Jeff Svoboda:He's definitely settled in since that early game against Virginia Tech, when the Hokies played much of the game in a very aggressive mode and essentially dared Ohio State's young QB and O-line to beat it. When he's at his best, Barrett has become very good at finding the open man and distributing the ball in OSU's offense. That's how he was able to rack up touchdown passes in the four weeks after the Kent State game, as he was simply just asked to find the open man and deliver the ball. Barrett's pocket sense has also improved mightily and is impressive for a redshirt freshman. He's also fairly calm, cool and collected and is a very good leader for someone his age. But the Penn State game showed the way to slow this offense down is still to challenge the playmakers outside, keep Ohio State from hitting big plays in the run game, and force it into mistakes and tough situations, including third-and-long situations that still aren't this team's forte.
Svoboda:I'll give you two other key players for OSU in this one. The first is cornerback Doran Grant, a senior captain who once considered Michigan State because his father was a receiver for the Spartans. Grant is OSU's best cornerback and has had a very solid senior season, and the Buckeyes will likely try to line him up against Tony Lippett. If Grant has a good day and keeps Lippett in check, that's a good sign for Ohio State. Otherwise, all three linebackers are obviously keys to the game, but one to watch is Darron Lee. The redshirt freshman is OSU's best playmaker and seems to be involved in sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers. He's a big third-down blitzer and someone who can change things very quickly.
Wilson: When you look at the Ohio State defense, what are the biggest differences from last year and how much of that can be credited to the work of Chris Ash?
Svoboda:The biggest difference is the unit actually looks like a unit this year. The Buckeyes were essentially a train wreck last year when it came to communication and being on the same page in the back seven, and the team has talked about how there's an identity it can hold on to this year plus much better lines of communication. That has allowed the group to generally function as one, and there are fewer obvious breakdowns in coverage. Ash also brought with him an aggressive quarters look that is very similar to Michigan State's defensive style, and the defensive backs and linebackers have gotten better at it each week. OSU is also using creative blitz schemes on third downs to keep teams confused. But the biggest difference, as I said, is simply identity -- the only way you can have a good defense at the college level is to have a scheme you believe in and feel confident in, and the Buckeyes now have it.
Wilson: One of the biggest issues for Michigan State's defense last year was Carlos Hyde. How good have the new running backs been and how is Ohio State using those guys?
Svoboda: Ohio State doesn't have a horse on the level of Hyde, who was simply a beast from beginning to end a season ago. This year, the main man is Ezekiel Elliott, who is a very good all-around back who does everything well. He hasn't been a game-breaker this year (he doesn't have a 30-yard run yet) but is consistent on a play-by-play basis. I'd say Elliott is the feature back with true freshman speedster Curtis Samuel sort of the change of pace. Samuel got the start last week vs. Illinois after a good week of practice and showed what he's shown all year, which is excellent speed, great burst and a surprising amount of toughness despite his smaller size. They have confidence in him in just about every situation. Add in Barrett, who is a good athlete, and the running attack has been above-average but just not the juggernaut it was a season ago.
Wilson: In this matchup, what do you think is the most important matchup within the game and how do you see it unfolding?
Svoboda:That's a good question, Mike. I'm glad I'm not on the radio or I'd hem and haw over this one. I have decided to go with a general one and say Ohio State's passing game vs. Michigan State's secondary. In Ohio State's close games of late -- at Michigan, MSU and Clemson last year, then Virginia Tech and Penn State this year -- the Buckeyes either really struggled to get the aerial attack going or tossed multiple interceptions. If Ohio State finds it can throw the ball -- not necessarily down the field but consistently enough that Barrett gets into a rhythm -- then the Buckeyes will more than likely win this game. If they can't, then it'll be a grind-it-out affair and I think that tends to favor MSU.