Ten Pressing Questions: Michigan State at OSU

We take a look at some of the key factors that could help decide Saturday's Big Ten game between No. 15 Ohio State and No. 16 Michigan State (noon, ABC). Obviously, the Buckeyes need to contain MSU's high octane offense. One way to do that would be to establish the run with Antonio Pittman on offense and try and keep the ball away from the Spartans. Click here for more.

As we all count down the hours until kickoff for Saturday's game between No. 15 Ohio State and No. 16 Michigan State (noon, ABC), I came up with my usual game day theme, Ten Pressing Questions, to think about what we may look for during today's big game.

As always, I'll come back on Sunday with my thoughts on how each of these questions were answered during my Sunday Morning Quarterback column.

Without any further adieu, here we go:

1. Which Troy Smith will show up to play? -- This is a biggie. Smith has been up and down more than the stock market this year. He seemed OK, by and large, against Texas. Not so good in the lackluster win over San Diego State. As right as rain in the win over Iowa. And, finally, just had a rough go at Penn State.

The good thing is the MSU defense is nowhere near as good as Penn State's, at least in my opinion. The Spartans gave up over 480 yards to both Notre Dame and Michigan, so there will be opportunities for Smith to exploit MSU both through the air and on the ground. He needs to take care of the football and make the plays that are there. If he makes good decisions, there is no reason why OSU can't follow the path shown by ND and Michigan to a big offensive showing.

2. Can the OSU ground game eat up yards and control the clock? -- MSU is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing defense at 119.8 yards allowed per game. Those numbers are obviously skewed as Kent, Hawaii and Illinois didn't try or could not muster a ground game against MSU. Notre Dame, with 487 yards passing vs. MSU, didn't see the need to run and finished with 107 on the ground.

Only Michigan, with 232 yards rushing vs. MSU, made a concerted effort to run the football against the Spartans. I am not sold on MSU's front four, although LB David Herron Jr. and SS Eric Smith look like they play the run pretty well.

Ohio State needs to get back to the ground game and using the tailback with Antonio Pittman. I wonder if the Buckeyes may go back to their roots as an I-formation team, a la the Iowa game. If Pittman can approach or exceed 100 yards and Smith can contribute, say, 10 carries for 50-75 yards, the Buckeyes would be in great shape to control the clock and keep the ball away from the Spartans offense.

3. Is this the game where Ted Ginn Jr. gets it going? -- Ginn had three touchdowns against MSU in the 32-19 win at East Lansing a year ago. In five games this year, he only has the 42-yard touchdown from Todd Boeckman in the opener.

As we've noted, yardage and potential scoring plays should be there against the MSU secondary. I think most OSU fans are looking to see if Ginn plays with some spark and enthusiasm. He has seemed worn down by the lack of activity and/or results in recent weeks.

4. How will the offensive line hold up? -- It sounds like RT Kirk Barton is out with a knee injury, so it looks like freshman Alex Boone will make his first career start against Michigan State. Boone, I felt, finished the PSU game on a strong note last week. I did not notice any glaring breakdowns – other than the final play, when Tamba Hali beat tight end Ryan Hamby, and nobody has really clarified whether Boone was supposed to help with Hali on that play.

Rob Sims will be back home at left guard. OSU assistant Darrell Hazell talked about simplifying the offensive package so the Buckeyes could play hard and fast. That is a game I think this line can handle against MSU's so-so front four. We'll see how they do on game day. I would imagine that the Spartans, with little to lose, will bring some pressure, though, from the second and third levels.

5. Who's better, the MSU offense or the OSU defense? -- This is a match-up worth the $60 face value of the ticket. We will have the nation's No. 2 offense against the nation's No. 4 defense. Something has to give. The defense is coming off a borderline great performance against Penn State, on the heels of smothering efforts against San Diego State and Iowa.

Recognition will be the key. MSU comes at opposing defenses from so many different angles. The Spartans have three tailbacks who can run at you and four or five solid receiving threats who are all capable of scoring on you.

Communication will be at a premium for the Buckeyes to call out what MSU is in and then executing the defense to stop it.

6. Can OSU contain MSU quarterback Drew Stanton? -- Stanton is a bigger version of Drew Tate with probably a stronger arm. OSU came up with a way to defend Tate a few weeks ago, but now comes Stanton. He has incredible footwork. Defensive linemen must be under control when they approach him or he will simply sidestep them and go on with the play.

He has thrown 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He'd be getting some Heisman Trophy mention now if it wasn't for the loss to Michigan. OSU failed to sack PSU's Michael Robinson a week ago and nobody – other than end Mike Kudla – has a sack on the defensive line all season for OSU. The Buckeyes need to get after Stanton and make him throw the ball. If he is able to move around and buy time for his receivers – most notably Kyle Brown and Jerramy Scott – to come open, it could be a long day for the Buckeyes.

7. Can OSU force any MSU turnovers? -- OSU is minus-0.4 turnovers per game on the turnover margin. The Buckeyes failed to force any turnovers last Saturday at Penn State, and that was one of the key factors in that game. The one way to derail a high powered offense like Michigan State's would be to force a turnover. Through five games, the Spartans have thrown four interceptions and lost five fumbles.

Plus, the OSU offense seems to thrive (or would that be depend?) on short-field situations. Getting some turnovers in MSU territory would be sure recipe to victory, one would think.

8. Will the OSU special teams contribute any game changing plays? -- OSU is fourth in the Big Ten in kick returns and sixth in punt returns. It seems only a matter of time until the Buckeyes can break through with a return for a touchdown. It seems like forever since the Buckeyes have blocked a punt or made a similar game changing play on special teams.

If there was a week to score or turn field position in your favor with a big special teams play, this would be that week.

9. How will the Buckeyes bounce back from last week's tough loss? -- This one actually cuts both ways. If Michigan State is not motivated to win this game, then John L. Smith will never get the Spartans up to play a game. MSU had a great chance to beat rival Michigan two weeks ago, but couldn't get it done. Plus, the Spartans grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory last year against Ohio State.

But Ohio State is coming home after that excruciating loss at Penn State. The Buckeyes will be playing in front of more than 100,000 of their closest friends and will be relying on the crowd to help lift them to a much-needed home win over another quality opponent. OSU is 9-2 after a regular season loss under Jim Tressel, including 4-1 in such games at home.

10. Is Ohio State truly a Big Ten championship caliber team? -- We left the answer to this one incomplete after last week's game against Penn State. Yes, the Buckeyes are a game behind Penn State in the loss column. But few believe PSU will run the table, so all of the one-loss teams (that includes Wisconsin, OSU, Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa) have to think they still have a legitimate shot at the Big Ten title. Heck, maybe a Michigan – with two Big Ten losses already – still has a shot if it can beat Penn State on Saturday.

But make no mistake, Ohio State needs to win this game to improve its chances of ending up on top in the Big Ten. The Big Ten champion (or, more appropriately, the Big Ten designee, in case of a tie) will still get a berth to a BCS game at the end of the year. That is quite a perk for somebody.

OSU is still in position to salvage a pretty good season. But the Buckeyes have to win their remaining home games and hope they can find a winning formula on the road. Things calm down a bit after this with road games at Indiana and Minnesota (could be dicey) and home games with Northwestern and Illinois leading up to the Nov. 19 season finale at Michigan.

We'll know more about where things stand after this one is in the books.

Hey, enjoy the game and we'll see you on the other side.

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