Rapp Around: Cracked Mirror
When do you have an outfit in scarlet and gray facing a squad in green and white and yet have two teams that feel like they are looking in the mirror?
That would be the game before us now: No. 13 Ohio State at No. 7 Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Saturday night (8 p.m. Eastern, ABC).
Not only do both teams have identical records of 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten, but their statistical nearness is uncanny.
Ohio State and Michigan State rank 1-2 (or 2-1 depending upon how you look at it) in the conference in a variety of categories including scoring offense (OSU 45.6, MSU 45.5); total offense (MSU 515.2, 505.1); pass efficiency (OSU 169.2., MSU 160.3); PAT kicking (MSU 49-49, OSU 48-48); third-down conversions (OSU 48.5 percent, MSU 47.4 percent); and turnover margin (MSU +12, OSU +8).
Also, the two teams are exceedingly close to each other in several other statistics such as pass defense, where the Buckeyes rank second in the league allowing 181.4 yards per game and the Spartans are a notch below (184.0).
Individually, it’s more of the same. MSU’s Connor Cook is throwing for 233.5 yards per outing while Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett is averaging 232.0. Barrett has a league-leading efficiency rating of 170.0 and Cook is just behind at 163.1. And on and on it goes.
I have been wavering throughout the week trying to assess this game and offer a prediction because I keep coming back to the same conclusion: They are about dead-even on paper.
So let’s try the Jimmy-The-Greek approach and break this down a bit more and see if we can find an advantage. Here goes:
When Ohio State Runs – The Buckeyes use their run to set up the pass and vice versa, making them one of the impressively balanced teams in college football. Even with the recent loss of Rod Smith, OSU has an effective runner in Ezekiel Elliott, gets lots of production on the ground from Barrett and mixes in freshman Curtis Samuel, who is averaging 7.0 yards per pop. The offensive line has done a laudable job in the trenches although few of OSU’s front five have had much success getting to the second level. Plus, short-yardage conversion downs have been a problem this season. Meanhwile, MSU is one of the nation’s stingiest teams against the run, allowing 95.4 yards per game and 3.3 per rushing play.
When Ohio State Passes – Opponents are completing just 51.0 percent of their passes against the Spartans, a stat that is even more impressive considering Heisman Trophy front-runner Marcus Mariota is among the quarterbacks who has faced Sparty this season. Also, MSU has allowed just eight touchdown passes compared to 10 interceptions. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s secondary isn’t quite as dynamic as when it had Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard but the group still shows very solid coverage skills and manages to disrupt its share of passes. Plus, safety Kurtis Drummond is a standout and the team’s leading tackler. Also, the Spartans lead the Big Ten in sacks with 28. Barrett has tailed off a bit of late but still has the necessary accuracy and ability to spread the ball around. Still, that leaves a glaring question: Are the OSU wideouts going to be able to find the soft spots in the Spartan defense?
When Michigan State Runs – MSU head coach Mark Dantonio will rely heavily on veteran tailback Jeremy Langford in this game, and it’s not a bad strategy. Langford is perhaps the most complete back in the Big Ten and he seems to get strong as the game wears on. Ask an OSU squad that saw Langford seal a 34-24 win over the Buckeyes in last year’s Big Ten title game with a 26-yard TD burst. Langford is averaging 20 attempts and 105.1 yards per game, good for an average of 5.3 per carry. He also can help in MSU’s protection schemes or sneak out of the backfield and snare a pass. When Michigan State really wants to pound the ball it will tap into Nick Hill, who is adding 60.2 yards rushing per contest. The Buckeyes are getting excellent play from their linebackers lately but slowing down the men in green won’t be easy.
When Michigan State Passes – This really is going to be as key as anything in this game. Cook has been terrific with 17 TDs and just five interceptions, but he’s also benefited from a clean pocket. The Spartans’ line has been outstanding in pass blocking this year, allowing just five sacks. Ohio State will have to unleash Joey Bosa and fellow end Steve Miller to try to change that trend. If the Buckeyes can get to Cook with some blitzes and remain opportunistic in the takeaway department, this game could turn abruptly for the visitors. If not, the Tony Lippett show could emerge. Lippett is far-and-away the top target and he’s averaging a whopping 21.2 yards per catch.
Special Teams – Any game that appears to be this tight on paper could turn on a kicking play, and both teams are good at tapping into that advantage. As ballyhooed as MSU punter Mike Sadler was prior to the season, Cameron Johnston has been even better by either completely changing field position with a blast or pinning foes inside their own 10. Sean Nuernberger has a couple more field goals than Michael Geiger and has shown more range. OSU is as good as it gets at covering kicks and to this point has all but avoided dreaded penalties on such plays.
Depth – This is no smoke-and-mirrors effort by the Spartans. Their roster is solid and their coaches are outstanding at slotting players into the proper roles and developing talent. However, Urban Meyer is the best recruiter in the Big Ten without question and his two-deep is littered with elite talent and former top-end recruits.
Intangibles – Michigan State’s players are trying desperately to gain some sort of motivational edge but the truth is the Buckeyes are the ones seeking revenge and what they deem to be their rightful place atop the Big Ten. Meyer’s team is young but hungry, and their effort on Saturday night figures to be furious. The Spartans no doubt will be confident and have lofty goals of their own but they are the team more likely to play with caution.
Coaching – Meyer is 12-5 in games against top-10 teams, he’s won a pair of national championships, and he knows what it takes to win in East Lansing, having done so in his inaugural game as a Big Ten head coach in 2012. It’s hard to find a coach in America with a stronger resume or will to win than the Urbanator. However, Dantonio is a stellar coach in his own right and he has shown he’s not afraid to reach into his bag of tricks in big games and make them work. He’s also excellent at striking an ideal balance while pumping both calm and excitement into his players. Plus, Dantonio has been part of MSU staffs that ruined Ohio State title hopes in 1998 and last year. He’ll be ready, especially with two weeks to prepare.
Home Field – Next year Ohio State will be even more loaded and be playing this game in the Horseshoe. But that’s next year. This time the Buckeyes have to deal with 75,000 wackos in a highly visible night game. That’s an undeniable goodie for MSU.
Advantage: Spartans (big-time)
Final Analysis – That’s three slight advantages for Sparty, three for Brutus and three departments that appear to be about toss-ups. The Buckeyes are very capable of winning this game and they have talent that is getting ready to put some major fear into the rest of the Big Ten. However, the Spartans have more reliability and proven commodities on offense at the moment and their defense is good enough to hold OSU below 30 points, just like last year. Plus, this game is in enemy territory.
Michigan State 27, Ohio State 24