Michigan State presents a unique challenge to Ohio State on Saturday night in more ways than one.
The 24th-ranked Spartans are not only the first top 25 team the fourth-ranked Buckeyes will face this season, they also have some history on their side.
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Here are five things to know about the prime-time matchup:
1. Michigan State brings its usual stout defense to Columbus.
So far, an Ohio State offense piloted by sophomore quarterback Justin Fields has shredded all challengers.
The Buckeyes scored early and often on their first five foes, though only Cincinnati has a top-25 defensive unit, at least in terms of total yards allowed per game.
Michigan State ranks seventh in that regard and second in ESPN’s SP+ rankings that combine play-by-play success and ability to prevent explosive gains (Ohio State is No. 3 in SP+ while Wisconsin is No. 1).
Coach Mark Dantonio’s team continues to play a somewhat unique style of matchup zone called “quarters” that allows the secondary to play a version of press-man defense while keeping eyes in the backfield to help against the run.
“They have a defensive system that has been challenged for years and years, so they have answers,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “So if you run a play against them, they have the answer right away. They’re really good at knowing what the defense is. They’re not super complicated, but they have answers to everything that you do. So the minute you run a play, they’re on top of it and they’ve got it defended the next play.”
2. Day anticipates the whole playbook will again be available as Fields makes his sixth start.
“I think you have to be aggressive,” Day said. “That’s kind of the way we are. We like to be aggressive, but he can’t just go into the game and think he’s all set. All of a sudden he’s played in a few games here and he’s going to go against a great defense and just start going away from what’s got him to this point. That’s discipline. That’s being tough, making those decisions. And I think he’s done a good job of that.”
Decision-making has been a big focus so far this season for the five-star prospect.
“I think he’s had decisions where he could have maybe forced it in there and he’s thrown the ball away,” Day said. “He’s done that. A couple times where he did, like the end of the first half, he kind of scrambled around and made a play to Luke (Farrell), but that was dangerous. That was dangerous. That could have gone the other way, so he’s got to learn that off of film.”
3. The Spartans know more about beating Ohio State than anyone this decade.
Michigan State has three wins against the Buckeyes since 2011. That might not sound like much, but it is more than anyone else can claim.
“We’ve had success down there in the past,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who is 3-7 in the series. “We’ll look forward to trying to replicate that, but, again, it will be a challenge as we go, but that’s what this is about. At the end of the day, if you want to be Big Ten champions or the East Division champions, that goes through Columbus, Ohio. We know that. We expect that. And that’s been the norm here pretty much for some time now.”
The Spartans also have historically been a thorn in Ohio State’s side. Although the Buckeyes have more than twice as many wins in the series (32-15), the Spartans have defeated Ohio State five times when the Buckeyes were ranked in the top five. That includes twice recently (2013 and ’15), in 1998 and twice in the ‘70s (’72 and ’74).
“It’s the coaching staff we’re going against, it’s Michigan State, it’s the people — it’s everything,” Day said when asked if he would bring up the history with his team. “It’s important to know the history of the two teams, and when they’ve played what’s happened and what you’re up against each week.”
Dantonio, a former Ohio State defensive coordinator, has 10 wins against top 10 teams during his tenure at Michigan State.
4. Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke could present a challenge.
A fifth-year senior, Lewerke leads the Big Ten in total passing yards (1,325), completions (104) and attempts (174). He is tied for second in touchdown passes (10), third in total offense (294.4 ypg) and fourth in passing (265.0 ypg). With 1,039 career rushing yards, he also can keep defenses honest with his feet.
“He manages the game really well,” said Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. “He sees it. He’s starting to look people off. Strong arm. Can make the throws down the field. Makes really good decisions. He’s faster than people think he is. He can get going. I think he’s playing really well. He could be the best quarterback that we’ve faced.”
5. Ohio State is as healthy as it has been all season.
With right tackle Branden Bowen coming back after missing last week’s game at Nebraska, all of Ohio State’s regular starters are available for the first time this season.
Also set to return is Tyreke Smith, a sophomore defensive end who is part of a deep rotation at that position but missed the past two games with an injury.
Three reserves — tight end Rashod Berry, defensive end Tyler Friday and slot receiver C.J. Saunders are listed as game-time decisions with injuries that were not identified.
Saunders, a fifth-year senior who was named a captain in August, has not played yet this season.
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