There is a fairly large American college football contest taking place this weekend and it involves your Ohio State Buckeyes. The Michigan State Spartans are coming to town and both teams have a ranking inside the top ten no matter what poll you want to use. Not only that, but the Spartans — like the Buckeyes — control their own destiny. If they can win out, Mel Tucker’s crew will be the Big East Division representative in Indy and have a shot to also make it into the College Football Playoff.
So yeah, the game Saturday in the ‘Shoe is a big one.
However, this Michigan State team has undergone a drastic facelift in just one season. Tucker has tinkered and toyed with personnel by bringing a lot of guys in that weren’t on the roster from the previous season. So, you may not necessarily recognize what you see on the field Saturday other than what you’ve seen on a television or streaming device near you so far in 2021.
Because of that, we decided to give you some nuggets about the team Ohio State will face on Saturday to prep you for all the fun.
Here are five things to know about the 2021 version of the Michigan State football squad.
There are still a slew of native Ohioans on the roster
Michigan State football will look to its veterans when they travel to Columbus to take on Ohio State:https://t.co/e8HOBzRxiT
— The State News (@thesnews) November 17, 2021
Mel Tucker may have overhauled the roster from last season, but one thing hasn’t changed. There are still a ton of Ohio kids playing for Michigan State. Eighteen total Spartan players hail from the Buckeye state, including nine from Central Ohio.
What has made this matchup a fringe bitter rivalry since former head coach Mark Dantonio’s days on the sidelines from time to time, is the fact that there are indeed so many kids that have a chip on their shoulder from not being recruited by Ohio State. The Spartans seem to get a little more juiced because of this. Expect some added emotion in this one.
The Spartans have the worst pass defense in the country
Michigan State has allowed 25 more yards per game through the air (329 YPG) than any team in the FBS.
The Spartans are dead last in the country in pass defense.
— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) November 14, 2021
There are ways to spin any stat of course, but the Spartans’ pass defense is not good. In fact, it’s the worst in all of FBS, giving up 329 yards per contest. That’s obviously not ideal when getting ready to face an Ohio State team that has one of the most lethal passing attacks in the country. The Buckeyes are a so-called “balanced” offense, but do most of their damage through the air with C.J. Stroud and three of the best wide receivers in the country.
Look for Michigan State to keep everything in front of it and give up some short to intermediate yards in the passing game because there’s simply no way the defense can stay with the OSU playmakers on the outside and in the slot.
Ohio State is No. 6 in the country in passing yards per game, and I’d expect a bushel of yards through the air on Saturday.
Michigan State doesn't rely solely on the running game
Heisman trophy candidate Kenneth Walker III had 143 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jayden Reed also had 2 touchdowns and Payton Thorne threw for 4 touchdown passes!👏🏾
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 14, 2021
Even the casual observer likely knows that Michigan State has one of the frontrunners for the Heisman, running back Kenneth Walker III. He too transferred into the program and has taken the Big Ten and college football world by storm. The offense relies heavily on his abilities, but that’s not the only way the Spartans move the ball.
In fact, Sparty averages more yards passing (258.1) than on the ground (197.8). Quarterback Payton Thorne will sling it around a little, especially to the best big-play deep threat the Spartans have, wide receiver Jayden Reed.
There’s no doubt Ohio State will probably key on Walker III and the running game, but it can’t lose track of the damage the Spartans can do cashing in air miles.
Michigan State is second in the Big Ten in sacks
Who expected Jeff Pietrowski to be leading the team in sacks this year?
Dude is an animal pic.twitter.com/btlULoSYnw
— Kake (@BemusedSpartan) September 26, 2021
The Spartans might give up a lot of yards through the air, but it isn’t because of a lack of pressure on the quarterback. Michigan State is second in the Big Ten in sacks, just two behind Ohio State’s conference-leading 33. A lot of that pressure comes from the defensive ends with Jeff Pietrowski and Jacub Panasiuk combining for 13 on the year.
That means the offensive tackles for Ohio State might be tested in this one. Nicholas Petit-Frere and Dawand Jones need to keep pressure off the edge so that C.J. Stroud can sit in a clean pocket and dissect the Spartan secondary.
Michigan State leads the Big Ten in punt returns
'Difference-maker' Jayden Reed scores Michigan State's first punt-return TD since 2011https://t.co/zb5xEtlEwT
— Stephen Brooks (@StephenM_Brooks) September 26, 2021
Returning kicks is kind of a lost art these days. Teams would much rather just take the ball on the 25-yard line rather than attempt a return on kickoffs, and more and more teams are just accepting a punt as well without risk and letting the high-flying offenses these days go to work.
Not Michigan State. The Spartans try to create an advantage in the special teams’ return game and lead the Big Ten in punt return average with 19.3 yards per return. Punt returner Jayden Reed has even taken two back for a touchdown this year.
Ohio State hasn’t punted all that often this year, but when it does, it needs to be very aware of giving up a big momentum-changing moment with the coverage unit.