Ranked foes in the Big Ten Conference square off in East Lansing this Saturday, as No. 14 Ohio State opens league play against No. 20 Michigan State.
So far, so good for Urban Meyer in his first year as head coach of the Buckeyes, his team streaking out to a 4-0 start. However, with the exception of a 35-28 win over California, the schedule hasn't been all that daunting in the early going as the team has also beaten the likes of Miami-Ohio (56-10), UCF (31-16) and most recently, UAB (29-15) -- all at home.
Ohio State is embarking on its 100th year of membership in the Big Ten, while this is Michigan State's 60th year.
The Spartans enter conference play at 3-1, as the team opened the season with a narrow win over Boise State followed by a rout of Central Michigan. A 20-3 loss to Notre Dame followed, but coach Mark Dantonio's squad responded last week against Eastern Michigan by securing a 23-7 victory.
Ohio State owns a 27-13 lead in the all-time series with Michigan State, and this is the Buckeyes' first visit to East Lansing since 2008. OSU has won the last three meetings on the Spartans' home field, and six of the last seven there dating back to the 1998 campaign.
It wasn't pretty, but the Buckeyes kept their perfect record in tact last Saturday by posting a double-digit win over the visiting UAB Blazers. QB Braxton Miller ran for two TDs, and RB Jordan Hall rushed for a career-high 105 yards to help power the Ohio State offense, which racked up 204 yards on the ground and 347 total for the game. Miller, who finished with 64 rushing yards on the day and has more than three times as many rushing TDs this season (seven) as his closest teammate, threw for 143 yards without a TD or an INT. WRs Philly Brown and Devin Smith combined for eight catches and 106 yards.
Brown, while acknowledging that his team got off to a slow start last week, believes the Buckeyes are prepared for the rigors of Big Ten play.
"I know we're ready. I've been playing with these guys every day. I know as a team we're ready and I know how we're going to approach this week, especially with the way some of the guys were talking in the locker room. This week when we come out to practice we're going to have a whole different mindset."
The OSU defense gave up 403 yards to the Blazers last week, but came up with a pair of turnovers and got double-digit tackling efforts from three players, including leading tackler Ryan Shazier (14 stops, 41 for the year). The Buckeyes did not allow an offensive TD in the game, and come into this contest yielding an average of 17.2 ppg.
In addition to Shazier's efforts, CB Travis Howard has three of the team's seven INTs this year, and the defensive unit as a whole has secured 10 sacks, each by a different player.
Le'Veon Bell ran for a career-best 253 yards and a TD to help lead the Spartans to a 16-point win over Eastern Michigan last Saturday. Despite claiming a 428-183 edge in total yardage, the Michigan State offense seemed to be out of sync, relying on three field goals by PK Dan Conroy to gain some separation from the visiting Eagles. QB Andrew Maxwell finished the game 16- of-29 for 159 yards and a TD, with TE Dion Sims catching six balls for a career-high 112 yards and a score.
Not exactly the offensive juggernaut they have been the recent past, the Spartans are averaging just 21.0 ppg this season, utilizing a balanced attack that generates 176.2 ypg on the ground and 229.0 ypg through the air. Bell has already eclipsed the 600-yard mark this year, and he has scored five TDs. As for Maxwell, he is converting just 56.6 percent of his pass attempts, and is dead even in TD-to-INT ratio at three apiece. Sims is the leading receiver with his 22 grabs for 277 yards and two scores.
Center Travis Jackson knows that it's time to crank up the intensity as the Spartans turn their attention to the Buckeyes and the rest of the Big Ten.
"I think it starts in practice. Going into the Big Ten season next week, our goal is to win the Leaders Division and the Big Ten Championships, so we just have to go in there and fix the little things. We have to go harder every play."
Safety Isaiah Lewis logged a dozen tackles to lead the MSU defense, which stymied the Eagles' rushing attack to the tune of 46 net yards on 29 attempts last week. It was the third time in four games the Spartans held an opponent to fewer than 100 rushing yards. EMU converted just two of its 14 third-down tries.
For the season, the Spartans are giving up just 11.8 points and 233.5 yards per game, both of which lead the conference and rank in the top 11 nationally. They have been particularly stingy against the run, allowing a league-best 68.2 ypg, and the opposition has scored just one rushing TD through four games. At 164.2 ypg, the MSU pass defense ranks second in the Big Ten.