Seasons often turn on MSU games

Bill Rabinowitz
Mike Weber takes off on an 82-yard touchdown run ahead of Michigan State safety David Dowell during the 2017 game that Ohio State won 48-3. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Michigan State is not Ohio State’s top rival; no team will ever replace Michigan as that.

But under coach Urban Meyer, no game has been as consistently consequential for the Buckeyes as those against the Spartans.

“The magnitude and the meaning of the game (is that it) has had so much to do with each team’s season,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

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In 2012, Meyer’s first season, Ohio State’s hard-fought 17-16 win was the turning point in the Buckeyes’ undefeated season.

In 2013, Michigan State ended the Buckeyes’ 23-game winning streak and chance for a national title with its upset in the Big Ten title game.

In 2014, Ohio State’s convincing victory over the favored Spartans in East Lansing vaulted the Buckeyes into contention for the College Football Playoff, which they won.

In 2015, Michigan State’s stunning win at Ohio Stadium kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff.

In 2016, the Buckeyes narrowly escaped an upset against a disappointing Spartans team.

In 2017, Ohio State proved the then-No. 12 Spartans pretenders with a 48-3 demolition, the biggest blowout in the history of the series.

On paper, Saturday’s game in East Lansing doesn’t have the buildup of most of the previous games, but it could be a turning point for the Buckeyes.

If Ohio State wins, especially convincingly, it would give the Buckeyes needed momentum as they approach the Michigan game. If Ohio State loses, its Big Ten title and College Football Playoff hopes might as well be dead.

The emotion of the game goes beyond just its stakes. Michigan State has 28 players from Ohio, including eight who are possible starters. Dantonio is from Zanesville and was the defensive coordinator on Jim Tressel’s staff. Tressel’s nephew, Mike, is the Spartans’ defensive coordinator. Longtime Buckeyes assistants Jim Bollman and Paul Haynes are Michigan State assistants.

“We’ve got a lot of players from Ohio,” Dantonio said. “That feeds into it a little bit. I’m from Ohio. You want to play well and do your very best.”

From a strategic standpoint, the game features an interesting matchup of each team’s strengths and weaknesses. Michigan State’s offense has sputtered most of the year, partly because of injuries. Top receiver Felton Davis is out for the season because of an Achilles injury. Running back LJ Scott (ankle) has missed most of the season, and quarterback Brian Lewerke has tried to play through a shoulder injury.

Then again, Ohio State’s defense has made some suspect offenses look pretty good. The Buckeyes said that they had excellent practices this week, and Meyer said he believes his defense is close to rising to championship-caliber.

“We want that impact game, that game to show it all,” linebacker Pete Werner said.

On offense, the Buckeyes have relied on the passing game most of the year. Last week, after much emphasis on the run game following the debacle against Purdue, Ohio State broke out by running for 229 yards.

But Michigan State is not Nebraska. The Spartans have the stingiest run defense in the country, giving up only 71.7 yards per game and 2.53 per carry.

Michigan State likes to attack the middle of the opponents’ offense, putting the onus on its opponents’ center and guards. That’s exactly what gets the juices flowing for the Buckeyes’ linemen.

“If you’re a real O-lineman, like right now just talking about it, I got chills,” guard Demetrius Knox said Wednesday. “To be an O-lineman, you have to come up to the ball every play and be like, ‘I’m about to whup your tail.’ Right now I’m excited. You got me pumped up because that’s the type of football I love.”

Ohio State’s defensive philosophy of using man-to-man press coverage against the pass was largely copied from Michigan State. This season, the Spartans, like the Buckeyes, haven’t been as successful at it as in recent years. Michigan State ranks 98th nationally in passing yards allowed (253.4 per game).

“We love the way they blitz,” Knox said. “If you pick it up, the ball’s going to pop out.”

Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. had an off game last week as the Buckeyes spent most of their preparation on the run game. It’s essential for both parts of the offense to click against the Spartans. The season could be riding on it, as it has so often when the Buckeyes and Spartans have met recently.


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