In what many consider to be a play-in game to the College Football Playoff semifinals, the two dominant teams in the Big Ten, Michigan State and Ohio State, clash inside the Buckeyes’ fabled Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Ninth-ranked Michigan State (+5.45 on the moneyline) is hoping to continue its rebound from a shocking 39-38 loss to Nebraska two weeks ago, a defeat that pushed the Spartans to the outer edges of playoff contention as the stretch run looms.
For Michigan State to upend Ohio State, it will rely on the arm of senior quarterback Connor Cook, who has completed 175 of 311 pass attempts for 2,482 yards and 21 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Cook injured his shoulder in last week’s win over Maryland but has declared himself good to go against Ohio State. Cook’s top target is senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who has caught 65 balls for 1,021 yards and six touchdowns.
Michigan State (9-1 overall, 5-1 in Big Ten play) will score points, as it averages 32.9 per game this season and 406.3 yards of total offense. The Spartans’ defense has shown cracks, though, allowing 364 yards and 22.3 points per game. That’s usually the team’s strength, but MSU lost coordinator Pat Narduzzi to Pittsburgh this offseason.
BARRETT NOW LEADS BUEYES
One way for Michigan State to lobby for its own College Football Playoff future is to ruin the perfect run of the defending national champions. Despite a 23-game winning streak, No. 3 Ohio State, a 13-point favorite on the spread, has been less than perfect in 2015.
A quarterback controversy pitted Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett throughout the preseason, and while Jones (110-176, 1,460 yards, eight TDs, five INTs) won the battle at first, he has since lost the job to Barrett. He has started two games this season (sandwiched between a one-game suspension) and passed for 622 yards and eight touchdowns overall. Barrett is a better running threat than Jones.
One facet of the Ohio State offense that isn’t up for debate is the productivity of running back Ezekiel Elliott, who remains in the Heisman Trophy conversation with a 220-carry, 1,425-yard season that includes 16 touchdowns. Elliott has also been consistent, turning in 15 straight games of 100-plus rushing yards dating back to last season.
Junior receiver Michael Thomas has been the primary target for both Jones and Barrett with Jones catching 45 passes for 651 yards and eight touchdowns this season. And the dual threat of QB-turned-receiver Braxton Miller (321 receiving yards, 218 rushing yards, four total touchdowns) is not to be trifled with.
The Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0) also score points in bunches, reeling off 36.4 points on 454.3 yards of total offense per game. Unlike the Spartans, Ohio State is stingier on defense in allowing just 171.6 passing yards and 13.8 points per game.
Ohio State has won 30 straight regular-season conference games since coach Urban Meyer came to Columbus in 2012, which is a major college record streak in any conference, but the Spartans handed him his only Big Ten loss with a 34-24 victory in the 2013 conference title game.
Neither team has performed well against the spread this season, with Michigan State going 3-7 and Ohio State 4-6 against the number (with an equal 4-6 record as a favorite and just 1-5 at home). ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Buckeyes a 79.1% chance to win the game. Ohio State won at Michigan State last year 49-37 behind five total touchdowns from Barrett.
The winner of this game will likely take the Big Ten East Division, although both have tough tests to close the regular season — Michigan State vs. Penn State and Ohio State at Michigan.