Before this season began, Ohio State was again predicted to contend for the national title, and win its fourth consecutive Big Ten title. Its still atop the Big Ten, but it hasn’t looked like a national power lately.
Michigan State, meanwhile, didn’t have the same lofty preseason expectations, but it has won six games in a row to also climb to the top of the league standings.
In a matchup of conference leaders, the 12th-ranked Buckeyes again look to get their offensive woes straightened out Saturday when they visit the No. 20 Spartans, who are trying to win their seventh straight game for the first time in 30 years.
The Buckeyes (6-1, 3-0), losers of the last two national championship games, were ranked second in the AP preseason poll and were predicted to finish first in the Big Ten. Their national title hopes took a hit, however, after a humiliating 35-3 loss to then-No. 1 Southern California on Sept. 13 dropped them to 13th in the nation.
Ohio State has won four straight games since losing to the Trojans, but its been unable to make a move in the rankings due to its lackluster play.
In last Saturday’s 16-3 home win over Purdue, the Buckeyes faced the 11th-worst defense in the nation, but gained only 222 yards of offense and scored their only touchdown on a blocked punt return.
“Offensively we didn’t get near as much done as we’re going to need to get done,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
“There was a moment where you looked good and there was a moment where you went backwards. We’re not consistent at all.”
Freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor looked shaky, as he missed wide open receivers and took sacks when he should have thrown the ball away. He finished 10 of 14 for 97 yards and ran for 27 yards on 14 carries.
Since Pryor took over the quarterback duties for senior Todd Boeckman after the loss to USC, the Buckeyes have the 10th-worst passing offense in the nation, averaging just 128.8 yards.
“We have to pass the ball better,” said running back Chris “Beanie” Wells, who rushed for 94 yards on 22 carries against the Boilermakers. “That might be surprising coming from a running back, but we have to get the ball downfield. We have to use our receivers better.”
Overall, Ohio State has the second-worst offense in the Big 10 (320.9 ypg), but it has another chance to get its offense on track against a Michigan State team that is allowing an average of 413.7 yards in its last three games.
“All in all, the guys have to step up,” Wells said. “It’s the Big Ten. We have to play better.”
The Spartans (6-1, 3-0), meanwhile, are playing better than most expected.
After going 7-6 last season, Michigan State has won six straight games since a season-opening 38-31 defeat at California. The Spartans entered the Top 25 on Oct. 5—their first time since Oct. 16, 2005—and proceeded to defeat previously unbeaten Northwestern 37-20 on Saturday to move up three spots in the latest poll and become bowl eligible.
“We see how things are falling into place on how our season is going thus far,” running back Javon Ringer said. “We aren’t complacent; we aren’t settling or relaxing at all because we are bowl eligible. We know we have some big tests left throughout the season. Now we are really going to start testing the team we have, but we are expecting big things.”
Last Saturday’s victory also kept Michigan State, which hasn’t won seven consecutive games since 1978, atop the Big Ten with Penn State and Ohio State. The Buckeyes host the Nittany Lions next Saturday, while the Spartans visit Penn State in their regular-season finale on Nov. 22.
While Michigan State’s defense has been susceptible lately, it’s been winning behind Ringer, who rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern and leads the nation with 1,112 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Ringer was shut down by Ohio State’s defense last season, though, as he was limited to 49 yards on 18 attempts in the Buckeyes’ 24-17 victory. Wells, meanwhile, ran for 221 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries in that win for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have won six straight over the Spartans since a 23-7 loss at Michigan State on Nov. 6, 1999. In Ohio State’s last game in East Lansing on Oct. 14, 2006, the Buckeyes rolled to a 38-7 victory.