Mike Wilson: These teams played a tight game last season in East Lansing, but the teams both look quite a bit different. What are the biggest differences in the Buckeyes this year?
Jeff Svoboda: The Buckeyes are definitely ahead of where they were a season ago, especially on offense. The offense moved in fits and starts a season ago (you saw that in East Lansing), but it has been consistent this season to the point of blowing past OSU records out of the water when it comes to rushing yards per game, points per game and yards per game. The offensive line, which was a spot of constant consternation under the last regime, has become a real strength, and the talents of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde are quite clear. Defensively, the team still seems to lack an identity, but the offense has been so good that the struggles there haven't cost the team a game at all. In addition, the team has bought into what Urban Meyer and his staff are selling, and why wouldn't they, having won 24 games in a row?
Wilson: The storyline all week has been about the great units of the Ohio State offense against the Michigan State defense, especially with Carlos Hyde playing out of his mind the past two weeks. How do you see that matchup of strong run defense against prolific run offense playing out?
Svoboda: I think both sides will win their share. Ohio State is too good not to, and the key to beating a good rush defense is having players with the ball in their hands who can make things happen. Hyde and Miller fit that bill. Even if the Spartans are fundamentally sound and physical, which is what I expect, Hyde is still a load to bring down when he gets going, and Miller can make even the best defenders look silly in the open field. On the other hand, I've been impressed by how the Spartans fill gaps on defense and impose their will on the proceedings. Ohio State won't have seen a rush defense quite like this, so I'm not expecting 300 yards (which has sort of become the norm for this offense) by any stretch.
Wilson: In a nice change for the Big Ten, this game seems to have the potential to chance perception in a positive way about the conference. Who do you think has more to prove in this game?
Svoboda: I'd say the answer is Ohio State simply because of the national narrative. The Buckeyes are the team in the spotlight given the BCS title game argument, and the fact that a one-loss SEC team is even being considered (or at least argued by some) to jump the undefeated Buckeyes, should they win Saturday, shows the respect level around the nation for the Big Ten. Obviously, a win for the Spartans would be a feather-in-the-cap victory for the program and perhaps vault Mark Dantonio's outfit to a new high, but the Buckeyes, in my mind, are playing right now for the entire conference in some ways.
Wilson: One of the big keys for the Spartans has been not turning the ball over and good decisions by Connor Cook. What will the Buckeyes look to do defensively to disrupt the sophomore and make his life difficult Saturday?
Svoboda: Ohio State does have one of the better blitzers in the Big Ten in Ryan Shazier, and I'd expect the Buckeyes to try to do what they can to get the junior to go after Cook and try to force him into mistakes. The Buckeyes also have some solid edge rushers in first-team All-Big Ten choice Noah Spence and freshman Joey Bosa, who had 2.5 sacks vs. Illinois. One thing I would say, though, is that the Buckeyes haven't really settled on a defensive identity this year, and the team has really missed senior safety Christian Bryant. A three-year starter, Bryant really allowed the team to get somewhat aggressive with its play calls, but he broke his ankle in the Wisconsin game and the team has struggled finding a suitable replacement. That has left the team even younger than it was originally, as there are only two seniors now in the defensive two-deep.
Wilson: What are your keys to the game and what is your prediction?
Svoboda: I think there are a ton of keys to the game. Can Ohio State hit a big pass play to soften the MSU defense? Will Ohio State avoid the big turnovers that have killed other teams to face MSU? Can Michigan State's offensive brain trust devise a game plan, like Michigan's, that took advantage of the weaknesses in the Ohio State defense? Frankly, I think these teams are very evenly matched, and I don't get the sense that Michigan State is intimidated by OSU's winning streak and title aspirations. This might come as a surprise to you, but I am actually picking the Spartans to win. I might be wrong (and I'm willing to put myself on the line for that), but I just feel like MSU can take the Buckeyes out of what they like to do enough to pull off the upset. The Buckeyes are also coming off an emotionally and physically draining game vs. Michigan, so I'm not sure they can circle the wagons again for another, similar affair a week later. Either way, I expect this to be an all-out war.