Keep Connor Cook clean
Ohio State probably has the best defensive line Michigan State will see this season. It faced a quick, athletic group at Oregon and allowed three sacks. Since then, the Spartans have allowed just two sacks – a total of five that is good for he second fewest in the nation. Can Michigan State contain Joey Bosa? He has 10 sacks already this season. Tight ends will come into play and so will the entire line as Bosa lines up all across the defensive line.
What hurt Michigan State at Oregon was when they got behind and had to throw the ball the majority of the time. Balance is in Michigan State’s game plan every week and it will be needed this week. The Spartans put up the majority of the yards in the last meeting through the air as Cook set a new career high in that game – big plays helped, of course. Coming out strong with a balanced attack against a pretty balanced Ohio State defense will be essential.
Michigan State has missed Isaiah Lewis this season as the drop at strong safety has been bigger than was expected. Lewis was huge last season against Ohio State in run support. He had 13 tackles and came up to the line with toughness and physicality. How well R.J. Williamson and Kurtis Drummond play not only in pass coverage, but in run support, will dictate how well Ohio State moves the ball.
In the Spartans’ last game against Michigan, it was the first time they had played a complete game in Big Ten play. There was no real quarter-long lapse that hindered the game’s outcome as it did against Nebraska and at Purdue. It almost cost Michigan State dearly against Nebraska and Ohio State is another explosive team that can make MSU pay if it lets up.
Play for Saturday only
The talk this week has been how every game is a playoff game at this point and that is true. So Michigan State needs to focus on the first playoff game: This one. To look ahead at deeper meaning and long-term outcomes can only deter focus from a tough game against a tough opponent Saturday.
Michigan State’s strong safety is coming off his best game this season against Michigan after taking his starting spot back. As mentioned above, tackling from the safeties will be important and Williamson needs to be on his game for the Spartans on Saturday as he will be part of the last line of defense if an OSU run breaks through.
Conklin is MSU’s best offensive lineman and Bosa is among the nation’s best defensive linemen. If Conkin can win the battle against Bosa when they are matched up, those are plays that MSU should have a better opportunity to move the ball down the field. This also is a chance for him to show himself on a big stage against a top player, just as he did against Randy Gregory early in the year.
Pendleton is key for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he is a solid lead blocker and picks up linebackers well. He is a huge part of the rushing attack and goes unnoticed for the most part. If he can spring Jeremy Langford for longer runs, MSU will be in good position. Secondly, he is used in pass protection and is back there protecting Cook. If a tight end or lineman is beaten, Pendleton needs to be on to protect the QB.
Harris is the linebacker most likely to find himself in space having to make a big tackle and playing sideline to sideline. His ability to move laterally well and wrap up quickly is important for the Spartans in both pass defense and run defense.
Langford struggled early against Ohio State last year, but broke out on a couple big runs later in the game, including the game-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter. He has been better this season at breaking out earlier in games and putting up more yards throughout the game instead of late. How well he is able to keep the offense moving is going to matter in every game, but it definitely will against Saturday.