How can Michigan State (2-3) possibly keep up with No. 3-ranked Ohio State (5-0)? That is the question as the Spartans host the Buckeyes in East Lansing on Saturday at 4 p.m. Eastern Time (ABC).
To answer that question, and several others, we reached out to Gene Ross, managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land — SB Nation’s destination for all things Ohio State Buckeyes.
Additionally, Ohio State could get some of its best playmakers this weekend in Jaxon Smith-Njigba and/or TreVeyon Henderson. Gene talks about the availability of those two players, potential weaknesses for the Buckeyes, whether or not Ohio State is a true national contender or not, and more.
Our full conversation is below.
1. Ohio State is 5-0 to start the season and looks destined to win another Big Ten Title. Does this team have any weaknesses or vulnerabilities to mention? Is there any area whatsoever a struggling Michigan State team can try to exploit offensively or defensively?
Gene: Thus far, things on the offense have gone well despite Ohio State playing almost the entirety of these first five games without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Quarterback C.J. Stroud has been as advertised, and the skill talent around him hasn’t skipped a beat.
The front seven on defense has been excellent as well, but there are some question marks in the secondary — specifically at cornerback. The Buckeyes began the season with Denzel Burke and Cam Brown as the starting corners, but Brown has missed each of the last two games and Burke has greatly underperformed while also being banged up as well. JK Johnson and Jyaire Brown have looked fine in their place, but the passing defense hasn’t really been tested the last few weeks.
Ohio State runs a 4-2-5 under defensive coordinator Jim Knowles with three safeties on the field, and the Buckeyes have five guys who could legitimately all see the field at those spots, but the cornerback room has been thin and underwhelming thus far.
2. Offensively, Ohio State was without wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson in last week’s game versus Rutgers, and has been without Smith-Njigba for a while now. Are their statuses in doubt for this week’s game against Michigan State?
Gene: Jaxon Smith-Njigba hasn’t really played much since injuring his hamstring in the first half of the season opener against Notre Dame. He played about one half a few weeks ago against Toledo, but hasn’t seen the field again since. He only has four catches on the season for 36 yards, and the growing sentiment is that Ohio State will hold him out this week with the bye week coming up following the Michigan State game, giving him two more weeks to get fully healthy before the second half begins. I wouldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that Smith-Njigba sits again this week, but I would be a bit surprised if he plays.
On the TreVeyon Henderson front, he has been banged up numerous times throughout his career with the Buckeyes, and it’s been more of the same this year. It was unexpected when he sat out entirely last week, but he has split time this season with Miyan Williams anyway, and all Williams did in his absence was rush for five touchdowns. I would imagine Henderson plays against the Spartans, but I expect Williams will get the lion’s share of the carries either way, as he has been the more efficient of the two thus far.
3. Who are the players to watch out for on Ohio State’s defense and why?
Gene: The real strengths of the Ohio State defense this season have been the linebackers and safeties. Tommy Eichenberg has emerged as one of the top linebackers in the conference, and Steele Chambers has really come into his own this year after converting from running back to the linebacker position last year.
On the back end, the starters will likely be Ronnie Hickman, Josh Proctor and Tanner McCalister at the safety spots, but McCalister left last week’s game early with an injury and his status is unclear. If he can’t go, Lathan Ransom has been excellent this season when given the opportunity, and Cam Martinez (who missed last week with an injury — seeing a trend here?) has showed flashes when healthy. Jack Sawyer is another guy to watch out for up front, as he plays the “Jack” position on the Ohio State defense as a defensive end/linebacker hybrid.
4. Do you expect Ohio State to win a national championship this year? What are reasonable expectations for the Buckeyes and how do you see the season shaking out?
Gene: If you ask if I expect Ohio State to win the national championship this year, then my answer would most likely be no. Do I think this team is good enough to win the national championship if everything comes together? Then yes, I do. The offense is playing at another level right now, and should only get even better once Smith-Njigba is finally on the field. Stroud has looked every bit the Heisman Trophy favorite he was projected to be this season, and between Henderson and Williams in the backfield with a plethora of high-quality receiving targets led by Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr., there really isn’t anything to complain about on that side of the football.
I still have my concerns about the defense, as the secondary has not been remotely tested against a team that has any interest in throwing the football. The run defense, however, has been superb, and if the cornerback play improves or can get into a groove with any bit of consistency once all the injuries clear up, then this is a legitimately dangerous Ohio State team. We’ve seen both Alabama and Georgia struggle with lesser opponents to this point, so I think those teams are both beatable in their current state. I wouldn’t say I expect a national title, but this is definitely a team that should be in the conversation and could legitimately win it when all is said and done.
5. Will Michigan State be within 50 points at halftime? Kidding, but it was 49-0 at halftime last year and the talent gap is just too wide right now. Realistically, what has to happen for MSU to keep this game close?
Gene: I can’t say I’ve watched a ton of Michigan State football this year, but from what I have seen the secondary for the Spartans remains a significant issue, which isn’t exactly something you want when going up against head coach Ryan Day’s offense. I think defensively, Michigan State will have to figure out some way to slow down Stroud and his army of wide receivers. Nothing else in this game will matter if Stroud is ripping off 15-yard or 20-yard chunks on every pass attempt. Stroud has been excellent against the blitz this season, so I’m not sure sending extra pressure is the answer.
Maybe some disguised looks in the secondary and dropping extra guys back could be the answer. If they are able to do that, then I think Payton Thorne and the Spartans’ passing offense could very well test this Ohio State secondary for really the first time this year. I really like wide receiver Jayden Reed as a player, and the Buckeyes really don’t have a top corner right now to shadow him. I think he and/or Keon Coleman could have a potentially big day receiving, but if the defense can’t do much better against Ohio State’s passing attack than they did last year, then it might not really matter.
Bonus: Over/under 400 passing yards for C.J. Stroud? What is your final score prediction?
Gene: Interestingly enough, Stroud’s season-high in passing yards this season is 367 yards against Toledo in Week Three. Ohio State’s offense this season has been much more balanced. Day still obviously loves to throw the ball, but the Buckeyes have honestly been more impressive on the ground than most people expected in the early goings. The offensive line has done a tremendous job in the run blocking department, and both Henderson and Williams have averaged more than six yards per carry.
If the Spartans’ issues on the back end of the defense continue, I expect he’ll end up somewhere in the 300-350 passing yards range, but expect Ohio State to look to establish the run far more than it did a season ago. As far as score predictions, I do think the Buckeyes cover the 24.5-point spread, but as I said earlier, I think Michigan State can throw some stuff their way on offense to put up some points in this game. I’m going to say something in the neighborhood of 52-24 in favor of Ohio State, but this is the Buckeyes’ first road game of the season, so maybe they struggle a bit more early and the final score ends up closer than we expect.
I truly appreciate Gene taking some time to provide insights and analysis into the powerful Ohio State Buckeyes. For more Ohio State coverage, follow Gene and Land-Grant Holy Land on Twitter.