East Lansing, MI (SportsNetwork.com) - The marquee matchup of the Big Ten Conference slate takes place on Saturday night, as the 13th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes do battle with the seventh-ranked Michigan State Spartans.
Both teams come in with identical records, both overall and in conference, as each has won seven of its first eight games, and is a perfect 4-0 against Big Ten foes. Tied for first place in the league's newly-named East Division, the winner has the inside track at reaching the Big Ten title tilt, but there is plenty of football to be played.
Ohio State notched is Big Ten record-tying 20th straight regular-season conference win last weekend when it blasted visiting Illinois, 55-14. It was quite a bounce-back effort following a 31-24 double-overtime win at Penn State the week prior. The Buckeyes' remaining regular-season bouts include a trip to Minnesota next week, followed by home games against Indiana and Michigan.
Since dropping a 46-27 decision at Oregon on Sept. 6, Michigan State has reeled off six straight victories, with the latest being a 35-11 decision over intrastate rival Michigan at home on Oct. 25. The Spartans, who were idle last week, have a favorable schedule the rest of the way as they will play conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers the next two weeks, before closing out the regular season at Penn State on Nov. 29.
Ohio State leads the all-time series with Michigan State, 28-14, and the Buckeyes have won eight of the last 10 meetings. However, the Spartans have won two of the last three, including a 34-24 decision in last year's Big Ten Championship Game.
Ohio State scored early and often in last week's rout of Illinois, jumping out to a 48-0 lead before the Illini put their first points on the board near the end of the third quarter. When the dust had settled, OSU more than doubled UI in terms of total yards (545-243), and coach Urban Meyer's club got solid individual efforts from a slew of guys, notably QB J.T. Barrett (167 passing yards, two TDs), RBs Ezekiel Elliott (nine carries, 69 yards) and Curtis Samuel (nine carries, 63 yards, two TDs), and WRs Michael Thomas (six rec., 67 yards, TD), Dontre Wilson (four rec., 42 yards, TD) and Devin Smith (three rec., 72 yards, two TDs).
Defensively, the Buckeyes were downright stingy, allowing only 106 rushing yards and 137 via the pass. Joshua Perry paced the OSU stand with seven stops, five of which were unassisted, and the team as a whole was credited with 11 TFL, three each belonging to Steve Miller and Joey Boas (two sacks), and four takeaways.
Ohio State is the highest scoring team in the Big Ten, lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 45.6 ppg, just a tenth of a point more than Michigan State. The tables are turned with regard to total offense, with the Spartans checking in at 515.2 ypg and the Buckeyes at 505.1 ypg. From a defensive standpoint, the teams are just as close, with MSU yielding only 20.2 points and 279.4 yards per game, and OSU a mere 19.9 points and 300.0 yards per contest.
Barrett is hitting 64.7 percent of his throws, and he ranks third in the conference with 232 passing ypg. He is far-and-away the leader in TD tosses with 23. Spreading the wealth is OSU's mantra, as 14 different guys have caught a pass this season, with Thomas pacing the group with 28 grabs for 447 yards and six TDs. Smith has seven TDs. Elliott spearheads the rushing attack with 709 yards, and he has combined with Barrett to score 11 TDs.
Perry has been the most active defender for the Buckeyes, as his 70 tackles are 25 more than his closest teammate. Bosa continues to pester opposing QBs, logging 14.5 TFL, 10 sacks, the latter being a third of his total stops on the year. OSU has also been credited with 20 takeaways, including 14 INTs.
Meyer knows his team has to put forth maximum effort to come out victorious this week, and for that to happen the Buckeyes have to be well-prepared.
"They're the king of the hill right now because they won the championship and you have to dethrone them. How do you do that? You outwork them Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday."
Like Barrett for Ohio State, Connor Cook has been on point this season for coach Mark Dantonio's Michigan State squad, connecting on 60.6 percent of his pass attempts for just shy of 1,900 yards, 17 TDs and only five picks. Tony Lippett has clearly been his favorite target, as he has 42 receptions for 889 yards and nine scores. Josiah Price is next with 16 catches for 258 yards and four TDs. The Spartans have a workhorse back in Jeremy Langford, as he has rushed for 841 yards and 10 TDs, averaging 5.3 ypc and 105.1 ypg in the process.
The MSU defense is among the most well-rested in the country, as it only spends 23:57 per game on the field. As a result, leading tackler Kurtis Drummond has a mere 39 stops. Applying pressure on the QB has been a staple of the Spartans defense, and they have notched a Big Ten-best 28 sacks, six each belonging to Ed Davis and Shilique Calhoun. Furthermore, Michigan State is tops in the conference with a +12 turnover margin.
Michigan State easily dispatched with Michigan the last time out, rolling up 446 yards of total offense compared to only 186 for the Wolverines. Cook hit 12-of-22 passes for 227 yards, with Lippett turning his three grabs into 103 yards and a TD. Langford was the real star however, as he carried the ball 35 times and totaled 177 yards while crossing the goal line three times.
Taiwan Jones paced the defense with eight tackles, which included a sack, and he also added an INT to his stat line. As a unit, the Spartans made seven TFL and forced three turnovers. They permitted only 61 rushing yards on 23 carries (2.6 ypc), while also standing tall against the pass in yielding a paltry 4.0 yards per attempt.
While obviously pleased to come away from such a big game with a convincing win, Dantonio believes his team is far from a finished product.
"I thought it was a good performance but just like everything we look at, we can always do some things better."