Scouting Report and Prediction: #9 Michigan State (11-1 8-0) vs. #2 Ohio State (12-0 8-0)
A look at this week’s opponent…
The Ohio State Buckeyes come into the B1G Championship game riding a 24 game winning streak. Coached by one of the nation’s best X’s and O’s offensive minds in Urban Meyer, this is a classic heavyweight tilt.
Both teams have clearly defined strengths and both teams have clearly defined weaknesses. You don’t make this game with more questions than answers, and despite the game planning and the scheming both teams are what they are.
OSU wants respect. They are playing for a chance to be national champions. MSU wants a Rose Bowl shot and a B1G championship trophy. OSU has a chance at a golden ticket to play for a national title. They see the B1G Championship as a ways to a means, MSU sees it as Valhalla.
When MSU has the ball…
This game rests on Connor Cook and Dave Warner. I understand that when Connor is on the field, he has 10 other teammates with him, but let me explain. Last week Dave Warner stepped to the podium after the Spartans’ lackluster but winning performance against Minnesota and said, “This was not a championship offense.” He was correct.
OSU does not have even close to the MSU defense, and on this day the Spartans can’t waste possessions or be lackluster. It is on this stage that Connor Cook can cement, even as a first year starter, his legacy. A strong performance can lead this team to Pasadena.
Let’s break it down.
In their eight B1G games this season the Buckeyes have given up 284 yards per game. That is astounding. OSU will sell out, just like MSU will, to stop the run. They are going to force Connor Cook to win this game. This is Mark Dantonio’s best OL since arriving in East Lansing, but OSU is littered with great players and athletes and I don’t see them lining up and manhandling OSU.
Every game that the Buckeyes have struggled with this season has happened with a mobile QB. I am not implying that Connor Cook has to be Braxton Miller. What I am saying is that he can’t be a statue. Part of the reason he won the Spartans starting job was that the coaches felt he could bring something to the team running. He has not done that.
OSU is going to come at him the entire game. He can’t waste possessions throwing the ball away. He has to step up in the pocket, and even run for three yards to keep them from teeing him up. The stats don’t lie. OSU can be beat, but Cook will have to play the way coaches envisioned him and not the way he is comfortable.
The OSU linebackers are vulnerable in coverage. Please Dave Warner, put away the wildcat and use your tight ends. This is where Warner has to help his young QB. Cook can’t be so afraid of a sack that he gets rid of the ball early and misses chances.
Everyone is praising the MSU OL because of how few sacks they have allowed, but part of that is Cook ends plays early to avoid pressure. That isn’t a slam; it is a fact. While most young QBs hold the hall too long, he is the opposite. In this game, with that many athletes on the other side of the ball, he is going to have to trust plays to come open.
Cook is tough. He isn’t afraid to get hit. I think, just like Andrew Maxwell, he has had it engrained by his offensive leadership to play too safe. In big games like this both teams will make plays. Which one will make the most?
Cook has a great skill set of tools. Up to this point (look at last week), he hasn’t had to use them all and frankly hasn’t been asked. This week MSU doesn’t need Bob the Builder, they need Bob Vila and Cook can do it.
Cook made a great quote this week. His coaches were frustrated with him for reasons I have already documented before and they pulled him against Notre Dame. He talked about his development since then. “Ever since then I feel like I’ve done a much better job of being a leader, commanding the offense, and just making better decisions and stuff like that, and now we’re here.”
Dantonio has faith in his young signal caller. He knows he can do more and frankly he expects it. “I know he’s excited about this opportunity being from Ohio. I also think he’s a resilient young man. I mean, he can get knocked down and get back up, and that’s as important as anything in a football game. He has that presence about him, that ability to take a hit, to take something bad happening out there and be able to respond, and I think that’s huge, especially in a championship venue, because there’s going to be some bad plays.”
So for MSU it is important to understand that the reason people are talking about the Buckeye offense is because their defense is questionable. If you aren’t stubborn and try to play into their strengths they are beatable.
When the Buckeyes faced off with MSU at the High Cathedral of the Spartan Nation Spartan Stadium, last year they loaded the box and overwhelmed the MSU OL. This is a better OL, but MSU will not make a living this year on the ground either. Their game plan (and it should) will remain the same. MSU must use the pass to open the run and they must utilize the short passing game with TE and WR play maximized.
I thought Andrew Maxwell played one of his best games last year against the Buckeyes, but his receivers let him down with countless drops. Cook can deliver, they must make the catch.
With all the talk about the MSU defense, OT Fou Fonoti has had enough with his offense being spoken of as the weak point. “We definitely have to pull our own weight, and it’s tough to always hear people get hesitant when they talk about our offense.”
He is right, they do. For MSU to win this game they need their offense to be an equal partner. OSU will score, not prolifically, but they will. This is the day they earn the scholarship and the defense needs to ride their coattails a little bit.
Cook doesn’t have to run for 100 yards, but 20 would help. Who cares if he gets sacked twice or even three times, but steps up and makes five or six big plays. This is a big boys stage and I am fully confident they will show up.
When MSU is on defense…
The Spartans defense is the nation’s best. Period. They are also facing the best offense in the Big Ten and one of the top three in the nation. This is strength on strength. Good on good. I do not expect MSU to manhandle them like they have others, but OSU won’t run roughshod over them either. This is going to be a war every play.
OSU head coach Urban Meyer downplayed the significance of last year’s battle with MSU saying this week, “We’re a much better offense than we were a year ago, but that was a street fight last year and certainly between the tackles, we have to be ready for that.” I found that interesting.
OSU OC Tom Herman praised the Spartans defense when he said, “They have 11 guys that know exactly what they are doing and they do it really well and they tackle well and they are always in the right spot. Like you said, they are about as sound a defense as you’ll see.”
OSU is going to try to run the ball. They will get some yards, but here is the biggest concern. When Nebraska spread out MSU and ran with the Big Ten’s best RB in Ameer Abdullah they hammered MSU. For some reason the genius coaching staff that Nebraska employs right now went away from it. The MSU players admitted after the game they were shocked they went away from what was working.
That won’t be the case this week. OSU will hammer the Spartans. If MSU stops it, they will keep coming. The spread offense is believed to be a passing attack. That is not accurate with the Buckeyes. They will throw it, but they are primarily a team that runs the ball. If MSU stops it, they will stubbornly keep coming at them.
The MSU philosophy of man coverage and stacking the box are ideal for this game.
The Spartans star LB Denicos Allen said, “They have a lot of threats on their offense, so we can’t just worry about the running game. I think that’s what makes them so good. What makes us so good is that we’re able to stop the running game while stopping the passes because we have dominant corners like Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes and they can play man all game, and we can just let it loose, the front seven, and that’s what makes us so dominant. That’s why I think this match‑up is perfect.”
I wrote this in the latest edition of Spartan Nation magazine that came out this week. Speaking earlier this week, did Urban Meyer tip his hand at how the Buckeyes will attack MSU? Read what he said, “We have a lot of respect for our rival’s run defense. If there is some vulnerability shown on defense it was actually on pass defense.” Meyer does nothing by accident, but did he give a tell as to how Ohio State will come after MSU? I found that fascinating.
When MSU is on defense we know that the Buckeyes will score. We also know that the MSU D will not allow them to score like they have all year. The question is simple. Can they hold the Buckeyes enough so the MSU offense can score more? That is why I say the real battle on this day is the MSU offense’s to win.
So how does this break down. There is one major thing that I think is being underplayed. MSU has been here. All week we have heard from players and coaches how they learned from 2011. When reflecting on last year’s contest with OSU everyone is talking about how improved OSU is while ignoring that so are the Spartans.
While some try to downgrade the Spartans, the facts are simple. Win or lose they are probably in the Rose Bowl. They have been in this game. The Buckeyes have heard for two years how they are so good and have spent so much time worrying about the BCS that the Spartans have a definite advantage.
Whether or not the Buckeyes are “entitled” is the issue. Urban has coached big games, but they haven’t played in one like this or with this much at stake. The pressure is ALL on the Buckeyes.
The Spartans know what to expect. They comprehend the pressure this game brings and I fully anticipate that benefiting them. No one is expecting MSU to win. If you listen to the national media and almost anyone not familiar with MSU we are not watching a championship game we are witnesses to a coronation. Give me a break.
OSU will score, but the Spartans D will bring physicality to the game that they have not experienced. Here is a simple stat that sums up this game. In the first quarter this year, the Spartans are allowing 2.99 yards per rushing attempt. In the fourth quarter, they are allowing 1.25 yards per attempt.
That tells us that the MSU D gets stronger as they wear down their opponents. If the Spartans can take the Buckeyes best shot in the first quarter, they will be fine.
In the end Connor Cook not only starts well, but sustains it and the MSU D gives up 14 first quarter points, but holds steady thereafter.
Make it 24-21 MSU wins!