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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Ohio State

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The Spartans head to the Horseshoe to face off against the Buckeyes in a clash of playoff hopefuls.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Well, here it is, the one we've all been waiting for: Michigan State — Ohio State.

A rubber match between the last two Big Ten champions in undoubtedly the biggest conference game of the year, so far.

The winner retains a clear path to the Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff, while the loser will be watching both games from the their couches.

Everything is on the line tomorrow. What more needs to be said? Lets dig in.

When Ohio State Has The Ball

Passing Game

Quarterback J.T. Barrett will be under center Saturday but his path there has been far from traditional. This season, Barrett has been the backup to Cardale Jones, a situational "red-zone quarterback", and on the bench for a game due to suspension. Now back in the starting lineup, there is no question Barrett is an elite triggerman whose game is tailored perfectly for the offense Meyer has made famously successful.

OSU's offensive scheme is based on deception and having multiple run-pass options on each play. Barrett's ability to create those run-pass conflicts and make the right decision based on the defensive front are the key points of this attack and what make him an elite weapon capable of beating teams as both a passer and a runner. He doesn't have an arm like the one that earned "12 gauge" his moniker but is able to create bigger windows with his decision making.

The MSU secondary, especially the safeties, face easily their biggest challenge of the season Saturday. The full time return of Darian Hicks allowed Demetrious Cox to move back to the safety position for which he is more naturally suited. That, along with the vastly improved play of Montae Nicholson, puts MSU in its best position secondary depth-and-fit-wise since very early in the season. The timing couldn't be better. That said, Cox and Nicholson have to bring their A++ game in order to win this weekend.

Ohio State's scheme forces defenders to be prepared for both run and pass on every play from pretty much any formation. If OSU can establish the run — which they do in pretty much every game — those safeties will start to creep up and that's when Barrett hits a big one over the top to Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller or another one of OSU's stable of talented pass-catchers.

Diagnosing run/pass and taking proper angles will make or break the secondary. If early-season Nicholson shows up, there will be Buckeyes flying into the end zone all night. If the "new" Nicholson shows up, he can erase a lot of mistakes and help keep the big plays in check.

The other reason the safeties need to be at their best is that this, simply, is not the "No Fly Zone" of years past. Is it nice to have Hicks back? Absolutely. Has Arjen Colquhoun improved noticeably since his early-to-mid(-to-entire) season struggles? Yes and that lipstick looks wonderful on your pig.

The situation is better than it has been but both of those players will be at sizable matchup disadvantages and without their best showings of the year, OSU will be able to take to the skies with relative ease.

Nicholson and Cox need to be ready to cover their corner's asses when they inevitably get burnt. Minimize mistakes and keep the top on the defense, that's all you can ask for.

Running Game

It's no secret that the Buckeye offense is predicated upon controlling the game on the ground and the numbers bear it out. On the season, they have run the ball 430 times and passed only 263.

The man responsible for 220 of those carries, Heisman contender Ezekiel Elliott, is the biggest weapon in a not-understaffed offensive arsenal. Elliott has shown no mercy against a slate of less than reputable teams (exactly zero of Ohio State's opponents have been ranked and only three of the nine are bowl eligible as of today) racking up over 1,400 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Without his 142.5 yards per contest, the Buckeye offense would surely be functional, but undoubtedly lack the same punch.

The threat of Elliott is supplemented by Barrett's running abilities. Jones is a very good quarterback — and arguably a better pro prospect — but Barrett's legs set him apart.

It's not all that complex, really. Taylor Decker, Pat Elflein and the rest of the offensive line have utterly dominated the competition and given Elliott and Barrett holes so big I could run through them. They're very good. That said, the best defensive front they've faced is...Penn State? Not a bad group by any stretch, but MSU poses a tougher test.

Their front seven is not only more talented than any other OSU has seen this season, but they are also playing as well as they have as a unit. Last week the group helped cause five turnovers and only gave up one touchdown. (prays no one remembers that was against MARYLAND).

The key for MSU is to try and make the Buckeyes one dimensional. Sounds good in theory, but in practice the issues are plentiful. The Spartans will likely sell out and attempt to stop the run with their front seven, forcing Barrett to beat them through the air. Not appetizing, but certainly more appealing than the alternative.

If accomplished, that swings the game drastically in MSU's favor. Realistically however, keeping Elliott around 100 yards and containing Barrett would be a win. They are going to pop some big gainers on the ground, but making sure they are few and far between should be the goal.

When Michigan State Has The Ball

Passing Game

One disclaimer up front: all of this is based upon the assumption that Connor Cook is at or very close to 100% after his shoulder injury last week. If the Spartan signal caller can't make the throws he's been making all year, the Buckeyes will win running away. Fingers crossed.

There's no arguing that Cook is MSU's MVP this season. He will have to play like it if they have any chance of winning this game. That's not to say he should throw the ball 50 times but when he does drop back, he has to be the first round talent everyone knows he can be.

Lucikly, he has plenty of weapons. With apologies to BJ Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol, the receiving corps of Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings and R.J. Shelton is as good as I can remember ever playing at Michigan State. Week in and week out, these guys just make plays.

OSU's secondary is a tough matchup. The sophomore cornerback duo of Eli Apple and Gareon Conley is up there with any in the nation and the safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell each have two interceptions. They haven't been challenged by any real stars aside from Leontee Carroo, who didn't do much, but they have not faced a group as deep and talented as MSU.

For any of those matchups to matter, the offensive line needs to they need to keep Cook upright. OSU might be the first opponent that actually plays some coverage against MSU, betting that their extremely talented front four can get pressure on their own (more on them in a second).

If they do that, Jack Conklin and Co. have to allow Cook time to make reads downfield or find a checkdown to keep the chains moving because time of possession is an enormous factor in this one. If the line can give Cook some time (a BIG if) his receivers can help keep MSU in it.

Running Game

This, to me, is the crux of the game

The Spartans' best chance of winning is by keeping Barrett and Elliott on the sidelines for as long as possible. The only way to do that is by having an effective running game.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows (@acsmith06 - shameless plug!) I am fully on #TeamHolmes. Larry Scott is a future superstar and Madre London will be a contributor, but right now Gerald Holmes is the best running back on the roster. His numbers aren't astonishing but he just runs hard. His legs never stop moving, he has more than enough speed to gain big yards when they are presented to him and has been very sound in pass protection. You won't get he and Elliott confused for one another, but Holmes can be an effective weapon in this game.

The question is whether or not he will have any room to run. I mentioned above that MSU's defensive front will be the best Ohio State has seen all season. Unfortunately, the inverse is true as well.

The Buckeyes front seven looks and plays like a group of future NFL'ers. Honestly, I'd take most of them on the Lions TODAY.

At linebacker, sophomore Raekwon McMillan (*swoon*) leads the team with 97 tackles. His partners in crime Joshua Perry and Darron Lee are second and fifth on the team in that category. The thing that jumps out on film is that they can cover a ton of ground, especially Lee who is projected as a future high draft pick. Getting Josiah Price open against these fellas will be an interesting challenge.

On the line, there's the name everyone knows: Joey Bosa, a presumed top three to five NFL Draft pick. He gets into the backfield a ton, registering 15 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback pressures on the season. He only has four sacks but is more than doing his job.

His linemate, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, is another force. At 6'4" 290, Washington controls the point of attack and can get into the backfield himself, as evidenced by his three sacks and six TFL's. Next to him is Tommy Schutt and on the other end is Tyquan Lewis, who leads the team in sacks with 6.5. There are other talented reserves like Sam Hubbard (a name you will hear a lot in the coming years) because of course there are.

The Michigan State offensive line doesn't have to win the battle in the trenches as much as they need to make it a fight. The run game must be a factor, if only to allow for play-action opportunities. If OSU can sit back and let their front seven stonewall runs, this will be a very difficult game for MSU to win. Establishing the threat of a run game will expand the playbook and shrink the clock. That's a winning recipe for the Spartans.

Special Teams

Weirdly, Ohio State seems mortal in this category. Despite having top notch athletes like Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel on returns, they haven't taken a punt or kick back for more than 38 yards. Surely, MSU's coverage will be FINE!

Sean Neurenberger takes over at kicker despite missing a 24-yarder (his only attempt on the year) just last week. He replaces Jack Willoughby who was 7-for-11 and will serve as the teams kickoff specialist.

For MSU, nothing has changed. Jake Hartbarger continued to punt well last week, making his mid-season yips look like more of an aberration than an omen. Michael Geiger was 1-for-1 for the third consecutive week after hitting a 35 harder against Maryland. Shelton took MSU's only return opportunity of the day for 38 yards.

Points and field position could play a massive role in this one, so let's hope the specialists continue their solid play.

Bottom Line and Prediction

If you believe the pundits, Saturday is going to be ugly for the Green and White.

Ohio State is more talented, has championship experience and no glaring weaknesses. The Spartans, on the other hand, have struggled with inferior opponents all season, they aren't sure if Cook is 100% and sport a hole in the secondary the size of the Grand Canyon.

Boy, is it bleak.

While I agree with a good amount of what has been written, there are reasons to believe State can win this game. They'll have to play at their best in every phase, but to prematurely assume a game against this group is over is foolish. Just ask Michigan.

For the first time in the Dantonio era, a win against Michigan State can save a team's season or even define a program. Every opponent on the schedule feels that way and — with the exception of Maryland — has given the Spartans their best shot. They are not perfect, but nine out of ten times Coach D's crew has been up to the task.

OSU has had some close calls, but overall the season has been uneventful. Their wins against Northern Illinois and Indiana are the only two that have been decided by less than 14 points. They look like a team that knows what it takes to be great and is waiting to play a team worthy of their "A" game.

Despite their flaws, the Spartans look to be that team. If the pundits are right, maybe this will look really stupid, but as of now, I'm not sure any Buckeye fan would argue with that assessment.

This is largely the same team that beat Alabama and Oregon last season, so experience isn't lacking, but that was almost a year ago and a different man was under center. Is this group going to be able to flip the proverbial switch against a legitimately good team? Unfortunately, I think so.

This won't be the blowout many are expecting. MSU has been through so much this season — both good and bad — that I don't think anything will rattle them. This game is why Cook and Calhoun came back to school, so expect them to come out at leave it all on the line.

The Spartans score enough to keep it close but can't put the brakes on the Buckeye offense. I really hope I'm wrong.

OSU 38-31.