The 10-game warmup for No. 3 Ohio State has come to an end.
Now begins the most important, and difficult, two weeks of the regular season for the Buckeyes, starting with Michigan State on Saturday.
The forthcoming game has been circled on the schedules of college football fans since the season began in August when both teams were ranked in the top five of the AP poll.
Anticipation hit its peak during Weeks 4 and 5, as the Buckeyes and Spartans occupied the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the AP poll, respectively. The matchup began to lose some of its luster ever since, especially on Nov. 7 when the Spartans fell to Nebraska 39-38 on the road.
Even though it is no longer a meeting of unbeatens, there is still a lot of hype about a game between two top-10 teams with major implications on who advances to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Here is a look at the 2015 Spartans.
Can Connor still cook?
Redshirt senior quarterback Connor Cook is an integral part of Michigan State’s success, but unfortunately for coach Mark Dantonio and his team, there are questions surrounding Cook coming into Saturday’s contest.
Cook did not play in the second half of the Spartans’ 24-7 win over Maryland because of an apparent shoulder injury. The Hinckley, Ohio, native took two major hits in the first quarter. On the second one, Cook was slow to get up and visibly favored his right shoulder. He stayed in the game but his arm strength was clearly diminished.
The decision to trade his helmet for a headset in the second half was more a precautionary one, Cook said after the game.
Both Dantonio and Cook downplayed concerns about the redshirt senior’s availability against OSU, but there is reason to wonder how effective he will be able to be.
For a quarterback, an injury to the shoulder is about the worst place, besides maybe to the hand, to be ailing.
It’s highly likely that Cook suits up — on Monday, multiple OSU players said they are preparing as if Cook will play — but questions of whether he can he still be the same guy who ranks 28th nationally in passing yards and has a 32-4 record as a starter are legitimate.
Everything Michigan State does offensively revolves around Cook’s ability to distribute the football so efficiently. Cook has talent on the outside, namely senior wide receivers Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge, who have combined for well over half of the Spartans’ receiving yards, but if his arm isn’t able to deliver the football with the same zip to these players, the offense is vulnerable.
The Spartans’ rushing attack has taken steps backward this season with the loss of Jeremy Langford to the NFL, as it ranks 92nd nationally.
So, if Cook cannot be his normal self, meaning a larger reliance on the run game, the Spartans could struggle mightily to put up points against the vaunted OSU defense.
Reviving the old recipe
The old recipe for Spartan success was typical smash-mouth football: a strong run game to set up nothing more than an effective passing game, complemented by an imposing defense to win low-scoring affairs.
This has worked incredibly well for Dantonio and Michigan State since he took the helm in 2007. However, the past two years have seen the program veer slightly away from this formula to a more wide-open offense spearheaded by Cook with really good, but not great, defenses — especially this season.
The Spartans’ defense has not been the feared unit it has in the past yet this season. It can partly be attributed to injuries in the secondary, but even so, the defense’s performance against Maryland might be what it needed to regain its old mojo.
The Spartans have held opponents below 20 points just twice: the Terrapins last week (24-7) and Central Michigan in Week 4 (30-10).
However, the old, dominating defense re-emerged against Maryland.
The Spartans, who are led by redshirt junior linebacker Riley Bullough, limited the Terrapins to 289 yards total offense, about 100 fewer than OSU allowed. They also forced five turnovers: three interceptions and two fumbles.
The latter statistic — turnovers — will be an area where the Michigan State defense will need to repeat its success against OSU, especially because the Buckeyes have been slightly turnover prone this season.
The Scarlet and Gray have turned the ball over in each of their past three games, including twice last week against Illinois. For Michigan State to have a real shot at upsetting OSU, the Spartans’ defense will need to be able to generate turnovers, and the offense will have to capitalize on the extra possessions.
Beyond the Buckeyes
Following Saturday’s tilt against OSU, Michigan State is scheduled to return to East Lansing, Michigan, for its final game of the regular season against Penn State. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.