1. Can the Ohio State offense stay ahead of the chains against Michigan State?
Few teams can count on converting third-and-long consistently, as the Buckeyes proved again last week during a 29-15 win over UAB. They were 3 for 10 overall on third down, including 0 for 4 on third-and-9 or more. That contributed to five three-and-outs that had head coach Urban Meyer disappointed after the game as his Plan To Win calls for at least two first downs on every drive.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi like to get creative when they know a pass is coming, so being successful on first and second down will be all the more critical in East Lansing.
2. Will pass protection be a problem for either team?
Both teams entered the season with high expectations for pressuring opposing passers, but neither has done so on a consistent basis so far. They both possess the weapons to change that this week, though.
Ohio State has 10 sacks, but six came in one game as the coaching staff has mostly favored a four-man rush and teams have resorted to quick passes and max protections.
Michigan State enters Big Ten play with only three sacks, a total tied with Michigan for the fewest sacks among conference teams, but most of the culprits who contributed to a nine-sack day last season in Ohio Stadium return in green and white.
3. Who will win the most perimeter matchups?
Michigan State makes no secret of its willingness to line up and attack wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. That can make life miserable for wideouts, but it offers chances to make big plays as well because even the best defensive backs will be beaten at times in one-on-one situations. Spartan cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard form one of the nation’s best tandems, but Buckeye wideouts Devin Smith and Corey “Philly” Brown have developed steadily throughout the offseason and the first month of the campaign.
Meyer also mentioned Evan Spencer as a player the Buckeyes could look for to step up and make something happen.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State is still looking for someone to step out from a young group, and Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers hinted we could see more press coverage from the Buckeyes this week.
4. But what about the inside guys?
Everyone likes to watch the speedsters go at it on the outside, but we will also keep an eye on matchups involving Jake Stoneburner and Jordan Hall.
While Ohio State often switches from a base 4-3 to a nickel defense, Michigan State essentially plays nickel all the time with a hybrid player at one linebacker.
That works well for the Spartans, but could it expose them to mismatches with guys like Stoneburner and Hall? Hall in particular could see more time in the slot with Carlos Hyde on the field. Hyde is expected to return after missing two games with a knee injury.
Michigan State’s top receiver so far is actually an inside guy, too: tight end Dion Sims.
5. Can the teams keep their cool?
Last season, these two teams combined for 15 penalties, including nine on Ohio State that cost the Buckeyes 62 yards. There were six personal fouls, three on each team.
The Spartans have developed a reputation as a team willing to play through and sometimes past the whistle in recent seasons, while Ohio State has picked up multiple personal fouls in consecutive games.
With 28 Michigan State players calling Ohio their home state, there is plenty of familiarity between the rosters, so emotions could be running higher than normal.