The best teams in the Big Ten standings sit at 5-0 as Michigan State and Ohio State have defeated all comers so far in 2013. However, both teams have a bye this week, putting the pursuit of a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl (or better) on hold.
That makes this a perfect time to do a bit of looking ahead, especially with the matchup between these teams in Indianapolis seeming inevitable.
There will be plenty of great storylines, especially if both teams are 8-0 in conference play. Will Michigan State finally avenge being left out of the BCS mix in 2010 and 2011? Will the country's best defense slow down the unstoppable Buckeyes offense? Can both these teams make BCS bowls, and if so, does Ohio State make the BCS Championship?
Oh, and let's not forget that Mark Dantonio was the defensive coordinator of the last Ohio State national title team a decade ago. These future East Division rivals will kick off the rivalry with a great game, at least on paper.
Enough introduction, time for some analysis. For this breakdown, the running and passing games and special teams are separately reviewed below to determine where each team may find an advantage.
Michigan State Pass Offense vs. Ohio State Pass Defense
Connor Cook has taken the starting job away from Andrew Maxwell by completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, netting 1490 yards and 13 touchdowns to go with only three interceptions. Cook has been helped by the development of a number of receivers, with Macgarrett Kings, Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett all contributing about equally in receptions so far.
Michigan State is only throwing for 188 yards per game, with an average of 6.1 yards per pass attempt. However, the Ohio State pass defense has been weak against the pass at times this season, especially against Wisconsin and Iowa (which have similar quarterbacks and offensive talent). Opponents of the Buckeyes have thrown for 223 yards per game with a 6.6-yards-per-attempt average.
Although the defensive secondary has been burned by the loss of starter Christian Bryant for the season, the real problem early in the season for Ohio State was conservative zone schemes and poor coverage from linebackers. More aggressive rushes against younger quarterbacks in the last two weeks have paid off big time for the Buckeyes, though.
Thus, expect the young athletes reloading the OSU defensive line to apply a lot of pressure on Cook and the Spartans offensive line. Assuming Cook can make the right reads and limit the damage on sacks, this will open up some big opportunities across the middle of the field for players like Tony Lippett.
Even with four more weeks to improve, this is one highly thin area on the Buckeye team. Thus, even with the passing game not being a huge strength for Michigan State, the Spartans get the nod here for an advantage. Expect a couple of touchdowns and about 240 yards through the air for Michigan State.
Advantage: MSU, by a small margin
Michigan State Run Offense vs. Ohio State Run Defense
Both these teams have made a living running the ball, so it should come as no surprise that the Spartans have rushed for slightly more yards per game (190) than passing. This has come even with replacing the starting running back from 2012, although Jeremy Langford is well on his way to a 1,000-yard season.
An experienced offensive line led by three seniors Blake Treadwell, Dan France, and Fou Fonoti has paved the way for some big holes at times. These players will be tested by the speed and strength of the young players along the OSU defensive front. The starters are all-star recruits such as Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, but the backups can be just as dangerous (Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter).
The difference in this matchup will likely be the linebackers, who have stepped up and absolutely cut the running game out against most opponents. Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant sniff out a lot of plays, leading to the Buckeyes holding opponents to 88 yards per game rushing on 2.8 yards per rush.
Another incredible statistic is this: Ohio State has surrendered only three touchdowns rushing all season. That's one touchdown for every three games! Expect the Buckeyes to focus on shutting down Langford and forcing Cook to beat them, which has worked against every other team so far this year.
It will work once again, although Langford will break one big play to keep the Spartans in the game. Michigan State finishes with about 110 yards and a touchdown running the ball. Still, slight advantage to the Buckeyes here.
Advantage: OSU, by a small margin
Ohio State Pass Offense vs. Michigan State Pass Defense
When Ohio State takes over the ball, the battle of the unstoppable force (OSU offense) against immovable object (MSU defense) will be the main attraction the nation tunes in to see. Of course, the running game will be the real star of the show, but the passing game may be the difference just like it was last year in a narrow 17-16 win for the Buckeyes.
Braxton Miller has developed into a much more efficient passer, and he has been helped by a veteran offensive line that gives him plenty of time to make the correct read. As good as backup Kenny Guiton has been (69 percent completions, 749 yards, 14 touchdowns), Miller has been even better by completing 73 percent of his attempts for 1,316 yards and 15 touchdowns against only three interceptions.
Just like Michigan State, the Buckeyes passing game has improved to 230 passing yards per game (8.0 yards per attempt) thanks in large part to the emergence of several good options at receiver: Corey Brown, Devin Smith and TE Jeff Heuerman. Meanwhile, the Spartans have been solid against the pass, giving up only 167 yards per game and 4.9 pass yards per attempt.
The Spartans have forced many opponents to be one-dimensional by stifling the running game and then playing opportunistic football in the secondary. The seniors leading the defensive backfield (Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis) have contributed five of the team's 10 interceptions. Add good coverage from linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough, and the Spartans have a recipe for success.
Michigan State will likely not be able to generate a ton of pass rush against a good pass-blocking Ohio State offensive line, which will allow Braxton Miller to find some openings in a tough Spartans defense. Expect the Buckeyes to generate three touchdowns passing, but Miller will also likely throw one or two interceptions that could change the course of the game. Slight advantage to the Buckeyes.
Advantage: OSU, by a small margin
Ohio State Run Offense vs. Michigan State Run Defense
Now here's the showdown. Michigan State gives up a shockingly low 43.4 yards per game rushing and has allowed only four rushing touchdowns in nine games. Meanwhile, Ohio State drives it down opponents' throats until it works, rushing for 301 yards per game and 27 touchdowns. Something will have to give.
The Buckeyes are led by Carlos Hyde, who has given his all despite missing the first three games of the season. Hyde has 701 yards but this equates to an impressive 117 per game thanks to the missed time. Jordan Hall has contributed eight touchdowns, but most of those came early as younger players like Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson have earned the right to spell Hyde's tough running.
Of course, the Spartans will also have to stay home against Braxton Miller (and Kenny Guiton, if he plays). These quarterbacks are legitimate runners, but the Michigan State linebackers will not be fooled much by the juke moves Miller likes to put on defenders.
Spartans linemen Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush may not be able to reliably push back the Buckeye offensive line for a pass rush, but they will not allow big holes to be opened up in the running game. Experienced linebackers such as Taiwan Jones and Max Bullough will make sure tackles to keep the speedy youngsters Elliott and Wilson contained.
Which means this will be a game of how much punishment Carlos Hyde can dole out and take for four quarters. He's a beast, but even "El Guapo" has his limits, and he will find them in this game. Project one touchdown and about 160 yards rushing in a virtual draw.
Advantage: None, MSU/OSU equal
Michigan State Special Teams vs. Ohio State Special Teams
Mark Dantonio likes to play defense and field position football, and his punter Mike Sadler is netting more than 38 yards per punt. Corey Brown typically handles the punt returns for the Buckeyes, but he may not get many good opportunities with the solid coverage unit of the Spartans. The Spartans have also hit 13 of 16 field goal attempts, but only three of those makes have come in the last month.
Ohio State is still breaking in a new punter, Cameron Johnston, but he has done admirably by only allowing two punt returns all year (for a grand total of three yards). Thus, Urban Meyer can play along with the defensive slugfest that Michigan State would like to get into. Drew Basil is perfect on seven field goal attempts, but he has not received work in a pressure situation all season.
The only edge may be in the return game, where Corey Brown stands out among the crowd of Buckeyes and Spartans that may return a kick or punt. However, it will be surprising if either of these teams gives up a big play on special teams.
If anything, the slight advantage in speed and athleticism Ohio State has should be negated by the better experience in field goals for Michigan State. That could be critical if the game stays close into the fourth quarter. Feels like a bit of a cop-out, but it just seems like there is no edge to be found here for either team.
Advantage: None, MSU/OSU equal
Ohio State Coaching/Intangibles vs. Michigan State Coaching/Intangibles
Urban Meyer recruited a coaching staff first, and it will not be long before these recruits get poached to lead other programs. The results speak for themselves, as a team that was very thin in 2011 and had a losing record has now ripped off 21 wins in a row. Presumably that will be 24 when this game arrives.
Ohio State has something to prove to the nation, and a (hopefully) top-10 battle will be just what this team has yearned for. The only risk is that Ohio State may get too amped for the first truly huge game since the Michigan game a season ago. If that happens and Michigan State can avoid the early Buckeye points onslaught (outscoring teams 171-38 in the first quarter), then this game will settle into a long grind of a battle.
Meanwhile, Michigan State will also have a ton of motivation. Mark Dantonio does not care much for the new leadership in Columbus after his mentor Jim Tressel was ousted, and he would relish winning the program's first outright conference championship in 25 years at the expense of Meyer's Buckeyes.
Plus, this will be a make-or-break game for a BCS bowl berth for Michigan State. A team that has not played in the Rose Bowl since 1987 and has not played in any BCS bowl game in the 15-year BCS era has plenty on the line to play tough against the Buckeyes. In addition, what better way to prove you have the best defense in the country than by shutting down the high-octane Buckeyes?
Both teams hold the ball for over 33 minutes of possession a game, but Ohio State plays a cleaner game with only 46 yards of penalties per game compared to 60 for the Spartans. Ohio State has played in the bigger games and has the right top-line experience, while Michigan State is simply looking to get rid of the chip on its shoulder.
It all adds up to a slightly cleaner game from the Buckeyes, even if the highest stakes of a BCS championship are on the line. Despite the axiom that defense wins championships, the Buckeyes just have the right edge in intangibles to win this game.
Advantage: OSU, by a moderate margin
It should come as no surprise if you kept tabs above that I predict Ohio State will escape this massive showdown in Indianapolis with the first Big Ten title in three years (four, if you take away the sanctioned 2010 title). There will be more points than the 10-7 and 17-16 grinds of 2011 and 2012, but the result will favor the men in Scarlet and Gray.
Don't expect it to be easy, though. Ohio State will have to play a clean game and avoid turnovers for four quarters. Do that, and the Buckeyes will celebrate a 31-27 victory in four weeks.
How would you break down the keys to this potential likely Big Ten championship? Please let me know by commenting below, and give a final score prediction as well! In a few weeks we can review and see how silly we all were when the actual game occurs.
Thanks for reading! As always, you can follow me on twitter for more game reaction and game-day commentary.
Enjoy the bye week Buckeyes and Spartans fans, as the football should be grand both in the Big Ten and across the country. If you have interest in the best game of the weekend, please tune in tomorrow when I grade the performance of the Oregon Ducks against Stanford. Until next time, be B1G.
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