Technically, the Spartans are not dead yet.
Michigan State has a loss and its stock, which was never very high to begin with, took a hit with a 39-38 loss to Nebraska. But despair not, Sparty, for you still control your own destiny to win the Big Ten East. A 12-1 Michigan State team with wins over Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, and Oregon (a win which suddenly looks a lot more valuable now than it did in October) would have a strong case for the Playoff.
Sounds kind of similar to another team from a year ago, who suffered a loss and flew under the radar until a big November road game propelled them into the upper tier. That team, of course, was Ohio State, who won the whole dang thing and is sitting comfortably at no. 3 in the latest committee rankings.
It would take a heretofore-unhinted-at performance from Michigan State to do what Ohio State did last season. Sparty hasn’t been great, but then again, neither has Brutus. But these teams have something in common:
They just haven’t looked great
Ohio State’s offensive struggles are well-documented: after a summer-long quarterback battle, Braxton Miller switched to wide receiver and Cardale Jones was declared starter over J.T. Barrett, who finished 2014 as a Heisman finalist. The Buckeyes were essentially banking on gutting defensive fronts with Ezekiel Elliott and bombing away over the top with Jones and a talented slate of wide receivers. Who could blame them, it’s the same strategy the Buckeyes rode in the postseason last year and it worked pretty well.
But it never took off. Without big play specialist Devin Smith at wideout the big plays weren’t as reliable, and while Elliott continued trucking (142.5 yards per game, 16 TDs), Jones wasn’t accurate and frequently made poor decisions. Eventually the Buckeyes went to a Jones/Barrett rotation, and, ultimately, Barrett won his job back.
It’s been a similar slog for the Spartans: a run-first offense has struggled to run the ball, ranking just 96th in rushing success rate thus far. A bruising freshman, L.J. Scott (6’0, 233 lbs.) has been effective in goal line duty with nine touchdowns, but for the most part, the ground game has not been reliable.
Fortunately, Michigan State still has Connor Cook, one of the best pro-style passers in college football today. He has a pair of talented receivers in Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr., but their production has slipped from 6th in passing S&P+ in 2014 to 42nd in 2015. Then last week Cook injured his shoulder against Maryland.
It’s made for a bunch of sloppy games for both teams, in which neither team was ever truly in danger but also didn’t exactly turn in confidence-inspiring performances.
However, these two teams also have something else in common:
In big games, they show the heck up
Michigan State showed up against Michigan and were in position to make a game-winning play late. They overcame a 41-21 fourth quarter deficit in last January’s Cotton Bowl. Cook led the Spartans to wins #2 Ohio State and #5 Stanford in 2013.
Ohio State did that whole postseason thing. You guys caught that, right?
It’s a hallmark of great coaches: they get their teams ready to play in big games. Which means that while both teams have managed to just survive so far, Saturday’s game will probably be a good one.
Which team can run?
Michigan State’s rushing struggles were noted above. Ohio State knows they have a proven commodity in Elliott, and while Sparty has defended the run pretty well, the Buckeyes have finally figured out to double down on it: in its first five games Ohio State averaged 38 rush attempts per, and in the most recent five, that number has grown to 48.
Michigan State, meanwhile, has trended away from the run. If Cook’s injury continues to bother him and Sparty can’t rely on his arm, can L.J. Scott and Madre London carry the team to victory against a Buckeye defense that ranks 19th in success rate against the run? I’m skeptical.
All signs point Ohio State, buuuut . . .
On paper, Ohio State runs away. They throw more efficiently with Barrett, have a top ten defense, and an efficient running game that can take out of the game an East Lansing crowd that isn’t really that intimidating anyway.
But don’t overlook Sparty. Cook has turned in his best performances when the spotlight has shone the brightest and with a season on the line, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do so again, even with a nagging injury.