls, they are vulnerable against most anybody, and especially on the road.
Michigan State 21 - Ohio State 20
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