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Game Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

While the status of this weekend’s game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans had been up in the air throughout the week due to COVID-19 issues in OSU’s program, the game is now confirmed to be played.

The Buckeyes will, however, be without head coach Ryan Day and probably an unidentified number of players, so perhaps the Spartans can make this seemingly one-sided contest a little bit closer — but checking in at No. 4 in the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings, and No. 3 in the AP Poll, Ohio State could trot out all of its second-string players and probably still flood the field with five-star talent.

This one won’t be easy for Michigan State — but we said the same thing last week against the Wildcats, and just about everybody (besides yours truly) didn’t give the Spartans a chance to win beforehand, which of course MSU did end up getting the victory. Granted, Ohio State is a much better team than Northwestern, though.

Enough small talk. Here is the game preview:

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2020 Record — 2-3 (2-3 in Big Ten)

Offense (per game averages) — 331.4 total yards, 233.40 passing yards, 98.0 rushing yards

Defense (per game averages) — 370.2 total yards allowed, 238.2 passing yards allowed, 132.0 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 90 (18.0 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 155 (31.0 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 74th

Ohio State:
2020 Record — 4-0 (4-0 in Big Ten)

Offense (per game averages) — 535.2 total yards, 302.0 passing yards, 233.2 rushing yards

Defense (per game averages) — 389.5 yards allowed, 291.0 passing yards allowed, 98.5 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 181 (45.2 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 104 (26.0 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: Third

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Ohio State leads 33-15
Current streak: Ohio State has won four games in a row
Last Michigan State Win: Nov. 21, 2015 (17-14)
Last Ohio State Win: Oct. 5, 2019 (34-10)
Michigan State all-time record: 710-468-44 (.599)
Ohio State all-time record: 928-326-53 (.730)

Previous Game Results:

Michigan State 29, Northwestern 20

This one felt good. The neon-clad Spartans came out and defeated the No. 8 Wildcats at home. The final score doesn’t accurately reflect how close the game was, as Michigan State added a defensive touchdown as time expired, but this was a roller coaster ride. MSU jumped out to a 17-0 lead after a pair of touchdown passes by Rocky Lomabrdi and a Matt Coghlin field goal. Then, Northwestern scored 20 unanswered points. The real turning point of the game was a sequence early in the fourth quarter in which Lombardi threw an interception (Michigan State’s only turnover of the game), but on the very next play, the Spartans recovered a fumble as Jack Camper jumped on the ball after a botched handoff on a reverse play by Northwestern. Coghlin was able to then add another field goal, and that would have been enough even if the Spartans didn’t add the final touchdown.

Michigan State’s run offense finally came alive, rushing for 195 total yards, including 96 from Connor Heyward and 65 from Lombardi. Meanwhile, MSU’s defense held Northwestern to just 63 rushing yards and allowed the Wildcats to convert on less than 28 percent of third downs. Shakur Brown added two key interceptions. It was an all-around team effort. The win earned several Spartan players weekly accolades, as well as for head coach Mel Tucker.

Ohio State 42, Indiana 35

Ohio State didn’t have a game last week due to the aforementioned COVID outbreak, but won a hard-fought contest against Indiana the week before. The Buckeyes jumped out to a 35-7 lead and it looked like this game would be a blowout, but Michael Penix Jr. and Hoosiers were not going down without a fight. Indiana scored 21 unanswered before Ohio State added its next touchdown, making the score 42-21 at the point. The Hoosiers added two fourth quarter touchdowns to draw within one score, but couldn’t quite complete the comeback. The Buckeyes showed some vulnerabilities in this game, as the defense gave up 491 passing yards and quarterback Justin Fields threw three interceptions, but OSU also held IU to negative yardage in the run game (minus-one yard) and ultimately flexed its offensive muscles to earn the victory.

Whether the Buckeyes will be short-handed or not against the Spartans remains to be sen, but Ohio State is not taking the game lightly against a seemingly inferior opponent in Michigan State.

Key Matchups

Rocky Lombardi versus the Ohio State secondary: What has Rocky Lombardi excelled at this season? Throwing the deep ball. What has been one of the only vulnerabilities of Ohio State this season? Passing defense. The Buckeyes give up 291 passing yards per game through the air. If the Spartans have any chance whatsoever of pulling another major upset over a top-10 team, and top-five in this case, it hinges on the play of Lombardi. That means he needs to hit on a couple deep balls like he did against Michigan and Northwestern, cannot turn the ball over and has to make smart decisions. Lombardi also needs to show the ability to move the ball with his legs like he did last week against the Wildcats — either by designed runs or when the play breaks down and he is in scramble mode. While OSU hasn’t been great against the pass, and despite his struggles this season, Shaun Wade is still an NFL-talent at cornerback who could wreck the game if Lombardi isn’t careful.

As always, battle of the trenches: The offensive and defensive linemen make their weekly appearance in this section. Matt Sheehan pointed out an interesting statistic in his “3-2-1 Preview” article: Ohio State’s offense doesn’t allow many negative plays in its running game, with just about nine percent “stuff rate” allowed — total run plays being stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Michigan State’s defensive line has a “stuff rate” of 27.4 percent. Both of those rank second in the nation, respectively. The team that wins the line of scrimmage often wins the football game — this was a huge key for the Spartans in last week’s win. On the other side of the ball, Michigan State has to carry over the momentum from last week’s running game into this week’s game against a stout Ohio State rush defense.

Mel Tucker and the MSU coaching staff versus Larry Johnson and the Ohio State coaching staff: With Ryan Day out out of the picture on Saturday due to COVID-19, associate head coach/defensive line coach Larry Johnson (father of former NFL All-Pro running back Larry Johnson Jr.) will take over the head coaching duties in the interim for Ohio State. First off all, Johnson will be Ohio State’s first ever Black head coach (even on an interim basis), so I just wanted to shout out how cool that is. But, secondly Tucker and company have to take advantage of Day not being on the sidelines. Scheming favorable matchups, throwing in wrinkles to the offense that they haven’t shown before and just making sure their guys are in the right position to make plays will of course dramatically impact the game’s outcome. This was something the staff did a great job of against Northwestern. That said, of course, it comes down to execution by the players of the field and protecting the football — the coaches could have a perfect game plan drawn up, but it won’t matter if the players give the ball away, have miscommunications or let Ohio State bully them. Tucker is also from Ohio and coached at Ohio State for four years, so he is plenty familiar with program.

Game Info

Time: Noon (Eastern)
TV Channel: ABC
Location: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Weather expectations: Partly cloudy, with a high of 35 degrees, winds blowing north/northwest at eight to nine miles per hour
Line: Ohio State -23.5


This game looks like another blowout on paper, with the Buckeyes easily winning, but there are so many wild cards. Which players won’t be available for Ohio State? How does Ryan Day not being on the sidelines affect the play-calling, adjustments and psyche of the players? How does missing last week’s game and having less practice time affect Ohio State this Saturday? Will Michigan State have any surprise players missing? So many questions, such little answers at this time. But with a noon kickoff, we will find out soon enough.

Like I said above, even if Ohio State is forced to play without several starters, many of its two-deep and three-deep players could start at other schools, including Michigan State. That said, Tucker and the Spartans have really carried over that “chip on the shoulder” mentality from the Mark Dantonio era and seem to play their best ball when they’re counted out.

I expect the Spartans to show some fight, but at the end of the day, the Buckeyes have too much talent, especially on offense to keep up with. Ohio State is still trying to build as strong as a College Football Playoff resume as possible too, and will take Michigan State — who has a history of upsetting extremely strong Ohio State teams — very seriously.

For more analysis on Ohio State, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece.


Will Michigan State pull back-to-back upsets and defeat Ohio State?

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