Following their 41-point dismantling of Nebraska last week in Lincoln, the Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0) return home for another primetime affair when they welcome the 25th-ranked Michigan State Spartans into Ohio Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Michigan State (4-1) is coming off a 40-31 win over Indiana last week to move to 2-0 within the conference; the Spartans also have a 31-10 win over Northwestern. Their lone stumble came in a week three loss at home to Arizona State.
Led by head coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have played spoiler to Ohio State’s undefeated dreams on more than one occasion in recent memory. Will this be the week the Buckeyes are finally faced with adversity? And if so, how will they respond?
Both are questions the collective college football world is itching to find out, and with the game slotted as the nightcap to Saturday’s slate, all eyes figure to be on The Horseshoe when the Buckeyes and Spartans meet.
If the Spartans are to pull off the upset in Columbus, here is a look at the cast that will likely be responsible.
After another brutal offensive showing in 2018, one in which the Spartans finished 125th in the country in scoring offense, Dantonio made changes to his offensive coaching staff.
Jim Bollman and Dave Warner were stripped of their co-coordinator titles in favor of Brian Salem, who previously served as the quarterback coach. Bollman and Warner were retained as position coaches.
The early results have been positive as the Spartans are averaging 413 yards and 31.4 points per game through five games.
Senior quarterback Brian Lewerke is off to the best start of his career, having thrown for 1,325 yards and 10 touchdowns thus far. More importantly, he has tossed just one interception this season, an issue that plagued him a season ago when he threw 11, including at least one in all but one game.
Lewerke’s play has been aided by the emergence of a go-to target at receiver in 6-foot-2 senior Darrell Stewart Jr.
Stewart has been solid throughout his career at Michigan State, recording 98 catches over the past two seasons for a total 914 yards, but he has already surpassed his career-best in yards and touchdowns with 556 yards and three scores through just five games.
In addition to Stewart, junior Cody White gives the Spartans a second play-making receiver with good size at 6-foot-3. White has 20 catches for 257 yards and two touchdowns on the season, matching his touchdown total from a season ago.
Tight end Matt Seybert is third on the team with 11 catches and is tied with Stewart for the team lead in touchdown receptions with three.
Of course, the identity of any Michigan State offense is going to be found in the running game. Despite the loss of four-year starter L.J. Scott following last season, the Spartans appear to have found a more-than-capable replacement in redshirt freshman Elijah Collins.
Collins didn’t come out of high school with much fanfare despite being ranked as the top running back in the state of Michigan. But like Dantonio and his staff do, they appear to have found a motivated football player and are getting the most out of him in the early going.
Collins has run for 413 yards on 78 carries this season — an average of 5.3 yards per carry — and has scored three times.
However, Collins was held to just 56 yards on 17 carries in last week’s win over Indiana, including just 3.3 yards per carry. The Ohio State defense has been outstanding against the run this season, and what kind of success Collins has on Saturday will likely go a long way in determining whether Michigan State can compete against the Buckeyes for four quarters.
Behind Collins, the running back depth took a hit this week when Connor Heyward announced he would enter the transfer portal. La’Darius Jefferson, who is a bigger back than Collins at 6-foot-1 and 229 pounds, will see the field as a changeup to Collins in short-yardage situations.
Depth along the offensive line continues to be an issue for Michigan State, and that spells trouble as Chase Young and a deep rotation of capable defensive linemen await the Spartans.
Starting left tackle Kevin Jarvis was injured during the Spartans’ loss to Arizona State earlier this year and is still weeks away from returning. Jarvis was already a fill-in at left tackle due to injuries to Cole Chewins and A.J. Arcuri, a Powell native, that has forced them to dive deep into the depth chart for answers.
Fifth-year senior Tyler Higby has taken over for Jarvis and he is not short on experience, having made starts at center, guard, and tackle in all 13 games last season.
Should Higby be forced out of the game, true freshman and highly-coveted recruit Devontae Dobbs is listed as the backup.
Center Matt Allen, guards Matt Carrick and Luke Campbell — an Olentangy graduate — and right tackle Jordan Reid have started all five games this season and will provide some continuity for a Spartan offensive line that has allowed just four sacks this season.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Michigan State is a good defensive football team.
Dantonio’s success during his time in East Lansing — and throughout his entire coaching career — has been predicated on great defenses who win up front and challenge every throw.
Nothing has changed this season for the Spartans as they rank seventh in total defense, yielding just 253.8 yards per game.
In particular, Michigan State is as stout as ever against the run, giving up an average of just 56 rushing yards per game thanks to a defensive front led by two stars in defensive end Kenny Willekes and middle linebacker Joe Bachie.
Willekes racked up All-American honors last season following a campaign in which he recorded 20.5 tackles for loss, the best in the Big Ten, and 8.5 sacks. He is well on his way to a similar performance this season as he has already notched four sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss .
His matchup against Thayer Munford and whoever starts at right tackle —Josh Alabi started in place of an injured Branden Bowen — will be one to watch all night.
Bachie is in his third season manning the middle for the Spartans and has led the team in tackles in each of the past two seasons. A first-team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, Bachie is again in the team lead for tackles with 47 total stops. He also has 1.5 sacks and an interception.
While Willekes and Bachie will receive much of the attention leading up to Saturday’s kickoff, the Spartan defense isn’t short on playmakers elsewhere.
Raequan Williams has been a mainstay at nose tackle, having started 34 games straight games. At 6-foot-4 and 303 pounds, he plays a major factor in both opposing teams’ inability to run the ball and Michigan State’s ability to get pressure on quarterbacks.
Williams was a third-team All-Big Ten selection by the media last season and figures to show up on many postseason awards list this season, having already recorded 3.5 sacks.
Antjuan Simmons, who hails from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was once committed to Ohio State, has shown signs of being the next star of the Michigan State linebacker corps. Simmons’ 33 total tackles are good for third on the team, and he has added 1.5 sacks and an interception on the season.
In the secondary, safety David Dowell was a third-team All-Big Ten performer last season and has recorded 28 straight starts for the Spartans. He has shown a knack for finding the football throughout his career with seven interceptions.
Fellow safety and Pickerington native Xavier Henderson saw extensive playing time a season ago as a freshman and is now a leader at safety for the Spartans. Henderson has 27 tackles, which leads all defensive backs, and one interception this season.
Placekicker Matt Coghlin is in his third season handling the kicking duties for the Spartans and was an All-Big Ten performer last season after hitting on 18 of his 22 field goal attempts last season.
Coghlin hasn’t been nearly as solid this season, however, connecting on just 10 of his 15 attempts, including an 0-3 performance in the 10-7 loss to Arizona State.
Jake Hartbarger is back once more to do the punting for Michigan State after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA following a season-ending injury in week two of last season. He has served as the starting punter for the Spartans since 2015.
Hartbarger is averaging 48 yards per punt this season and has a long of 61 yards. His career-long came last season when he booted a 74-yard punt in the game that would later cost him the rest of his season.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.