EAST LANSING — Michigan State is headed to Columbus to prepare for a Saturday night showdown in Ohio Stadium.
The Spartans and Buckeyes are tied atop the Big Ten East Standings at 2-0. Both teams are coming off wins, including a 48-7 route of Nebraska, in Lincoln, by OSU.
Saturday’s game is the 48th meeting between MSU and Ohio State, and the sixth time in the last seven games, both teams are ranked in the AP Top 25.
What were your predictions for the Buckeyes coming into this season? Did you see this kind of success on the horizon with Ryan Day taking over as head coach for Urban Meyer?
I don’t know that I saw them being this dominant. I did pick them to go 11-1 in the regular season and make the College Football Playoff, but I did that knowing that Day and Justin Fields would have a fairly easy first five weeks to work out any kinks in the new system before the Buckeyes had to start facing what amounts to a pretty dangerous October and November.
However, at this point, there haven’t been any substantive kinks to work out. Obviously the competition hasn’t provided much push back, but Day has coached like a veteran, Fields has played like a veteran, and many of the issues that the Buckeyes had in 2018 — on the offensive line, in the linebacking corps, in the secondary — have almost completely disappeared.
Now, of course I know that isn’t likely to continue for the duration of the season, but I thought that there would be a much steeper learning curve for coach and quarterback alike. The true test will be in how much of a regression there will be when the competition dramatically improves beginning this Saturday.
Let’s do a deep dive on Justin Fields. What can Spartan fans expect on Saturday? Is he as good as advertised?
He definitely is as good as advertised, but what type of good probably depends on when the advertisement came out. Since he came out of high school as this incredibly hyped dual=threat quarterback, and basically only served as a runner as a freshman at Georgia, the expectation was that Fields was going to be much more of a running threat, while he worked to develop into a better passer.
The rumors coming out of Athens were that he didn’t get many chances to throw the ball, because he had interception issues in practices. However, since starting the season in Columbus, he has been remarkably poised and disciplined in the pocket, and in full command of the parts of the offense that the coaching staff has given him thus far. While he has had a handful of designed runs — including a 51-yard touchdown on his very first rush as a Buckeye, and a 41-yarder last week against Nebraska — that really hasn’t been a significant part of OSU’s offensive gameplan.
Instead, Fields has shown a lot of maturity as a passer. He hasn’t tried to force very many balls, and has an incredibly strong arm. He was a middle-infielder for the Georgia baseball team, so he has the arm strength of an elite thrower, but is still struggling with touch at times. But, all in all, 16 touchdown passes (and seven more rushing) to zero interceptions is even better than I think most Buckeye fans could have hoped for.
Ohio State brings a 60-5 record vs. Big Ten teams since 2012 into Saturday’s game. Two of those losses are because of Michigan State: The 2013 B1G title game and 2015 in Columbus on their way to a College Football Appearance. That being said, MSU hasn’t scored a touchdown in their last two games against the Buckeyes. Where do you see this one going? Right now ESPN says they are a 20-point favorite over the Spartans. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
I was an Ohio State student during the 2002 National Championship season, so I have long appreciated Mark Dantonio as a coach, and before the season, I was not incredibly concerned about Nebraska, so since the offseason, I have had Saturday’s game with the Spartans circled as the first significant challenge of Ohio State’s season. However, following MSU’s games against Arizona State and Indiana, I am honestly not as concerned as I was five weeks ago.
However, I know full well that Michigan State has ruined OSU seasons many times in the past, and I am well aware that Dantonio is a defensive genius that could get his team ready to present a major challenge for Ohio State. But, give what we’ve seen from both teams so far this season, I think that the 20-point spread is fair.
I’d like to do another deep dive, only this time on OSU DE Chase Young. The Spartans are working with a makeshift offensive line and are already on their third and fourth left tackles. Four of their reserves are freshmen. How worried should MSU fans be about Young’s ability to disrupt an offense?
I would be pretty darn worried. Chase Young is a physical freak. Not only is he incredible fast and strong, but he is tall and uses his length to can leverage advantages with linemen. He’s had at least one sack in seven straight games, and that is all with being the focal point of nearly all offensive blocking plans. What helps Young be so dominant is the fact that the rest of Ohio State’s offensive line is also incredibly good.
They have dealt with some injuries in the first half of the season, but the depth that position coach Larry Johnson has built is remarkable. Senior captain Jonathon Cooper just returned last week against Nebraska to start at the end spot opposite Young, so he is working back into playing shape, which should only make it even more difficult for offensive lines to put too much focus on Young.
In passing downs if you aren’t double-teaming Young, chances are that he is going to get pressure on the quarterback, even if he doesn’t get the sack. His first step is so fast that he can often get position with his left leg to dip is right shoulder behind the blocker before the lineman is out of his stance. So, unless you have a back or tight end dedicated to chipping him, he regularly has a free run at the QB because he gets off the line so quickly.
What’s the most interesting match-up in this game for you personally? Why?
Oh, it’s absolutely the Michigan State rush defense against OSU’s rebuilt offensive line and running back J.K. Dobbins, and his backup Master Teague III. Dobbins is currently third nationally with 130.80 yards per game, despite not playing in the vast majority of second half snaps. However, the Spartans are currently fourth nationally in rush defense allowing only 55.80 yards per game. Dobbins has had two very different days against MSU in his career. In 2017, he went for 124 yards on 18 attempts, while last season, he picked up only 28 yards on 14 carries.
One of the biggest difference for OSU’s offense this year has been the marked improvement in their ability to run. Despite the top two running backs in 2018 (Dobbins and Mike Weber) accounting for over 2,000 yards, it was never really a threat for opposing defenses, especially in the red zone. This season, however, the Buckeyes are back to having an incredibly diverse offensive attack, which actually puts more importance on running than throwing.
I don’t anticipate Dobbins being able to keep up his 7.11 yards per carry average against Michigan State, but if his average is closer to five than three, that will open up the playbook for Day, Fields, and the Buckeyes.
Prediction time: Final score? Who wins? Why?
I’m sure this is no surprise, but I do think that Ohio State will win, and I think it will be comfortable. Ryan Day has been talking about the fact that they haven’t yet had to play a four-quarter game, and I don’t anticipate them having to do that on Saturday either. I think that surprisingly, Indiana provided a decent roadmap to how teams will be able to score on Michigan State’s otherwise impressive defense, and I think that Fields and OSU’s impressive assortment of wide receivers will be able to put that plan into motion.
I also think that between The Buckeye’s own dominant defense, and all of the injuries on MSU’s offensive line, I think it will be difficult for the Spartans to put up enough points to keep up with OSU.
I’ll go 45-13, Ohio State.