Ohio State and Michigan State usually have met with something on the line lately.
For the sixth time in the last seven meetings, both teams will be ranked entering the contest at noon Saturday in East Lansing.
The eighth-ranked Buckeyes need a win to remain within a game of Michigan in the Big Ten East race, and of course a second loss this season would all but end any hopes of making the College Football Playoff.
While the 24th-ranked Spartans must win to keep alive slim hopes of wining the division, they always revel in the opportunity to play spoiler.
“If you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said this week. “And at this point in time, Ohio State is still the defending Big Ten champion, I believe, so you’ve got to beat the best. That’s always been the target area I think throughout the years.”
Here are five things to know about the game:
1. The marquee matchup is Ohio State’s offense against the Michigan State defense.
While the Buckeyes have the No. 1 scoring unit in the Big Ten, the Spartans are No. 3 in ‘D.’
Ohio State revived its running game against a weak Nebraska defense a week ago using a mix of new schemes and old-fashioned toughness.
Now the Buckeyes will put that to the test against what is statistically the best run-stopping unit in the country.
Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford says bring it on.
“Let’s not make this harder than what it is,” Alford said. “We can talk about schemes and footwork and hand placement and all that stuff, but at the end of the day I have to beat you. That’s what it comes down to.
“This is a physical sport, right? And I’m one who believes you have to run the ball. That’s a physical deal. When you take and pound the rock and pound the rock eventually you can break a guy’s will.”
2. MSU’s strength is stopping the run while Ohio State has been better moving the ball through the air, where the Spartans are still good but not as strong.
The latter could change with the return of Josiah Scott, a sophomore from Fairfield High School who missed the first eight games with a knee injury.
The 2017 Freshman All-American played all but one of MSU’s 53 plays last week against Maryland and broke up a pass.
“His presence of being there is going to help us in the long run,” Michigan State safety Khari Willis said. “I’m just glad he’s able to get back playing the game he loves. Seeing him out there being happy, being Josiah, is more exciting for me than anything.”
With junior Justin Layne and Scott, the Spartans potentially have a pair of shutdown cornerbacks for the final month of the season.
3. The Ohio State secondary might be in the best shape it has been all season.
Starting cornerback Damon Arnette returned from a concussion last week, but Jeffrey Okuda was out with a groin injury. Both are expected to be available this week to form a three-man rotation along with Kendall Sheffield.
Meanwhile, Shaun Wade and Brendon White spent the week battling to be the starter along with veteran Jordan Fuller.
That position has been problematic all season, but White is coming off a career game, having recorded 13 tackles last week against Nebraska in his first extensive playing time.
“The good news is I think we’re going to be relatively healthy back there,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “We’ll have all three corners and some good depth now finally at safety.”
4. The Spartans are 110th nationally in scoring and 105th in total yards despite having a handful of dangerous playmakers on the roster.
The MSU offensive line is having another poor season while quarterback Brian Lewerke has dealt with a shoulder injury over the past month or so.
He played ineffectively in a 21-7 loss to Michigan then sat out a 23-13 win over Purdue. Lewerke returned last week to complete 11 of 20 passes for 87 yards as the Spartans beat Maryland 24-3.
Although Rocky Lombardi threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns against the Boilermakers, Dantonio said Lewerke will be the team’s starter as long as he is physically able to play.
5. The Spartans have a familiar name at running back.
Ohio State fans will recognize the last name of Michigan State running back Connor Heyward, who has run for 358 yards and five touchdowns this season after L.J. Scott suffered an ankle injury.
He is the younger brother of former Buckeye defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, now a standout for the Steelers.
“He’s just coming into his own as a tailback,” Dantonio said of the younger Heyward. “He’s a great person, a great leader. He played quarterback in high school. He can do a lot of different things with the football. He just has that persona. People gravitate to him.”
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