The Big Ten East race is getting more interesting by the second. If you thought the Northwestern loss pushed Michigan State out of contention, think again. The Spartans’ improbable 27-24 win over Penn State propelled them to the top of the East, joining Ohio State with a 5-1 conference record. Now that both teams are tied atop the division, there is no better time for them to square off than now.
Michigan State is coming off the best win of their season while Ohio State is coming off their worst loss. Was either game a fluke? What can we expect come Saturday? Let’s dive a little deeper into this matchup.
If you like strong quarterback play, this game is for you. Ohio State’s fourth-year starter JT Barrett is still looking to punch his ticket to his first Big Ten Championship game, and this could be his year. Barrett leads the Big Ten with 321.2 yards per game. Heading into Iowa City, he was as efficient of a quarterback you’ll ever see with 25 touchdowns to only one interception.
But everything seemed to change during the Buckeyes’ 55-24 stunning loss to Iowa. Barrett still put up 271 total yards, but threw four interceptions with a completion percentage of just 53 percent. His control was nowhere to be found.
MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke is coming off a monster performance of 425 total yards with two touchdowns and one tipped interception against a previously-top-10 Penn State defense. The week before, Lewerke went for 475 yards, although it included three overtimes.
For the past two games, everything has just clicked for Lewerke, and the same was true for Barrett until the Iowa game. With this, it can be hard to guess what will happen Saturday. But for Barrett, expect him to attack the Spartans with the read option. Barrett runs the read option better than any quarterback in the conference and has already surpassed 100 carries on the year.
Whether or not Barrett rebounds from a passing standpoint is up in the air. He’ll face a Kenny Willekes-led pass rush that accumulated a solid 22 sacks thus far, although Barrett is mobile enough to buy time. He’ll face an MSU secondary led by lockdown corner Josiah Scott, who has 15 passes defended and excellent cover safety David Dowell, who has recorded four interceptions on just six starts. Nevertheless, strong passing opponents have proven effective against the Spartans, as evidenced by Trace McSorley’s 381 passing yards one week ago.
Like Barrett, Lewerke will also face pressure from a stellar Buckeye front seven led by defensive end Tyquan Lewis, who accounts for five of Ohio State’s 21 sacks. But like Barrett, Lewerke can also use his feet to get out of trouble. He doesn’t utilize the read option as often as Barrett, but still owns 368 rushing yards mostly due to improvisation. Lewerke will take off on the ground if the defense gives it to him.
Lately, Lewerke has made strides as a superb pocket passer. A week ago, he picked apart a senior-driven Penn State secondary and he’ll have the chance to do that again. The Buckeye secondary is just the sixth-best in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed, still suffering with the losses of first-round draft picks Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker.
Both teams’ pass offenses are potent. But MSU arguably has the edge due to receiving talent. KJ Hill and Parris Campbell are the only Buckeye receivers who have passed 400 yards on the season. For the Spartans, Felton Davis III, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Cody White have each accomplished this milestone. Davis, in fact, has passed the 500-yard mark. But in any case, both passing offenses have the potential to put up big numbers Saturday.
Running the ball is a different story. Buckeye tail back JK Dobbins has run over just about everybody this year. Led by a veteran offensive line, Dobbins will have a chance to break 1,000 rushing yards on Saturday. Backup running back Mike Weber has even gotten in on the action, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, MSU’s running game is inconsistent at best. The three-headed monster basically turned into a one-man show starring LJ Scott. But Scott only has 554 yards on the year and nearly 200 came against Minnesota.
OSU’s rush offense is miles ahead of MSU’s, but the Spartans’ rush defense is miles ahead of the Buckeyes’. Spartan linebacker Joe Bachie is leading the third-best rush defense in the nation, allowing just 87 yards per game. Even Heisman contender Saquon Barkley was swallowed up to just 63 yards against the Spartan defense, and 36 of those yards came on just one play.
The Bucks, on the other hand, have the sixth best rush defense in the Big Ten, coming off a 116-yard-allowance to Iowa’s Akrum Wadley. Ohio State offers a fantastic running game against a fantastic run-stopping defense and Michigan State offers a subpar running game against subpar run-stopping defense.
Michigan State vs. Ohio State is, historically speaking, not a rivalry. But it is now. Lately, everything between these two teams has been close. Mark Dantonio is 2-3 against Urban Meyer and 1-2 against JT Barrett. Each team won three of the last six meetings, and four of these six games have been decided by one possession. With a Big Ten East Title on the line, there is no reason to believe that this game will offer anything different.