The schedule for No. 3 Ohio State has not been among the nation’s most grueling so far. The 45-56 combined record of its 10 opponents makes its strength of schedule rank just middle-of-the-pack nationally.
That is set to change in a big way for the Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0) over the remainder of the season, beginning on Saturday with a meeting at home with No. 9 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1).
“I think the elite level of competition and the hype leading up to the game, it just brings the best out of the players,” said OSU sophomore linebacker Raekwon McMillan. “You either crumble under pressure or you thrive.”
OSU’s matchup with Michigan State stands to have major ramifications on the Big Ten East Division, as will the Buckeyes’ regular season finale at Michigan a week later.
If Michigan State wins at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, it will control its own destiny for a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game due to having wins in hand against OSU and Michigan. The same goes for the Buckeyes.
However, even with the spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and, quite likely, the College Football Playoff on the line, junior defensive end Joey Bosa said the culture at OSU makes it easy to stay focused heading into the matchup.
“I think the great part about being at Ohio State is that everybody’s watching you every week,” Bosa said. “It doesn’t matter how big of a game it is, but of course you come to Ohio State to play in the big games.”
The game could feature a pair of large numbers on the scoreboard, as neither team has been held under 20 points in a game this season.
The Spartans are anchored by redshirt senior quarterback Connor Cook, a third-year starter for coach Mark Dantonio. Though he left in the second half of Michigan State’s 24-7 win against Maryland last week, OSU co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash said he fully expects to see the Ohioan out there.
“He’s going to be there, we know that,” Ash said. “That’s not really a concern of ours. If he’s not, we’ll move on and we’ll have a plan for whoever is in there.”
Ash had nothing but praise for Cook on Monday, calling him the complete package as a quarterback.
“He’s got a very strong arm, he can make all the throws, he’s athletic enough to avoid pressure, also. He understands their system, understands defenses, reads coverages well,” Ash said. “You name it, what you want in your quarterback, you see it in him.”
OSU coach Urban Meyer echoed his coordinator’s words, referring to Cook as “one of the best quarterbacks in Big Ten history.”
Recognizing the magnitude of the game, OSU altered its schedule slightly to prepare for Cook and the Spartans. McMillan said the defense cut the Sunday film session from its 28-3 win at Illinois short in order to start watching tape of Michigan State a day early.
“This is probably the most balanced football offense that we’re going to see,” Ash said. “They’ve got a quarterback, they can run the ball with a good offensive line, they’ve got good receivers.”
The matchup between OSU and Michigan State is set to begin at 3:30 p.m. at the ‘Shoe.
Given that Saturday’s game is the final home game of the season, it is also the final time 18 OSU seniors will get a chance to play in Columbus.
Five starters on offense — left tackle Taylor Decker, center Jacoby Boren, right tackle Chase Farris, tight end Nick Vannett and H-back Braxton Miller — will be honored on the field before the game.
Additionally, three defensive starters — defensive tackles Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington and linebacker Joshua Perry — will be recognized with the senior class.
“It’s going to be a tough day,” Meyer said. “Senior day is always a tough day, especially for the guys that are really invested.”
One of the 18 seniors, redshirt senior receiver Corey Smith, was lost for the season with a broken leg in OSU’s Week 5 game at Indiana. Meyer said at the time that he could apply for a medical redshirt and return for a sixth year of eligibility, but no announcement on that has been made.
Nonseniors who seem likely to leave for the NFL draft after the season, such as Bosa and junior running back Ezekiel Elliott, will not be honored on the field, but Bosa said the situation will still provide extra motivation in what will likely be his final game at the ‘Shoe.
“It’s definitely going to be an emotional day for me,” Bosa said.
A season ago
The 2014 OSU vs. Michigan State game in East Lansing, Michigan, turned out to be a turning point of the season for the Buckeyes.
Slowly climbing in the rankings after a bad Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech, then-No. 14 OSU took on then-No. 8 Michigan State and walked out of Spartan Stadium with a 49-37 victory.
Then-redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was 16-of-26 for 300 yards and three touchdowns, including a 79-yard connection with redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas late in the first half.
Cook dueled with Barrett throughout, hitting on 25 of 45 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns, but a three-touchdown second quarter for the Buckeyes was enough to lift the Scarlet and Gray to No. 8 in the country.
“That was our best game offensively, by far,” Meyer said. “We threw for over 300 (yards). We ran against not a good defense, a great defense.”
After the matchup with the Spartans, OSU is set to conclude its regular season in another key matchup with a rival from the state of Michigan. The Buckeyes’ meeting with the Michigan Wolverines is set for a noon kickoff at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.