Ohio State practiced for the third consecutive day on Wednesday, and all systems appear to be a go for Saturday’s game against Michigan State in East Lansing.
Well, sort of, anyhow.
Last week’s rash of positive tests within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, which led to the forced cancellation of the game against Illinois, will assuredly mean the Buckeyes will be shorthanded for the game. Head coach Ryan Day won’t be making the flight north for sure, and defensive line coach Larry Johnson will lead the team as a head coach for the first time in his career.
It remains to be seen which players will not be available, an answer that likely won’t come until the ball is kicked tomorrow and it can no longer be hidden from the spotlight. But barring any new cases arising today or tomorrow morning, the game will indeed be played and that’s about all you can ask for in this wild 2020 season.
Michigan State (2-3) comes into the contest fresh off a win over previously-unbeaten and eighth-ranked Northwestern, the second big win in head coach Mel Tucker’s inaugural season with the Spartans (Michigan State defeated in-state rival Michigan in October).
Little was expected of the Spartans this season given Tucker’s late hiring — he was announced on Feb. 12 — and the subsequent havoc that the pandemic played on the season. So when Rutgers waltzed into East Lansing and beat Michigan State on the opening weekend of Big Ten play, few batted an eye, and most chalked it up to the extensive rebuilding work left behind by Tucker’s predecessor, Mark Dantonio.
But as is the case in Columbus, a win over the hated Wolverines will turn many heads in East Lansing, and last week’s upset over Northwestern only served to further suggest that just maybe the road back to respectability doesn’t have to be so tumultuous.
Ohio State isn’t Michigan or Northwestern, however, and there is a reason the Buckeyes are 24-point favorites over the Spartans. Sandwiched between Michigan State’s two wins were beatdowns at the hands of Iowa and Indiana by a combined score of 73-7, and Saturday’s matchup figures to be another lopsided outcome.
The Buckeyes are not without their faults, however, as was evident the last time they took the field. Indiana threw for nearly 500 yards against a secondary that looked thoroughly lost at times against the Hoosiers two weeks ago. Day and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs vowed to correct what were deemed as very correctable mistakes following that game, and with last week’s cancellation, Saturday will be the first opportunity for the Buckeyes to show the panic induced by the performance against Indiana was a bit overblown.
Rest assured, the secondary will be tested by the Spartans. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi has thrown the ball at least 32 times in all but one of Michigan State’s games this year, and after seeing the woes of Ohio State’s defensive backfield on film, Tucker is sure to test them early and often in hopes of sparking the upset. Lombardi surprisingly began the season as one of the Big Ten’s best statistical quarterbacks, posting back-to-back performances of 300 passing yards and three touchdowns over the Spartans’ first two games.
The shine has quickly come off of Lombardi’s hot start, though, as he has just two touchdown passes over his last three games and is completing just 44% of his passes over that span. He has also tossed eight interceptions on the season, including two in his first seven attempts against Indiana, which led to his benching in favor of backup Payton Thorne for the remainder of the game.
Critical to Michigan State’s chances on Saturday will be generating a competent rushing attack to aid Lombardi, a feat that has been fleeting throughout the season. In each of their three losses, the Spartans have failed to rush for more than 60 yards as a team. Against an Ohio State defense that has been mostly solid against the run this season, that trend is likely to continue, putting the honus on Lombardi to make enough plays to score the upset. A turnover-prone quarterback forced to carry the production on offense is a recipe for disaster, one that could very well spell early doom for the Spartans.
Defensively, Michigan State has defended opposing rushing attacks fairly well, ranking 49th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game. But like their opponent on Saturday, the Spartans have had their own troubles in the secondary, and that’s before they’ve had a look at Justin Fields and company.
His puzzling three-pick performance last week notwithstanding, Fields is having the monster year everyone expected him to in his second season under Day. Of course, last week’s outbreak of COVID-19 cases led every Buckeye fan to confirm their own worst fears regarding the all-everything quarterback, and Ohio State’s general unwillingness to share any specifics relating to positive cases has done nothing to dispel the rampant speculation.
But offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson might have tipped Ohio State’s proverbial hand on Thursday during the weekly coaches radio show when he discussed his move from his normal seat in the press box to the sideline for Saturday’s game. Asked about the move, Wilson said, among other reasons, that he wanted to be able to “look Justin in the eyes,” a solid indication that the Buckeyes will have their signal-caller at the helm.
Who Fields may be throwing the ball to remains a different story, but in this game, does it matter? The receiving corp in Columbus is as deep as it has ever been, led by two soon-to-be All-Americans in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Behind the veterans, Jameson Williams has flashed at times this season, and there is a quartet of highly-touted freshmen champing at the bit for their first true opportunities to be a focal point in the offense. With Fields’ accuracy and a suspect secondary lining up against them, a fourth-consecutive 300-yard performance is the safest bet of the day, no matter who is on the receiving end of his throws.
Past the x’s and o’s, there are plenty of intangibles working against the Buckeyes on Saturday, beginning with the trip to East Lansing itself. Day said on Thursday the team will be tested on Friday evening prior to the Buckeyes flying and arriving at their hotel late in the evening for the noon kickoff on Saturday. A sleepy start by the Buckeyes would be somewhat understandable, albeit something they simply can’t afford.
Even more so than the rough travel schedule, the constant stopping and starting the Buckeyes have had to do this season has been nothing short of brutal, not that anyone is going to feel sorry for them. On Thursday, Day said his team didn’t have to keep answering the bell with every new bit of adversity that has come their way, yet his team continues to respond well. Day added that in tough times, character is revealed, and he knows he has a strong team in that regard.
With two games having already been canceled, and more possibly on the horizon, few teams in the country other than Ohio State will have more appreciation for the gift that is each game that gets played. That, coupled with the understanding that their margin for error is nonexistent in the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee, given all of the uncertainty surrounding the weeks ahead, should make for an extremely motivated performance by the Buckeyes.
My prediction: Ohio State rolls over Michigan State, 49-20.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.