Michigan State has been pretty good at wrecking Ohio State's plans through the years.
In Duffy Daugherty's final season as the Spartans' coach, a 3-4-1 MSU team took down 1972's undefeated Ohio State, 19-12, in East Lansing. Two years later, Dennis Stolz's 4-3-1 team beat the undefeated, top-ranked Buckeyes, 16-13, with a finish former players still debate 40 years later. It was the Buckeyes' only regular season loss in each year.
In 1998, young Nick Saban took his 4-4 Michigan State squad to the Horseshoe to face John Cooper's dominant, top-ranked Buckeyes. The Spartans left town with a stunning, 28-24 win, one that kept Ohio State out of the BCS' first title game.
Last December, the two schools met in the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis. No. 10 Michigan State knocked out undefeated No. 2 Ohio State, 34-24, denying the Buckeyes another BCS title game bid.
Ohio State claims seven national titles. If not for Michigan State, the Buckeyes might claim 11. As deep as college football's history runs, certain conference rivalries create specific roles. Michigan State is Ohio State's spoiler. The Spartans are pretty good at that role.
In 2014, however, the Spartans are the favorite, the defending champion, the burly bully. Ohio State is the underdog, the upstart, the young team building past a rough start.
The Buckeyes are still nursing their own semi-realistic national title dreams, but Michigan State stands at No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, six spots ahead. The team with the Big Ten's best national title chances lives in East Lansing. The underdog is this time on the visitor's sideline.
Let's take a look at the key matchups in this huge game of role reversals.
Ohio State vs. second- and third-and-long
Key stat No. 1: Ohio State's offense ranks fifth in Passing Downs S&P+; Michigan State's defense ranks first.
Key stat No. 2: Michigan State's defense ranks seventh in the country in Adj. Sack Rate; Ohio State's offense ranks 89th.
Converting on passing downs has the effect of playing a Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly. The national success rate on passing downs is only around 30 percent (standard downs: 47 percent), and even the teams that are particularly good at converting on second- or third-and-long are barely over 40 percent. Falling behind schedule is falling, especially if you're going against the Michigan State defense.
By playing to its own strengths and tendencies, however, Ohio State has been good at getting out of jail. Rushing the ball 46 percent of the time (11th most in the country), the Buckeyes have produced top-five results on such downs. They're good at stealing back yardage on second-and-long, and despite an abysmal performance against Virginia Tech, young quarterback J.T. Barrett is completing 65 percent of his passes at nearly 13 yards per completion on third-and-7 or more.
Like so many dual-threat quarterbacks, Barrett does take a lot of sacks. He isn't at the level of early-career Braxton Miller, but if you have his first read covered, you can get him flustered and get him down.
Ohio State has done a masterful job of crafting an offense in which Barrett can succeed, and Barrett himself has developed quickly since the Virginia Tech disaster. The Buckeyes have averaged at least 6.9 yards per play in five of the six games since the Hokies pulled the upset in Columbus, and Barrett's passer rating has been 148 or higher in those same five. This is obviously an encouraging sign.
It's scary, however, that Barrett has only played against one solid defense since Tech, and he didn't light the world afire: 12-for-19 for 74 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, three sacks, 2.5 yards per dropback. Granted, Barrett sprained his MCL against Penn State, but his struggles in Happy Valley, combined with the weakness of other opponents on the schedule, gives us a dichotomy:
- Barrett against top-10 defenses (according to Def. F/+): 21-for-48 (44%), 293 yards, 2 TD, 5 INT, 10 sacks, 3.8 yards per dropback
- Barrett against defenses ranked worse than 50th: 113-for-159 (71%), 1,563 yards, 21 TD, 2 INT, 7 sacks, 9.1 yards per dropback
He hasn't faced a defense ranked between 10th and 50th.
I don't need to tell you which of those categories Michigan State fits into, do I? The Spartans rank seventh in Def. F/+, with a healthy interception rate and a good pass rush. If Ohio State can't run its way out of trouble on second-and-long, the Buckeyes will face too many third-and-longs to win the game.
Key stat No. 3: Ohio State's offensive line ranks first in the country with a 53 percent Opportunity Rate, the percentage of rush attempts that gain at least five yards; Michigan State's defensive front also ranks first, at 27.4 percent.
Of course, Ohio State could just avoid and-longs altogether. The Buckeyes have been efficient on the ground, with top rushers Ezekiel Elliott and Curtis Samuel each producing an Opportunity Rate over 50 percent. Elliott hasn't been explosive, but his and Samuel's primary roles will be to keep Ohio State on schedule. They and the offensive line are really good at it, just as Michigan State is really good at preventing it.
Barrett can succeed if he's not put into too many awkward down-and-distance scenarios.
Ohio State's defense vs. backs to the wall
Key stat No. 4: Ohio State is allowing 4.7 points per scoring opportunity (first down inside the 40), 95th in the country. Michigan State's offense is averaging 5.1 points per opportunity, 13th.
Any time the Michigan State defense is involved, "How does Team A move the ball on the Spartans?" becomes the de facto top factor. But when Michigan State has the ball, two underrated units that either have improved (the Spartans' O, 18th in Off. F/+) or are improving (the Buckeyes' D, 17th in Def. F/+) will try to steal the spotlight.
Despite a quarterback-unfriendly approach -- nearly all runs on standard downs, all passes on passing down -- the Michigan State offense has taken a lovely step forward. Or rather, it has sustained the step forward it took late last year.
Quarterback Connor Cook finished 2013 by producing a passer rating of at least 140.0 in three of his last four games after doing so just three times in his first 10. Against Ohio State and Stanford in the postseason, he completed 61 percent of his passes, at almost 14 yards per completion, with five touchdowns to two interceptions.
This year, he's produced those stats (with more explosiveness) against everyone: 61 percent, 15.6 yards per completion, 17 TDs, five picks. And again, he's doing most of that on passing downs after sticking the ball in the respective guts of Jeremy Langford, Nick Hill, and Delton Williams.
Ohio State's defense, while still a work in progress, is progressing. The Buckeyes couldn't stop the run very well last year and couldn't stop Langford in the conference title game (24 carries, 128 yards), and they're only 57th in Rushing S&P+ after ranking 58th in 2013. But in the past two games, opposing running backs (yes, for Penn State and Illinois, but still) have gained just 102 yards in 38 carries (2.7). Holding Langford to under five yards per carry, then sending Joey Bosa and a pretty good passing-downs pass rush (12th in the country) at Cook might reap rewards in terms of both turnovers and field position. (We'll come back to that in a moment.)
The biggest thing for Ohio State's defense could be forcing Michael Geiger onto the field on fourth down. Michigan State's place-kicker has attempted only 12 field goals to 48 PATs this year, because once the Spartans are in position to score, they stick the ball in the end zone. Preventing touchdowns hasn't been Ohio State's strong suit -- they don't give you a ton of scoring opportunities, but they give you seven points when you get the chance -- and if that doesn't change, the Buckeyes' win probability stays pretty low.
Key stat No. 5: Ohio State ranks first in the country in field position margin. On average, the Buckeyes start 14.2 yards further up the field than their opponents (38.2 on offense, 24.0 on defense). Michigan State ranks 13th (35.0 on offense, 28.9 on defense).
Michigan State was one of the best field position teams in the country last year and isn't far off that standard this time around. But Ohio State is No. 1 in this realm in 2014. With tremendous special teams, offensive efficiency, and big-play potential on defense, the Buckeyes tilt the field until you fall over.
If you want to figure out why Whichever State won this game on Saturday night, looking at average starting field position and points per scoring opportunity should tell quite a bit of the story.