MSU football's Saturday matchup against Ohio State will define season
Win, and the sky’s the limit for MSU.
Lose, and all of the preseason goals and aspirations are thrown out the window.
Everything is at stake this Saturday when No. 8 MSU welcomes No. 13 Ohio State to Spartan Stadium for college football’s marquee game of the week.
“It’s a big game, there is no question about that,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s a big game at Spartan Stadium, should be a great atmosphere. Like I said earlier, with our crowd into it, our students will be into it, it’s everything that you want in college football.”
MSU (7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) will look to continue its six-game winning streak in its biggest remaining regular season game. OSU (7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) enters the matchup riding its own six-game winning streak creating what many consider a de facto Big Ten East Division championship game.
Saying Saturday is just another game would simply be an understatement, and MSU players understand that. Junior quarterback Connor Cook, an Ohio native, said he loves games such as this week’s against OSU and cites these big time opportunities as a reason why he took his talents to the banks of the Red Cedar.
“That’s why we come to a school like Michigan State,” Cook said. “To play in games like this, to be on the stage with the implications on the line.”
After running the table during the regular season last year, it’s hard to believe that OSU is even better this year — but that’s what MSU players and coaches are saying.
MSU got a close look at OSU in last year’s Big Ten Championship Game, topping the Buckeyes 34-24 to clinch their first Rose Bowl berth since 1988. The victory also snapped a 24-game winning streak for OSU and ended the scarlet-and-gray’s dreams of playing for a national championship last season.
Multiple Spartan players have made the connection between last year’s Buckeye team to this year, and the common consensus is that OSU is vastly improved. Cook said he’s mostly noticed changes in the coverage packages from last year, but overall the Buckeye defense is better than the one MSU beat last December.
“Their defensive line is very, very good,” Cook said. “Great linebackers, guys that are active, guys that are fast and they got guys that are strong in the secondary as well, so it’s a good defense.”
The same can be said about the new look of OSU’s offense in head coach Urban Meyer’s third year in Columbus. OSU graduated workhorse running back Carlos Hyde, who had more than 1,500 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns last season, and two-time Big Ten Silver Football award winner senior quarterback Braxton Miller has missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. But the losses of both Hyde and Miller have been overshadowed by phenom freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett.
The true freshman signal caller has 2,352 total yards and 29 total touchdowns through the Buckeyes’ first eight games, earning himself a spot on the Davey O’Brien semifinalist list earlier this week.
Both senior linebacker Taiwan Jones and senior free safety Kurtis Drummond have noticed Barrett’s progression since the start of the season, and he has earned the respect of both Spartan defenders. However, Jones went the extra mile and said he believes Barrett is a better fit for Meyer’s offensive style and will pose more concerns this week against MSU.
“As an athlete I feel like Miller was better but to fit in that offense, Urban Meyer’s (offense), he fits well, like (Tim) Tebow in that Florida offense with Urban Meyer,” Jones said. “I feel like Barrett fits in that offense better and he can control the game better.”
Over the years, both MSU and OSU have made a name for themselves as stout defensive programs, but Saturday could be different.
Both MSU and OSU enter Saturday’s highly touted matchup boasting a couple of the nation’s most prolific offensive attacks. Both teams average more than 45 points per game, with OSU ranking No. 4 and MSU ranking No. 5 in scoring offense in the country.
MSU holds a small advantage in total yards per game, averaging 515.3 yards per game compared to the Buckeyes’ 505.1 yards per game.
Fans are always looking for a high-scoring shootout and Cook shares that same interest. Cook said MSU’s offense is looking forward to the challenge and enjoys the idea of being able to carry the load if the game turns into a high scoring affair.
“Any time you have offenses that are averaging those kind of points and are capable of doing what they have shown in the past it’s going to call for a good game,” Cook said. “We’re looking forward to it, Ohio State’s looking forward to it, it’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
The growth in MSU’s offense over the past two seasons is an obvious reason for why some are expecting this one to be unlike past defensive battles. The improvements on the offensive side of the ball is something Meyer has noticed thus far this season.
Meyer said having an experienced quarterback in Cook has been the biggest difference from last season, creating this week’s potential barn burner.
“This time last year they were still trying to get their rhythm on offense and they certainly did,” Meyer said. “Now they’re one of the best offenses in the country so that’s the biggest difference.”
Make or break game
In a lot of ways Saturday will serve as a game that will determine the rest of MSU’s season.
Both MSU and OSU enter the game with one non-conference loss and a perfect Big Ten record atop the East Division. On top of the conference implications, the loser on Saturday will be basically eliminated from the College Football Playoff conversation and playing for simply another bowl game appearance.
Both players and coaches understand the magnitude of this game and what is at stake on Saturday. The winner of the game will hold sole possession of first place in the division with only three games left, creating a foreseeable path to Indianapolis.
“This is definitely a really big game,” senior offensive lineman Travis Jackson said. “It’s two teams at the (top of) the division and whatever team wins this game, controls their own destiny, and that’s all you can ask for in the Big Ten Conference.”
Dantonio hasn’t been playing down the game by any means either. He did mention this isn’t the biggest game he’s been a part of since joining the Spartan sidelines but knows what it’ll mean for the rest of the season.
Dantonio said this game is about the team’s No. 1 goal of defending its Big Ten Championship and the bigger implications that come after that.
“The way the standings look right now this game is extremely important because you’ll win the tie breakers, as well, whoever wins this game. So that’s what makes it even more, I think, important,” Dantonio said.
“Can we represent our division in the Big Ten Championship Game? What can that springboard us toward?”