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Game Preview: Michigan State Spartans versus Ohio State Buckeyes

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The winner of Saturday’s game puts itself in the driver’s seat for a Big Ten East Division title.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Ohio State at Michigan State Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The No. 7 Michigan State Spartans have a 9-1 record, including 6-1 in Big Ten play, and are playing meaningful football in November. Saturday’s noon Eastern Time contest (ABC) in Columbus against the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (9-1, 7-0) is the biggest game of the year, or perhaps last few years, for MSU, as the winner of this game puts itself in the driver’s seat for a Big Ten East Division title (with one more game to play after this weekend).

Ohio State has an offense that can score at will and one of the best passing attacks in the nation, while Michigan State has, statistically, the worst passing defense in the country. It’s not a matter of if the Buckeyes will move the ball because that is inevitable, but it is a matter of the Spartans getting off of the field on third down and keeping OSU out of the end zone or creating takeaways. Offensively, Michigan State has to play mistake free by not turning the ball over, and needs to have a balanced attack so that the Buckeyes can’t just key in on Kenneth Walker III and make the Spartans one-dimensional.

Honestly, a lot more than just what was mentioned above needs to go right for MSU to pull the upset on road. Will it happen? We will find out on Saturday afternoon. For now, let’s preview the contest.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2021 Record — 9-1 (6-1 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 449.6 total yards, 251.8 passing yards, 197.8 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 444.2 total yards allowed, 329 passing yards allowed, 115.2 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 346 (34.6 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 225 (22.5 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 18th

Ohio State:
2021 Record — 9-1 (6-0 in Big Ten)

2021 Offense (per game averages) — 550.4 total yards, 353.6 passing yards, 196.8 rushing yards

2021 Defense (per game averages) — 367.4 yards allowed, 261.5 passing yards allowed, 105.9 rushing yards allowed

2021 Cumulative Points Scored: 463 (46.3 ppg)

2021 Cumulative Points Allowed: 202 (20.2 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: second


Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Ohio State leads 34-15
Current streak: Ohio State has won five games in a row
Last Michigan State Win: Nov. 21, 2015
Last Ohio State Win: Dec. 5, 2020
Michigan State all-time record: 719-471-44 (.600)
Ohio State all-time record: 940-328-53 (.732)


Uniform Watch:

Michigan State will go with the (almost) all white combo — white jerseys, white pants, white gloves and white cleats. The helmets were initially white as well, but MSU made a late update and will go with the all green helmets instead. The jerseys have green lettering and numbering.

A closer look at this week’s threads:

Updated helmets:

No word on Ohio State’s uniforms as of press time.


Previous Game Results

Michigan State 40, Maryland 21

Following Michigan State’s first loss of the season in the previous week against Purdue on the road, the Spartans bounced back with a dominant home victory over the Maryland Terrapins.

The Terps did a good job of bottling up Kenneth Walker III early in the game, but that opened up things for quarterback Payton Thorne and the passing game. On just the third play of the game, Thorne hit Montorie Foster for a 52-yard touchdown pass on a flea flicker to give the Spartans 7-0.

Later in the first quarter, Thorne found his lifelong friend, wide receiver Jayden Reed, for a 29-yard touchdown pass. After a missed extra point, MSU was up 13-0. Then, after both teams traded punts, Maryland got on the scoreboard with a four-yard touchdown run by Peny Boone, cutting the Spartans’ lead to six points.

Reed returned the ensuing kickoff 39 yards, and the Spartans put together another scoring drive, which ended on a two-yard touchdown pass from Thorne to Connor Heyward. MSU’s lead was now at 20-7. Toward the end of the first half, Walker added a one-yard touchdown for MSU, and then Maryland quickly responded with a 32-yard touchdown pass from Taulia Tagovailoa to Chigoziem Okonkwo. The score was 27-14 in Michigan State’s favor at halftime.

To open the second half, Maryland moved the ball down the field, getting to MSU’s 16-yard-line after a defensive pass interference call on Noah Harvey. However, Harvey responded back by intercepting Tagovailoa on the very next play, ending the scoring threat. Following the turnover, Thorne would lead another scoring drive that ended with a three-yard strike to Reed. The score was then Michigan State 34, Maryland 21.

Tagovailoa found Okonkwo for another 32-yard touchdown on the next drive. Michigan State got the ball back, but Tyler Hunt fumbled on the opening play of the drive. However, the Spartans’ defense held Maryland to a missed field goal attempt.

In the fourth quarter, Walker scored another touchdown, and Maryland did not get on the scoreboard again. Michigan State walked away with the 40-21 victory.

Ohio State 59, Purdue 31

It’s perhaps not a great sign for Michigan State that Ohio State decimated a Purdue team that just defeated the Spartans, but it is what it is. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and the rest of the offense for the Buckeyes played incredibly well.

Ohio State scored points seemingly at will in this one. The Buckeyes scored on the team’s opening possession, thanks to a 21-yard touchdown strike from Stroud to Garrett Wilson. Purdue answered back immediately with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Aidan O’Connell to Jackson Anthrop.

However, it was all Buckeyes after that. Ohio State scored 28 unanswered points, thanks to two touchdown runs by TreVeyon Henderson and two touchdown throws by Stroud. Purdue finally got another score on an O’Connell touchdown pass to Broc Thompson, but Ohio State wasted no time answering back, as Wilson scored on a 51-yard rush. Purdue and OSU went on to add field goals, and the score was then 45-17 in the Buckeyes’ favor — and that was just the first half.

Following yet another OSU touchdown from Stroud to Wilson to begin the second half, the Boilermakers scored two touchdowns in the third quarter. O’Connell found Milton Wright and then connected with Anthrop once again. By this point, the Buckeyes still had a huge lead at 52-31.

For good measure, Stroud found Chris Olave for a five-yard touchdown to begin the fourth quarter. Ohio State’s lead grew and the score was now 59-31, which would end up being the final tally.


Key Matchups

TreVeyon Henderson/Ohio State offensive line versus Michigan State defensive front: It feels inevitable that Ohio State will pick up yardage through the air. So, what Michigan State absolutely cannot do is allow Henderson — the spectacular freshman running back —to also bust loose. If MSU can take away the threat of the ground game — something the Spartans are good at, ranking 20th in the country at 115.2 yards allowed per game — then it will have a much better shot of keeping things close. Henderson averages 7.34 yards per carry (second in the FBS) and has over 1,000 rushing yards on the season, so it won’t be an easy task. But if Ohio State can move the ball with ease both through the air and on the ground, it will be a long day for the Spartans.

Michigan State pass protection versus Ohio State pass rush: Michigan State has allowed just 16 sacks this year, and 1.6 sacks per game, which ranks 33rd in the nation. Ohio State, on the other hand, can get after the quarterback. The Buckeyes have 34 sacks on the season, and are tied for sixth in the FBS at 3.4 sacks per game (Michigan State isn’t too far behind at 3.2 sacks per game). Haskell Garrett, Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison, among others, can all bring pressure, so MSU has to protect Payton Thorne at all costs. Having quick pass play calls to get the ball out of Thorne’s hands immediately, but effectively, will be big in this game.

Payton Thorne versus Ohio State secondary: Ohio State gives up 261.5 passing yards per game through the air (108th in the country), and maybe some of that is because teams are always playing catch-up against the Buckeyes, but Thorne and the Spartans average about 252 passing yards per game, keeping MSU’s offense balanced while Kenneth Walker III does his thing on the ground. Walker is going to need to have another big game to open up the passing attack, but Thorne, Jayden Reed and the other MSU receivers are the key in this one. Thorne needs to protect the football, take what the defense gives him and convert on third downs. If he does those things, MSU has a chance to score points and keep it close.


Game Info

Time: Noon Eastern Time (Kickoff at 12:10 p.m.)
TV Channel: ABC
Location: Ohio Stadium, Columbus Ohio
Weather expectations: Cloudy with temperatures around 43 degrees at kickoff, with highs reaching up to 49 degrees throughout the game. Winds blowing south/southwest at eight-to-10 miles per hour.
Line: Ohio State -18.5


Overview:

If Michigan State wants to be the best (meaning winning the Big Ten East), it has to beat the best (meaning Ohio State). C.J. Stroud, Chris Olave, Garret Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba are probably going to have their way in the passing game (353.6 yards per game, sixth in the FBS) against a unit that ranks dead last nationally (329 passing yards allowed per game). So, as mentioned, the Spartans’ defensive unit needs to find ways to neutralize the Buckeyes in other ways — stopping the run, forcing turnovers and making OSU settle for field goals in the red zone.

It’s likely that Ohio State is going to sell out against the run, at least early on, to take Walker out of the game and force Thorne to beat them. Maryland tried this strategy last week and it didn’t work, but Ohio State is a much more complete team than Maryland. Walker needs to stay patient and MSU needs to try to control the clock and keep the ball away from Ohio State’s dangerous offense. Thorne needs to play an efficient game, get into an early rhythm and sustain drives.

No question about it, this is going to be a tough one for Michigan State. But if the Spartans pull off a win, a Big Ten Championship is likely — and nobody saw that coming before the season started. Win or lose, this has been a great season for Michigan State and head coach Mel Tucker and his staff deserves all the praise.

For additional thoughts and analysis on Ohio State, read our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece, check out our Q&A with Land-Grant Holy Land or read my responses to Land-Grant Holy Land’s questions.

Poll

Will Michigan State upset Ohio State in Columbus?

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