The Essentials: Michigan State

Players to watch, themes to know - its the essential guide to Michigan State, the most important notes about the Spartans before Ohio State hosts an important member of the Jim Tressel coaching tree Saturday in the Horseshoe.

Michigan State (5-2, 1-2 Big Ten)
Game 8
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Ohio Stadium

John L. Smith might have left Michigan State as a bit of a Big Ten punchline, but he certainly did not leave the cupboard bare for Mark Dantonio when the former Ohio State assistant took over prior to this season.

Nowhere is that more true than at running back, where the Spartans boast the best one-two combo in the Big Ten in Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer.

The two have combined for just shy of 205 yards per game this season, led by Ringer, whose 133.1 yards per game is good for seventh in the country. Overall, MSU's average of 242.7 yards per game is good for ninth in the country and second in the Big Ten, slightly behind Indiana.

Those numbers increase in Big Ten play. Ringer has averaged 10.5 yards per carry and 177.7 yards per game during three Big Ten games. Caulcrick, a 255-pound bruiser, has added seven touchdowns in those three conference games.

"Both backs, Jehuu and Ringer, are very powerful running backs," OSU safeties coach Paul Haynes said. "It's going to be a good test for us as far as a toughness game. This is going to be a toughness game."

It is obvious that Caulcrick, who has 20 pounds even on Buckeye tailback Chris Wells, brings a powerful style to the game, but Ringer does so as well. Ringer is listed at just 5-9, 200, but he has a very powerful lower body that allows him to break tackles when necessary.

"The thing about them is you have a two-headed monster because they are two different styles of backs," Haynes said. "Both of them are power running backs, but Jehuu is 260. Jehuu isn't gonna run around you like Ringer can. The thing about Ringer is he can run around you or run you over. Jehuu you know more than likely is going to run you over."

On the season, Caulcrick has 499 yards and 13 touchdowns, which leads the Big Ten. The Spartans will need the duo to shine considering that with Ringer out because of a knee injury, MSU could muster just 63 yards rushing a year ago against Ohio State.

"These guys are good at running the football, and if we think for one second that we can just sort of mosey around, they're going to be running up and down the field on us," OSU defensive tackle Dexter Larimore said.

Paving the way for the Spartans is an experienced offensive line that is expected to start three seniors and two juniors.

"I think it's the biggest challenge," Larimore said. "I think they have a great offensive line. That's what jumped out at me watching the film is they have some big guys up there that are going to get after you."

More Offensive Talent: Michigan State's running game, which has piled up nearly 300 yards per game during Big Ten play, gets most of the publicity, but the passing game is not incompetent. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and wide receiver Devin Thomas have combined to form one of the most prodigious duos in the conference.

Thomas' 98.6 receiving yards per game are tops in the Big Ten. The 6-2 speedster has the ability to go deep as well as catch balls in traffic because of his height. Just for his skill set, Haynes compared Thomas to Dorien Bryant of Purdue, one of the conference's top wideouts who the Buckeyes shut down two weeks ago.

"I would say the kid from Purdue, talentwise," Haynes said when asked if Thomas compared to anyone else OSU had seen of late. "As far as talent, he's just as good as that kid. He's very, very good. He's got the speed that can go."

Tossing the ball to Thomas is Hoyer, who attended perennial Ohio prep power Cleveland St. Ignatius and has done well to fill the shoes of Drew Stanton during his junior year, his first year starting. Hoyer has completed 115 of 188 passes (61.2 percent) for 1,476 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.

"I think I'm where I need to be," Hoyer said. "There's definitely been improvement. Every game you learn something different."

"They don't ask him to do things that he isn't good at," Haynes said. "They don't ask him around to scramble around and do things because that's not him. They ask him to sit back in the pocket and get the ball to his playmakers, and that's what he does well."

The Dantonio Factor: Michigan State's statistics do not make it seem like a team that needs to be feared for what it can do defensively. The Spartans' pass defense sits in the bottom half of the country, as does the scoring defense.

In alternating weeks, the pass defense and rush defense have been gashed. Both Pittsburgh (Sept. 15) and Wisconsin (Sept. 29) topped the 200-yard mark rushing against MSU, while Bowling Green (Sept. 8) threw for 295 yards, Wisconsin gashed the Spartans for 247 on Sept. 29 and the coup de grace came Oct. 6 when Northwestern's C.J. Bachér threw for 520 yards during an overtime win.

However, the Michigan State defense should not be slept on, if only because of Dantonio. The coach was the architect of Ohio State's dominating defenses of 2002 and '03 that led OSU to back-to-back BCS bowls, and the Buckeyes surveyed this week were concerned about his ability to put pressure on the quarterback.

"They're going to bring a lot of different folks at us," quarterback Todd Boeckman said. "Coach Dantonio knows quite a bit about us, as does their coaching staff."

"It's a big challenge," right guard Ben Person said. "They blitz a lot. Coach Dantonio is an aggressive defensive coach and they bring it."

Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said that he might have been worried about Dantonio's familiarity with the Buckeye staff had this matchup occurred closer to when he left the program after the '03 season. When asked if Dantonio could draw up anything that would surprise Bollman, the offensive coach didn't hesitate to answer.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," Bollman said before cracking a smile. "Vice versa, too."

Up Front Proposition: If the Spartans' pass rushers continue playing as they have up to this point, they very well could get to Boeckman a few times. The Spartans have 29 sacks in seven games, and much of that has come from a disruptive defensive line.

The leader is senior Jonal Saint-Dic, who is known as "The Sackmaster." Saint-Dic is tied for fifth in the nation with eight sacks and first with seven forced fumbles. He has 30 overall stops.

"The thing about Saint-Dic," Dantonio said, "is that his motor is running throughout the entire game. Somehow he finds a way. He plays with power. And it's not just on the sacks, it's the run game as well."

On the other side is Ervin Baldwin, who has 4.5 sacks and 10.5 total stops for loss. Other defensive linemen to get in on the sack parade are tight end Kellen Davis (2.0 sacks), who pitches in on pass-rush downs, tackle Justin Kershaw (1.5), tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo (1.0), end Brandon Long (1.0) and freshmen tackle Antonio Jeremiah (1.0).

"These guys have been really effective," Bollman said. "They play really low. They play very hard. They've caused a lot of havoc."

And About That Northwestern Game: Bollman made sure to point out that expecting the Buckeyes to be able to move the ball on MSU like Northwestern did to the tune of 520 passing yards might be folly. Bollman described the game as a bit of a fluke, especially on third downs, where Northwestern was 13 of 19 on the day. The Wildcats totaled 280 yards on 19 third-down plays and scored four touchdowns, including a 78- and a 70-yarder, on third down.

"If you watch the Northwestern game, they did a great job of stopping them on first and second down and all of a sudden Northwestern hit some big third downs," Bollman said. "I don't know if that would ever happen again, the third downs that they had. How or why, you don't really know."

The Spartans learned their lesson quickly: Indiana was just 1 of 8 on third down a week ago.

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