I’ve been a bit of a Connor Cook skeptic since his rise to the starter in East Lansing, but he’s having his best season. His confidence is without a doubt his greatest asset. He has a good arm that he trusts to do things that sometimes look impossible. While that can bite him at times, he seems to thrive more than thirst from forcing the issue time and time again.
He’s also got a really good and deep receiving corps to thank. Aaron Burbridge has stepped up into the role of No. 1 receiver, but he’s gotten a lot of help as the season has worn on. At 6-1, 208 pounds, Burbridge is a physical player who can win jump balls and get open anywhere on the field. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and R.J. Shelton are both listed at below six-foot, but they play bigger than that and can also go get the ball when Cook gives them a chance. Kings and Shelton are more dangerous after the catch as they are pretty shifty.
Tight end Josiah Price, who has battled injury in the second half of the season, is a good weapon in the passing game while Jamal Lyles has been less effective in his place but doesn’t seem to be a liability.
Michigan State has a deep stable of tailbacks, and the Spartans have needed almost all of them at some point because of injuries or, in the case of talented freshman L.J. Scott, fumbles. Scott looks like the best of the bunch physically. He’s the biggest and doesn’t give up any speed, but they are all physical backs with strong running ability. They are good within the power scheme and will get yards after contact.
Those running backs haven’t had as much opportunity to shine as expected because the offensive line has been gutted by injuries. The Spartans are closer to healthy than they have been in a while as they head to Columbus, but it looks to me like they have still suffered from a lack of reps together as a unit as the group isn’t as good at opening holes as it was last season or early this year before the injuries hit. Both starting tackles and center Jack Allen have been out of the lineup at times because of injuries.
I don’t think the pass protection is as good as the statistics indicate as Cook gets the ball out fast and several teams have been able to get consistent pressure if not sacks, including Maryland last week.
With a strong fullback who is also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield in Trevon Pendleton, the pieces are still there for MSU to have a strong running game, but it hasn’t come together yet.
For what it’s worth, the coaching staff hasn’t done the running game many favors by insisting on running into stacked fronts quite a bit. Ohio State fans might recognize a lot of Michigan State’s second halves from the time when current MSU assistant Jim Bollman was in Columbus as a lot of time was just spent in survival mode once the game appeared won barring any major blunders, although the running game is significantly more sophisticated under OC Dave Warner than Bollman’s was in Columbus.
Michigan State has two stars and two solid players up front with a solid group of linebackers playing behind it.
Shilique Calhoun is a dangerous speed rusher for the Spartans at one end, but they have not had the same presence on the other side this season.
Malik McDowell is an upgrade inside, a huge talent who may just be scratching the surface. If you watch them for very long, you’re pretty likely to see McDowell throw someone around like a high schooler. Nose tackle Joel Heath does a lot of dirty work for them. He was hurt last week but is expected back.
Riley Bullough and Jon Reshke are solid players in the box at linebacker who are good at blitzing and shooting gaps against the run. They will do that quite a bit in early downs then move to a nickel package with three down linemen on obvious passing situations. Darien Harris at the walkout linebacker has had some teams target him in the passing game with some success. He can make plays, but he looks more like an inside guy to me than a space player like Darron Lee.
The secondary has basically been a disaster for most of the season.
It already looked like it would take a step back after losing its two best players to the NFL, and that was happened. Then one of the returning starters and a redshirt freshmen were lost to long-term injuries, and they have been scrambling ever since.
Demetrious Cox is a definite talent but seems more like a good coverage safety than a corner, where they have played him at times depending on who was healthy.
The others they have tried there have not given them consistent success, and Montae Nicholson has been in and out of the lineup while struggling with eye control and tackling, too. They have tried a couple of true freshmen back there at times but not gotten much in terms of positive results, and MSU has three veteran options at cornerback who are all yet to show they can hold up against good competition.
The onus is on the Ohio State defense to be at the top of its game because Michigan State’s best path to victory is almost certainly a high-scoring game.
Connor Cook says he is healthy, and for the sake of MSU that better be true because things could get ugly if he doesn’t have his 'A' game.
I don’t doubt he will go out there and try to gut it out if the coaches will let him, but part of me can’t help but remember when Chad Henne tried to do the same thing a few years back for Michigan and it pretty much torpedoed any chance his team had to win because he just could not deliver accurate throws with an injured shoulder.
Cook was still making pretty accurate throws even after the first time he went out last week, but who knows if more damage was done the last time he got hit or how it will feel after the adrenaline wears off.
Damion Terry is the wildcat quarterback and offers a more athletic option, although the quarterback run game with Cook is still fairly significant at least as a counter to teams overplaying against their base things.
Tyler O’Connor got some run with Cook benched and showed off a live arm. He threw a rope on a slant for a touchdown but also overthrew a deep post in the second half that was intercepted.
I believe Michigan State will get its running game in gear at some point, but this might not be the week given how Ohio State’s front has been playing since getting gashed by Penn State.
MSU receivers vs. Ohio State’s DBs is probably a push, but Cook can throw guys open when healthy.
If Ohio State can execute deep throws, this might not be much of a contest. The Buckeyes showed last year they can run the ball if they are patient, taking advantage of the MSU scheme that sort of involves extra men in the box but also sort of doesn’t.
MSU has also been pretty poor on special teams this season, so Ohio State should have an advantage there.