Everything up to this point was just preamble for Ohio State. Now, the Buckeyes are faced with a real challenge—and now, to prove their worth, they have no choice but to blow it out of the water.
Ohio State has been up and down thus far in 2012. At times, against inferior competition, it has looked spectacular; at others, it has had to rely on opponents' mistakes in order to sneak away with wins, even against teams it should be dominating.
Last time out, a slow start nearly led to an upset loss at the hands of UAB—but Braxton Miller & Co. woke up just in time to fight back.
Michigan State, meanwhile, has one blemish on its record: a loss to Notre Dame, which is looking more and more like one of the stronger teams in the nation. It bounced back with a 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan last weekend, but like the Buckeyes, the Spartans are going to have to find some way to overcome those slow starts if they want to do any damage in conference play.
Where: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
When: Saturday, September 29, at 3:30 p.m. ET
According to OddsShark, these two are dead even in the point spread, but it's a little bit surprising that Michigan State isn't even the three-point favorite at home in this matchup.
Yes, the Buckeyes are ranked higher at No. 14, and Michigan State is No. 20, but given the caliber of opponents the Buckeyes have beaten, the oddsmakers are giving them a lot of credit on the road against a very tough Big Ten opponent.
It's true that Michigan State hasn't beaten anyone spectacular, either, and in its biggest challenge of the season thus far, it was upset by then-No. 20 Notre Dame, 20-3. But the Spartans also faced Boise State in Week 1, and they pulled off that victory 17-13. In their other two games, they've won by a combined score of 64-14.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, haven't yet faced a ranked team, and they've only won their last two games by a combined score of 64-43.
Objectively, you'd have to think that the Spartans would get a little bit of respect in their home stadium, but apparently not.
OddsShark has the over/under at 43.5, which is a bit lower than we've seen when some of the other Top 25 teams have squared off against each other—but this is understandable. Both of these teams have had trouble scoring at critical junctures, especially over the last couple of weeks.
In their most recent 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan, the Spartans didn't score until there were about 10 minutes left in the first half. Through the first three quarters, they only scored three field goals. Their first touchdown came with about seven minutes left in the game. Fortunately, Eastern Michigan was just a bit more futile.
In a 29-15 win over UAB last week, the Buckeyes didn't score until there were about six-and-a-half minutes left in the half, but they'd score two more touchdowns before the period was over. They wouldn't, however, score again until about five minutes remained in the half.
Both of these teams need to be prepared to be far more aggressive offensively against each other if they want to take home this win.
Ohio State Injury Report (via USAToday.com)
- DB C.J. Barnett (ankle) is probable for Saturday's game after missing the last one
- DB Bradley Roby (shoulder) is probable for Saturday's game after missing the last one
- RB Carlos Hyde (knee) is probable for Saturday's game after missing the last two
- RB Adam Homan (shoulder) is questionable for Saturday after missing the last two games
- DL Michael Bennett (groin) is questionable for Saturday's game after missing the last three
- RB Warren Ball (foot) is out indefinitely with a foot injury
Michigan State Injury Report (via USAToday.com)
- T Fou Fonoti (foot) is out indefinitely with a broken foot
- DL Brandon Clemons (foot) is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery
Clearly, neither of these teams can afford a loss—but Michigan State especially cannot.
The Spartans already dropped one huge game against Notre Dame, and if they don't prove they can take down a top-ranked opponent, they're never going to rise higher in the polls than where they currently are.
As it stands, after this matchup, the Spartans have just one more game against a ranked opponent, and that will come on Nov. 3 against No. 22 Nebraska. That doesn't leave them with many more opportunities to exert their dominance.
A top team has to find a way to beat a Big Ten rival on its home turf, even if that rival is ranked a few spots higher in the polls. If there is one team that has looked beatable over its last couple of games, it's Ohio State. This is a golden opportunity for the Spartans.
Keys for Ohio State
There are several things Ohio State has to do differently in this one that it hasn't been doing in its last couple of games. Primarily, it has to find some way to take an early lead rather than relying on its opponent's futility down the stretch.
Against Cal a couple of weeks ago, the Buckeyes needed a lot of bounces to go their way in order to get that 35-28 win at home. They needed a huge blown coverage on Cal's part in order to score their game-winning touchdown with 3:26 left, and they also needed a last-drive interception to solidify the victory.
And we already know about the offensive futility last week against UAB: In more than one instance, the Buckeyes went too long without scoring, and that can't happen on the road against the toughest opponent in the division.
Scoring early and often should be the name of the game for the Buckeyes.
Keys for Michigan State
A lot of the problems Ohio State has are the same ones Michigan State has—the Spartans need to find some way to score before it's almost too late because this isn't a winless MAC opponent. If the Spartans struggle out of the gate, the Buckeyes will make them pay (probably).
But on top of that, the Spartans must look to the guy who got them through last week's game: Junior running back Le'Veon Bell, who exploded for 253 yards on 36 carries with a touchdown.
Bell has a history of carrying the offense in big games: This was the second game of the season in which he rushed for over 200 yards, and the other one came in Week 1 against Boise State.
Who's your pick to win?
Plus, over the last two games, the Buckeyes have allowed an average of 184 yards on the ground. There was never a more perfect time for Bell to go off for another 200 yards—especially if he can get going early in the game.
This is going to be a battle, and it probably won't be a high-scoring one at that. But Michigan State won't lose at home to a big rival that has looked utterly beatable in its most recent two games against opponents that are far inferior to the Spartans.
Ohio State has yet to face a ranked opponent, and facing this one could be a wake-up call. The Spartans, on the other hand, have faced two—and it hasn't been pretty in either case, but you at least get the sense that they know what it takes to beat a truly competitive team.