Ohio Stadium will play host to its one and only marquee matchup of the year on Saturday, as No. 3 Ohio State (10-0, 6-0) is set to face off with No. 9 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1). Before the highly anticipated meeting at the ‘Shoe at 3:30 p.m., here are five things The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz will be looking out for.
How will Connor Cook respond to his injury?
A shoulder injury kept Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook on the sidelines for the second half of the Spartans’ previous game, but it won’t keep the redshirt senior from suiting up against the Buckeyes on Saturday.
The fact that Cook will be out there on Saturday is a blessing for coach Mark Dantonio and the rest of the Spartans, as OSU coach Urban Meyer called Cook “one of the best quarterbacks in Big Ten history.”
Those comments might be prompted due to the Hinckley, Ohio, native’s record as a starter: 31-4.
“That’s how you value a quarterback: Do you win games?” Meyer said on Monday. “Because that’s (Cook’s) job and he wins almost every game he plays. ”
So, Cook will play. That much is known.
One thing that isn’t known — and probably won’t be discovered until he drops back and throws a pass on Saturday — is just how healthy Cook’s shoulder is.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound signal-caller is known for his ability to make every throw on the field. His decision-making his second-to-none, but it’s his arm strength that defines Cook’s game.
If his shoulder is bothering him, even just a little, it will be noticeable — and costly.
As Cook goes, so too does the Michigan State offense. With only a rudimentary rushing attack, the Spartans call on Cook to sling the ball often: more than 30 times per game in 2015.
He’ll be under center come kickoff, but whether or not he is physically capable of being the same player that garnered praise from Meyer will have a big effect on the game.
What will Braxton’s finale be?
On Saturday, arguably the most dynamic athlete in OSU football history will be playing his last game inside Ohio Stadium: Braxton Miller.
The redshirt senior quarterback-turned-H-back — who is OSU’s all-time leader in total touchdowns with 88 and yards from scrimmage with 8,908 — will be honored along with 17 of his teammates for senior day prior to kickoff.
Miller’s season at his new position has been interesting to say the least. He exploded in the opener against Virginia Tech but has done disappearing acts at times.
Despite it being his final game in the ‘Shoe, Meyer said there are no special plans to get Miller involved. Meyer acknowledged having tried to get him the ball earlier during the season but said the defense shut the door on those plans.
Trying to force the pigskin to a player when it isn’t there can throw off an offense’s rhythm, so it’s doubtful Meyer will do it excessively, especially because rhythm will be vital against the solid Spartans.
However, Meyer’s admiration for Miller is not a secret, and it is totally reasonable to believe the coach will want him to have opportunities to succeed. And if Miller gets the ball in his hands with him knowing it’s his last chance in front of home fans, expecting a re-emergence of the dazzling plays that spectators have become accustomed to since his arrival in Columbus isn’t far-fetched.
Will J.T. Barrett find time in the pocket?
After Saturday’s win at Illinois, Meyer said the one weakness the team was facing was the poor pass protection for redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Granted, Barrett is more than capable of leaving the pocket and creating opportunities on his own, but it’s still always best for an offense when the quarterback can make those decisions on his own and not because he is running for his life.
Meyer expounded on his postgame comments on Monday, saying that it is not just the offensive line that is letting Barrett down but also other players who help block, such as the tight ends.
“It’s not just one thing, because sometimes we get our tight ends involved in it, and they weren’t great Saturday,” Meyer said. “And then just a guy getting beat here and there in the lap of the quarterback, so we’ve just got to get a little firmer.”
While the player to watch in the blocking game on Saturday will be redshirt senior right tackle Chase Farris, who played so poorly against the Fighting Illini that there were rumblings of him losing his starting job, it will be key for anyone who has a blocking assignment to play better than was seen in OSU’s previous game.
“Offensively the obvious was it’s hard to distribute balls when we’re getting pressured, so we’re going to take a hard, long look at our pass protection a little bit,” Meyer said.
Michigan State is one of the better teams in the country when it comes to picking up sacks, ranking 13th with 2.9 per game. Barrett torched the Spartans through 300 yards in the air last season, but a repeat performance could be predicated on the Wichita Falls, Texas, product being able to feel comfortable for an extended period of time.
Will Cam Johnston continue his record?
Against the Fighting Illini, OSU junior punter Cameron Johnston tied the school record for most punts downed inside the 20-yard line in a career with 78.
Johnston, with the exception of maybe junior running back Ezekiel Elliott, has been the Buckeyes’ best, most consistent performer all season long.
His ability to consistently switch the field on opponents with a leg as powerful as artillery and as precise as a machinist has been incredibly valuable for OSU.
Whenever the offense has to punt, it has been OK because it sends out the Ray Guy Award semifinalist to pin opponents deep inside its own territory.
Michigan State’s defense has underperformed as a whole this season, but it has a stable of individual talent that is going to come ready to play on Saturday, meaning OSU will have to punt at some point during the game.
When Johnston is able to pin an opponent inside its own 20-yard line, it means a team will have travel at least 80 yards against the stellar Scarlet and Gray defense to find the end zone. But that’s easier said than done.
If Johnston sets the school record and then tacks on a few more punts inside the opposite red zone, it will be interesting to see how often the Spartan offense can break through the Buckeye defense and put points on the board.
Will OSU repeat last year’s strategy for Cook’s top receiver?
In OSU’s 49-37 win over Michigan State last season, one of the keys was limiting Cook’s top receiving target.
Though both players are now in the NFL, the matchup between OSU cornerback Doran Grant and Michigan State receiver Tony Lippett was something Meyer planned for and Grant executed brilliantly.
Playing one-on-one throughout the game with Grant giving everything he had to blanket Lippett, the 2014 Big Ten Receiver of the Year was held to just 64 yards, well below his average of over 92 yards per game.
Though the personnel have changed, it is very likely the style of coverage will remain the same.
OSU redshirt sophomore cornerback Eli Apple stands to be matched up with Spartan senior receiver Aaron Burbridge, who has been Cook’s clear No. 1 target this season.
Burbridge is averaging 102.1 yards per game, about 10 more than Lippett did last season.
“He’s very good off the line, that’s the main thing about him,” Apple said. “A lot of teams try to press him, and he’s pretty good at using his hands off the line. He’s a physical receiver, he doesn’t really have the best size, but he’s physical off the line and very good in traffic.”