For a game pitting two of last year’s Big 10 Championship triumverate, this game hardly feels like a heavyweight showdown does it? Both Ohio State and Michigan State were exposed a bit two weeks ago in their first real tests of the season. Now? We dont know what to make of either team. Did OSU solve some of its offensive woes with the QB change to hotshot freshman Braxton Miller? Did Michigan State learn how to block since their weak effort against the Domers in Week 3? Can either team beat a team with a pulse without the benefit of game changing turnovers and special teams play? The Spartans and Buckeyes didnt play each other a year ago on their road to sharing the title with Wisconsin. This game should have been played a year ago. On the first Saturday of October, 2011, these teams appear to be shadows of those title winning outfits from a year ago. But we’re also judging on small sample sizes and a single game egg the teams laid a week ago. Teams do improve. And sometimes you need a bad effort like they had two weeks ago to figure out which flaws you can survive with and which ones need major work. This game will not only prove a key benchmark for the early shape of the Big 10 race, but also tell us which team has improved the most from efforts a fortnight ago that brought a lot more questions than answers.  Here’s what we’re looking for as the Evil Empire takes on Little Brother.

CAN OHIO STATE SUSTAIN DRIVES IN BIG 10 PLAY?

Ohio State enters the Big 10 season with a bunch of question marks. One basic one is can they move the ball and sustain drives against Big 10 defenses? If the evidence from non-conference play is to believed, serious doubts exist. Want traditional stats? The Bucks come in with the 91st ranked total offense and 109th ranked passing offense. Want fancy pants new math stats? Try the fact that Ohio State has managed just six value drives in their last three games. Value drives are those that begin in your territory and travel to at least the enemy 30-yard line or score a touchdown prior to hitting that mark. If Ohio State has to travel a decent distance to score points, they arent doing it. At least not so far this year. They exploded for 37 points against Colorado a week ago, but not because of any new found offensive fireworks. They had six drives–half of their possessions–began in CU territory. They had a 5-yard TD drive after a huge kickoff return from Jordan Hall. They had a 10-yard FG drive after a muffed punt. Shanked punts and other turnovers set them in scoring positions other times. Can they find some offensive mojo as Big 10 play starts? They play one of the league’s better defenses in Michigan State right off the bat. 

BUT ARE THE SPARTANS REALLY THAT GOOD AT THIS DEFENSE STUFF?

Imagine if you havent watched a down of football yet this season and decided to delve into stats and box scores this week. How stunned would you be to notice that MSU has the top ranked defense in total yards allowed and passing yards? They’re in the top-10 in rushing yards allowed and points allowed. Clearly a dominant unit, right? I dont think so. It’s the schedule that gets them their rankings. They’ve played three really bad teams and that props up all their stats. To be sure, permitting just one first down against Florida Atlantic is interesting, but it does nothing for me as far as projecting this team heading into a Big 10 showdown. Then again, the Spartans, statistically at least, seemed to contain the powerful Irish offense. They allowed just 275 yards, bottled up Cierre Woods a bit and forced three turnovers. I do like this defense, but in watching that game, I never felt the Spartans defense had any real control. There are still plenty of new faces in the lineup that need to prove themselves in a big spot. I’m not so sure they backed up my summer confidence in them with that effort against ND, even if some of the stats look great. While they have a lot of depth on the defensive line, they really miss the pass rushing presence of Tyler Hoover, whose still out with an injury, and NT Anthony Rashad White, who received raves all summer long from the Spartan media after arriving from the JUCO ranks, hasnt lived up to any of that billing. If they are a legit defense, they make the freshmen Miller’s day miserable. If they are a legit defense, they dont let OSU’s run, run, run heavy, conservative offense mow their way down the field. If they are a legit defense, they will put OSU’s offense in insurmountable down and distance. The thing is, we’re not sure if this is a legit defense or not. They had good numbers against the one legit team they’ve played. But, that same team beat them like a drum on the scoreboard and seemed to be able to conjure up scoring drives whenever they wanted. This game ought to provide us with some more concrete evidence at least.

The Battle Of First Downs

The key down to watch this whole game is first down. It’s imperative for each team to stay on schedule with down and distance to have any chance at moving the ball down field and into scoring range. This hasnt been a good down for either team so far this season. Ohio State barely averaged 3.0 yards a play on their first down snaps against Toledo and Miami. But at least they’ve been steadily improving on this down.  Against Toledo, it was just 2.28 yards per first down play with 18 plays of three yards or less. They had a bit more success against Miami, even ripping off four first down plays in the first half of more than 10 yards, but they still moved it three yards or less on half of their first down plays. They schooled Colorado to the tune of 5.3 yards a first down play with the running attack of Miller,  Hall and Carlos Hyde proving to be competent chain movers. But, they had amazing field position all day, which helps play calling and execution. And the Buffs arent as good as Toledo or Miami. Was last week another step in the right direction for this offense or just a blip against a bad team?  As for MSU, they’ve played four games, but three have been against tomato cans: A bad FCS school, and cellar dweller contenders from the Sun Belt and MAC. We only have the Notre Dame game to judge them against as far as capabilty against their peers. The Irish kicked MSU’s tail on first down on both sides of the ball. The Irish were successful on more than half their first downs, while MSU wasnt a success a two-thirds of theirs. Ouch. If that keeps up Saturday, it will as long a day in Columbus for the Green, White and Bronze as it was two weeks ago in South Bend.  Given their offensive line issues, I dont know if thats going to get better on that side of the ball.

Major Holes Exposed Two Weeks Ago, So Who Has Filled Them Better?

After debacles in Week 3, both Michigan State and Ohio State looked to have portions of their offense mirroring certain aspects of the woeful 2008 Michigan offense that Michigan fans to this day continue to argue and wring their hands about. For Ohio State, it was a QB in Bausermann who looked every bit as weak as Nick Sheridan, who piloted the woeful 3-9 ’08 Wolverines for long stretches. For Michigan State, it was an offensive line leaking like a sieve and in enough shambles that its capable of single handedly torpedoing all of the program’s big goals for the season. It looked every bit like the ’08 Michigan offensive line that was in major rebuidling mode after losing nearly an entire two-deep due to graduation, untimely injuries, the Boren transfer and four others leaving the program because they hated Rodriguez’s guts. Ohio State has made progress with their QB issue by going fulltime with freshman Miller, a top shelf QB recruit. He was steady in his first start, proved to be a key cog in what looks like a powerful three-headed running attack and is barely scratching the surface of his potential. But, they still cant pass the ball and have had less than 100 yards passing in back to back weeks. Michigan State looked better at blocking and with their running attack a week ago, but that was against Central Michigan. But in their only game against a foe with a pulse, the Spartans had no running game, getting a paltry 29 yards against Notre Dame. The questions here are can Ohio State win Big 10 games with barely 100 yards passing and can Michigan State succeed in league play if they cant really block anyone? For Ohio State, I think the answer is yes. We’ve seen this before during the Boeckmen Era and while the program eased Pryor into a starting role. Tressel didnt take away all the gameplans, after all. I think Miller eventually will be a dangerous player this year. He already is with his legs and as his two scoring strikes to Devin Smith showed against Colorado, he’s capable of at least getting points out of the passing game, even if he’s not racking up fantasy passing numbers. I think the answer is no for Michigan State. While I think Travis Jackson taking over at center for Blake Treadwell is an upgrade, I still have zero faith at all in either of their tackles holding up against the OSU defensive front. Or any Big 10 defensive front for that matter. Moving Dan France over from the DL to be the starting tackle isnt working. So, now they might try Micajah Reynolds, another transfer from the defensive depth chart, who is pushing France for playing time. The other tackle is a JUCO recruit who has been with the program for a month. This could get ugly on the edges. I can already see the froth coming out of John Simon’s mouth. I know there are concerns in certain OSU pockets about their linebacking corps devoid of playmakers. They werent good against Miami. But, I think you’ll see an improved effort here, if only because the OSU front four is going to crush the MSU offensive line, whereas they were nuetralized by the Cane offensive front, exposing some of the LB weaknesses. Here’s the bottomline. Ohio State can win a lot of Big 10 games with meager passing outputs. Michigan State cant win any Big 10 games if they run the ball even close to as poorly as they did against the Irish.

Jamie Mac Vs The Siren Call Of The Underdog

Avid readers of this blog and my work at MGo know a few things about me. If they’ve been paying attention, they know I love to play underdogs. This is a problem when it comes to Michigan State. The Spartans are just 3-10 ATS as an underdog in recent years. They’ve had some pretty impressive flameouts when catching points recently. Are you looking for the sucker that had Sparty against Iowa and Alabama last year and Notre Dame this year? Look no further than this blog. We are said suckers. We’re not proud of it. But, we have a plan to overcome this. We’re hiring some muscle to punch me in the mouth next time I am even remotely thinking of playing the Spartans. The job is open, although MGoBrian mentioned on our podcast this week that he would do the job for free. I wont lie, I am little nervous at how gleeful he was to take the job. If I notice anybody with long hair following me around town with empty water bottles in hand, I am going to get a little paranoid. No worries, this isnt the week I’ll need his services. Fading OSU as chalk at the Horseshoe is something thats really not permitted around these parts, not with the Bucks checking in at 16-5 ATS as home chalk and on a 46-18-1 ATS run as favorites overall.

YAWN. We’re Just Here For The Pick, Chief

Alright, so I’ve wasted a lot of time and pounded this keyboard enough. Let’s get to brass tax. Whose going to win and, most importantly, cover the spread? Not a lot of points are going to be scored in this one. I dont think either team’s offense is all that much. MSU might appear to have more playmakers in place, but I am convinced this Offensive Line will only serve to betray the Spartans every step of the way. I love QB Kirk Cousins, but he was rattled against the Irish, throwing the ball a second early all the time because protection was falling apart all around him. He was spooked. Is Ohio Stadium and a bunch of nasty Silver Bullets running around the field at top speed the proper remedy for a QB spooked out because his line cant block? Let me think about that for a second. Hmmmm, I think the answer is NO. Can Cousins hook up with BJ Cunningham? Sure, he can. He could have a 100-yard day, it wouldnt surprise me. But, I dont think it will be enough to alter the outcome. What would surprise me is if any Spartan tailback got past 50 yards. Miami hurt the Bucks with their rushing attack, but their offensive line is light years better and (CONTROVERSIAL COMMENT ALERT) Lamar Miller is much better than any back MSU brings to this dance.  I just hated that whole gameplan against the Irish. I dont feel the MSU brass will have anything better for the Buckeyes, who have a better defensive program than the Irish. This game is tight, defensive minded, with not a lot of scoring. The difference maker will be Jordan Hall, whose been a bit of a revelation at tailback for OSU. He’ll churn out about 80-90 yards on the ground and set the Bucks up with field position for a key score after a big kick return. Miller will add another 80-90 yards on the ground. Ohio State milks out a 19-10 win, snuffing out a couple good-looking MSU drives in the second half with critical QB sacks.

The Pick: Ohio State -3. Book It.