Playing the role of handicapper and psychologist can be very hard. That rings especially true when it comes to college athletics because getting inside the minds of young adults can be quite a challenge. The Ohio State Buckeyes host the Michigan State Spartans one week after their College Football Playoff hopes and dreams came crashing down in something more than flames. Despite the epic beatdown in Iowa, the Buckeyes still opened a 17-point favorite against Sparty. The betting market did not agree and the number now sits at 14.5 at BetLuckys Sportsbook and mostly across the board.
Michigan State wasn’t expected to do much after one of the worst years of the Mark Dantonio era, but when you want to count the Spartans out, you should probably think twice. A coin flip triple-overtime loss to Northwestern and a loss to a top-five team in Notre Dame are the only blemishes for the green and white this season. The Spartans are 7-2 straight up and 6-3 ATS. Ohio State is now 7-2 straight up and 4-5 ATS on the season. Ohio State won and covered four Big Ten games to start the year, but has dropped two straight ATS against the conference.
There is a lot of credit to spread around for the complete 180 that the Michigan State Spartans have done. Last year’s team won three games. It ended a three-year run with 36 victories. This season, Michigan State has a legitimate shot at double digits once again with Maryland and Rutgers left in Big Ten play, a possible matchup with Wisconsin for the B1G title, and then a bowl opponent. Brian Lewerke has cemented himself as a long-term starter for this program and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Last year’s team was reeling from the loss of Connor Cook. Lewerke, then a true freshman, only threw 57 passes as Tyler O’Connor got the bulk of the work. Lewerke has emerged as something of a dual-threat option with a 61 percent completion rate and a 16/5 TD/INT ratio. He also has 4.5 yards per carry on 82 rushing attempts. Even though the yards per play have dropped from last year, Michigan State has been a much more efficient passing offense, which has paid dividends.
On the other hand, we can make a pretty strong case that Michigan State, despite playing one of the tougher schedules in the country, is playing over its head. The Spartans are only +0.1 yards per play in six Big Ten games and have a 5-1 record in those matchups. Michigan State is +2.9 points per game in conference. They have been on the right side of variance in most games. But, even if we want to nitpick about that, the fact that this defense has taken a massive step forward cannot be ignored. Michigan State allowed 27.8 points per game last season. Since Pat Narduzzi left, the Spartans had allowed 5.5 yards per play in each of those two seasons. This season, Sparty is only allowing 4.7 yards per play overall and just 4.9 yards per play in conference action. As far as potent offenses go, Notre Dame wasn’t the team that they are now when these two faced off on September 23 and Penn State was in a horrible spot last week after getting exposed. The Buckeyes are unquestionably the best offense that the Spartans have seen, so this defense will be tested.
JT Barrett picked a really bad time to have a bad game. After having a near-perfect fourth quarter in the win over Penn State, Barrett threw four interceptions and only completed 18 of his 34 passes in the blowout loss to Iowa. It wasn’t all on Barrett, as the Buckeyes defense allowed 6.4 yards per carry to the Hawkeyes rushing attack, but it did set a pretty negative tone for the game. The motivations have now changed for Ohio State. For a team that has appeared in the College Football Playoff in two of the last three years, that is no longer an option. How invested will Ohio State be to win the Big Ten and represent the conference in the Rose Bowl? This is where Barrett, a senior leader, has to rally the troops. Even though the Michigan State run defense has only allowed 2.9 yards per carry, it would be nice to see Ohio State re-establish the run. The Buckeyes were playing catch-up against Penn State and Iowa, so they haven’t run the ball as much with JK Dobbins or Mike Weber. Dobbins has 7.7 yards per carry and Weber is at 4.6 yards per carry while dealing with some leg problems. Ohio State needs to get back to a balanced attack on offense. We’ll see if offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson makes that switch.
The Ohio State defense has been a problem this season. The stats are pretty impressive with just 4.7 yards per play allowed, but this defense has had problems when it has faced better offenses. Oklahoma had a field day on the inexperienced secondary. Penn State had some success early in the game before the Buckeyes adjusted. Iowa carved up the Buckeyes back seven. To see the Ohio State defensive line get dominated by the big guys for Iowa was a surprise, since that is the best unit on the entire team. What will the effort level look like on this side of the ball after getting demoralized last week? That seems like a good question to ask and an even better one to try and answer before diving in with this game.
College Football Free Pick: Michigan State Spartans +14.5
My number on this game is 16.5, but it’s Michigan State or nothing. The Buckeyes should be invested in winning the conference and going to the Rose Bowl. Maybe the College Football Playoff has cheapened that game, but it is still a bowl rich in tradition and it would give Ohio State a chance against a weaker Pac-12 representative. But, Ohio State always had problems with Michigan State. Two years ago, the Buckeyes had five first downs at home against Sparty. These games tend to be very close. Also, the Buckeyes have had enormous problems on special teams and Mark Dantonio’s special teams units are usually quite good. Expect a wrinkle or two there and a game where, honestly, you may want to sprinkle the Sparty ML.