Ohio State football: Could Michigan State challenge top-ranked Buckeyes?

COLUMBUS — Ohio State is set to play host to Michigan State on Saturday night.

The matchup bears some similarities to the top-ranked Buckeyes’ previous week’s challenge both mentally and physically.

Here are five things to know about the game against the Spartans:

1. MSU has gotten back to playing solid defense.

Ohio State eventually pulled away from Rutgers last week, but the Scarlet Knights gave the Buckeyes some problems first, especially in the first half.

Michigan State is 3-6, but the Spartans have played solid defense most of the season after a couple of down years.

They are allowing 26.6 points per game (11th in the Big Ten), but the Spartans are 45th in yards allowed per game (350.9) and 21st on third downs and 35th in the red zone.

Veteran linebacker Cal Halady leads the team with 65 tackles, including five for loss, and sophomore safety Jaden Mangham is tied for second in the Big Ten with four interceptions after snagging one in each of the last two games.

Michigan State had seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss last week in a win over Nebraska.

2. The same way Rutgers did?

A week ago, the Scarlet Knights kept Ohio State in check mostly by playing a conservative scheme focused on preventing big plays, though they did hit with a few timely blitzes.

Michigan State plays a similar style, as evidence by some of the Spartans’ advanced stats. They are 52nd in the country in success rate, which measures play by play efficiency, and 22nd in preventing explosive plays, so teams have moved the ball with some regularity but not via big chunks.

Those numbers are consistent both in terms of stopping the run and the pass, and that presents another opportunity for Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord to demonstrate his game-management skills.

The first-year starter mostly took what the defense gave him last week, but he did throw his third interception in two weeks.

“If it wasn’t for the interception, he would’ve graded out a champion,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “I thought overall, he graded out well, but anytime you throw an interception and turn the ball over, you’re not going to be graded out that way. So again, I thought there was progress made. He started off well, had a bunch of completions in a row. That was good.”

3. Can the Ohio State running game continue its upswing?

For the season, the numbers remain ugly for the Buckeyes rushing attack, but the return of TreVeyon Henderson from injury has coincided with two good outings in a row the past two weeks.

His speed has made a big difference, but Ohio State also continues to tinker with its schemes.

That includes a two-back set with Chip Trayanum joining Henderson as a blocking back who can run or catch the ball as well.

“When you’re in three wide receivers with one tight end, they defend you a certain way,” Day said. “When you bring in another running back, it’s just the spacing’s different and the schemes are different. The angles are different. And sometimes when you can change that up, it opens up things in other areas so a team isn’t just focused on one personnel grouping or one scheme.”

4. Michigan State is an enigma on offense.

Katin Houser took over as the starting quarterback in Week 6, but he has not been particularly effective. Sam Leavitt provided a spark the past three games, but the true freshman may sit the rest of the season to preserve his redshirt.

No matter who is at quarterback, Ohio State will want to have a better showing against the run.

Rutgers ran for a season-high 232 yards last week, success defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said sprang from more than one area.

“Some I take accountability for — bad call by me, kind of thing — then other ones we have we have to show guys getting out of their gap,” Knowles said. “Routine things that can happen unless you’re diligent.”

The Spartans have a productive back in Nate Carter, who is averaging 73.2 yards per game, so this figures to be another good challenge for the Buckeyes.

5. Can Ohio State remain focused?

Day fielded questions about the alleged advanced scouting scandal unfolding at Michigan this week, and he no doubt hopes his team is not paying attention to that for multiple reasons.

Not only is it out of their control, the Buckeyes also have plenty of personal growth yet to do when it comes to being ready to take on the Wolverines in two weeks.

“You don’t just show up in football and play,” Day said. “I mean, you got to put it on the line. And so every week, you build up that fuel tank, and you just let it all out on the field. And then you come back and try to figure out how to get that thing loaded up the most you possibly can to go do it again.

“And that’s gotta be the same thing Saturday night. You know, I give coach Barnett a lot of credit for how he’s handled himself. He’s certainly in a tough spot situation. They came back and won a game last week, and so this time of year when you’re playing in the Big Ten, you gotta bring it every single week.”


Michigan State at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., NBC, 1410

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