Game Preview: No. 20 Michigan State

No. 12 Ohio State continues its 2008 football season Saturday by hitting the road to take on No. 20 Michigan State. BuckeyeSports.com previews the game with notes on the Spartans' undefeated Big Ten start as well as key players to watch and a breakdown of the Spartans' offensive and defensive units.

No. 20 Michigan State (6-1, 3-0)
Saturday, Oct. 18, 3:30 p.m.
Spartan Stadium (75,005)
TV: ABC
2007 Record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten Conference
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio, 13-7 at Michigan State (second season)

Two years into Mark Dantonio's tenure at Michigan State, it's becoming clear why Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said the Big Ten neighborhood just got tougher when his former assistant was hired.

Dantonio inherited a team known mostly for mental softness and its proclivity to collapse during both games and seasons and has made it into a tough, grind-it-out collection that is 6-1 and undefeated in the conference after three games.

"I think when Coach Dantonio came in here, they really tried to establish toughness both physically and mentally," quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "And now this team is definitely mentally tough. They put us through tough situations, through summer workouts and things like that, that are starting to translate on the field.

"We're a stable team. We can handle the ups and downs, whereas before, if something went wrong, it was going down from there."

The proof is in the pudding, as they say. From 2000-06, Michigan State was 21-9 in games before October but 17-36 afterward. More than half of those post-Oct. 1 losses were by 13 or more points, per research done by Adam Rittenberg at ESPN.com.

Such a collapse looked to be in the cards even last year during Dantonio's first year when Michigan State opened 4-0 before beginning Big Ten play with close losses at Wisconsin and at home against Northwestern in overtime. The skid continued until MSU fell to 1-5 in Big Ten play thanks to a heart-breaking loss at home to Michigan on a late Wolverine comeback, but a funny thing happened after that.

The Spartans ended the season with a road win over Purdue and then fought back to defeat Penn State in the final regular-season game of the year by a 35-31 count thanks to two unanswered fourth-quarter scores.

This year, MSU has personified grit. The Spartans have played well late in games on defense, closing out a potent Indiana attack, stopping Iowa on two late drives with the game on the line and limiting Northwestern to second-half field goals after long drives.

"When you come out and play with emotion, play physical, that's because Coach Dantonio's the one getting us fired up," linebacker Adam Decker said. "Him and his staff are the ones preaching being physical all week and all camp and all offseason. It's ingrained into us, and when we come out on a big stage like this, it's what we go back to."

On offense, the identity of toughness is personified by running back Javon Ringer, who has carried the ball on more than 50 percent of Michigan State's offensive plays so far.

He's had success on the strength of a corps of offensive linemen, fullbacks and tight ends who have reveled in the fact that teams have been unable to stop Ringer even when they know exactly what is coming.

"I feel stacking the box is a compliment," right tackle Jesse Miller said. "That means they respect our run game. And we keep going through 'em anyway. What can they do after that?"

Of course, the two coaching staffs are close given Dantonio's time at Ohio State as Tressel's defensive coordinator from 2001-03, a span in which the Buckeyes won a national title and captured another BCS bowl win. This is actually the fourth time since Dantonio left that he's coached against OSU, as he piloted Cincinnati in the Horseshoe in both 2004 and '06 and made the trip down from Michigan a year ago with the Spartans.

Ohio State is 3-0 in those games, leaving Dantonio, an Ohioan who hails from Zanesville, looking for his first win over the former mentor.

"This is the fourth time we've played them since I've been a head coach, so I sort of enjoy playing Ohio State," Dantonio said. "I always did when I was here before. I don't enjoy playing people that are close friends, I guess, but I enjoy playing against a football team that is from where I grew up or a football team from where I used to coach."

Tressel has said that the coaches' familiarity with each other – and the ties run deeper, given that Tressel's nephew Mike is MSU's linebackers coach and two former Buckeyes have coached in East Lansing – will have little bearing on the outcome, but he has made it clear he doesn't like suiting up against his friends and family.

"From an Xs and Os standpoint, it's not really an issue," Tressel said, "because he knows we're going to try to do what our guys can do and that's changed every year according to who's in your line-up and who's healthy and who's playing well, et cetera, et cetera.

"So X and O wise, I don't think it's an issue. Where I don't love it is I happen to know all those guys and had a relationship with all those guys and I'd just as soon not play my brothers."

Series Top OSU Performers
Obviously Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor has never lined up against the Green and White, but senior backup Todd Boeckman did a year ago, completing 15 of 23 passes for 193 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

In the running game, both Chris and Maurice Wells have had plenty of opportunities against Sparty. Beanie leads the way with 274 carries and two touchdowns on 43 carries, while Mo Wells has 18 rushes for 44 yards.

Out wide, the top target is Brian Robiskie, who has caught six passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Brian Hartline has five catches for 46 yards, while Jake Ballard has three grabs for 35 yards and a touchdown.

OSU has done OK with punt returns, with Hartline averaging 8.5 yards on two tries and Ray Small with a 21-yard return against MSU.

A.J. Trapasso's career-long 76-yard punt came against the Spartans as well.

Defensively, Ohio State is led by James Laurinaitis, who has 21 career tackles against MSU. Three have been for loss, two of which are sacks. Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Freeman each have 13 tackles; Jenkins has two tackles for loss and Freeman has a fumble recovery. Dexter Larimore has a sack, while Robert Rose and Cameron Heyward have half sacks.

No current Buckeye has a fumble forced or an interception against MSU.

Spartan Players To Know
QB Brian Hoyer: Hoyer might be the key to a Michigan State victory if Ohio State can neutralize the Spartans' rushing attack. Hoyer had a solid campaign during his first year as a starter a season ago, completing 59.3 percent of his passes for 2,725 yards, 20 touchdowns and 11 picks, but a slow start this year has his completion percentage at just 50.3 percent – and has some people wondering if he's the weak link to the MSU attack.

He has just six touchdowns in seven games, but Hoyer has thrown just three interceptions as well. He has five scores and one pick in his last three games, contests in which he's completed nearly 59 percent of his passes.

"(Quarterbacks coach) Dave Warner has done a great job with Brian Hoyer, who I think is playing like a senior," Tressel said. "A lot of times when you get in the lineup and you're young, you don't – you get things thrown at you and you haven't experienced them before, and some good things happen and some not so good, and then all of a sudden when you have those experiences like he has had, I think he's playing like a veteran and doing a great job there."

To Dantonio, the most important stat about Hoyer is simple: his 6-1 record this year.

"Many people don't understand – the average person does not understand – exactly what the quarterback does," Dantonio said. "He controls the tempo of the game. He controls, obviously, a large part of the passing game and running game. He is in charge of the huddle. He has to install confidence in that huddle.

"He has played very well. He is the quarterback of a 6-1 football team."

RB Javon Ringer: There's not much to say about Ringer that hasn't already been said. That will happen when you enter the game leading the nations in rushing touchdowns with 14 and second in rushing yards per game with 158.9. Ringer also leads the Big Ten in rushing, all-purpose yards, scoring and rushing scores.

A couple of stats really stand out, though, that show his worth to the MSU team. Ringer has carried the ball at least 25 times in each game, and he also has at least one catch in every contest. According to offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, Ringer is not a guy who shies away from having the ball.

"He reminds me a little bit of Tory Dorsett back in the day, when he was at Pitt," Treadwell said. "Tony was just strong and then all of a sudden, he'd break a tackle. And then in the fourth quarter was just, 'Feed me more.'"

Ringer was named the Big Ten's offensive player of the week three weeks in a row from Sept. 8-22, becoming the only player in league history to earn such an honor. He scored five touchdowns against Eastern Michigan Sept. 6 to earn the first honor, then ran for 282 yards a week later against Florida Atlantic and 201 against Notre Dame after that.

LB Greg Jones: Jones is a hard-hitting, play-making linebacker from Cincinnati Moeller. After earning freshman All-America honors last year from The Sporting News, Jones has continued to grow this season. The strong-side linebacker leads MSU with 52 tackles, including nine solo stops against Indiana Sept. 27 and a season-high 11 tackles a week ago against Northwestern.

Jones also earned some respect from Ohio State a year ago when he made a career-high 14 tackles.

"They had a freshman guy, Greg Jones, I watched him hurdle our fullback last year on a pretty athletic play," OSU fullback Brandon Smith said with wide eyes.

S Otis Wiley: Ohio State fans will remember Wiley, an MSU captain, for his performance in last year's game that included an interception return for a touchdown.

However, Wiley didn't have the greatest of campaigns a year ago. Though he made 49 tackles and had four interceptions, Wiley ended up losing his starting job after a poor performance against Northwestern that happened to come just days after his brother-in-law was in a serious car accident.

He also struggled with the change from John L. Smith's attacking scheme to Dantonio's defense.

"It was just understanding what (Dantonio) wanted," Wiley said. "At first we didn't see eye to eye on some things. I was going from being an aggressive player all the time to being more of a coverage safety."

This year he's made 38 tackles and has four more picks to sit atop the Big Ten in that statistic. There's no doubting Wiley has the physical tools to play.

"He can be (in the NFL), I really believe that," secondary coach Harlon Barnett said. "He'll wow 'em at the (scouting) combine with his size, speed and athleticism."

Game Breakdown
When Ohio State has the ball: While Dantonio has made his reputation as a defensive coach, the Spartans' rankings don't fly off the page on the defensive side of the ball.

Michigan State is 25th in the nation in scoring defense but just fifth in the Big Ten at 16.71 points per game, though that number goes down to 9.8 if the team's season-opening loss to Cal is thrown out. In total defense, MSU is just ninth in the Big Ten and 68th overall allowing 361.9 yards per game.

When it comes to stopping the run, a Dantonio specialty while the coach was at OSU, Michigan State is eighth in the Big Ten and is allowing 134.9 yards per game.

"From a defensive standpoint, what you'll see from Michigan State is a lot like what you see from us," Tressel said. "Obviously it's just a mirror image and they're going to put a lot of people in the box and make it very difficult for you to run. They're going to dare you to throw. They're going to play aggressive coverage on your receivers. They're going to make it very difficult for them to get off the line of scrimmage and they love to bring blitzes. They're going to have two or three new blitzes, usually of the zone blitz variety. They're not really a big blitz and play zero coverage-type group, but a lot of zone blitzes and make it difficult on your pass protection."

Ohio State tackle Alex Boone said that expected simple defensive schemes from Michigan State would be folly.

"The truth is, they probably play straight probably five percent of the time," he said. "The other 95 percent, they're doing something – a lot more zone, a lot more other things, a lot just reading things."

However, that doesn't necessarily make it all that more difficult figure out the schemes. The problem, as it turns out, is doing something about them.

"The truth is, you can see what they're doing," Boone said. "You just have to kind of focus. That's the one thing that's always hard for an offensive lineman is to focus on everything and then realize what's coming."

Then imagine how difficult it will be for a true freshman to do so. The Buckeyes have players from that class at both center and quarterback, and the first-year players who have done well under center against a Dantonio defense are few and far between.

"It's a big challenge," Tressel said. "I think they do a nice job. And they've done such a good job of creating confusion and hesitation with guys, that's why they have all those picks or that's why they have some of those fumbles."

Opposing quarterbacks have thrown nine interceptions this year against MSU against seven touchdowns. As a whole, the Spartans have forced 16 turnovers, good for a tie for second in the conference with Ohio State.

Ohio State's strength continues to be its ground game behind Terrelle Pryor, that dynamic freshman, and Chris Wells. The sledding might be tough given that only one team, Cal, has topped 200 yards against MSU on the year. Then again, Ohio State was able to top that barrier last year when Chris Wells finished the day with 221 yards on the ground.

That Michigan State front has improved, led by Jones. Fellow linebacker Eric Gordon was another member of TSN's Big Ten All-Freshman team, and he's second on the squad 45 tackles. Decker, the team's middle linebacker in 4-3 sets, has 38 tackles, including five for loss.

"Last year, we were always focusing on what we had to do," Jones said. "Now we're keying on what they're trying to do offensively. We've evolved from last year."

The DB corps is pretty good at making tackles as well. Safeties Danny Fortener and Wiley have 45 and 38 tackles, respectively, while combining for six interceptions, 12 pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. In addition, cornerback Chris L. Rucker has 32 tackles, four for loss.

Up front, Cincinnati transfer Trevor Anderson has five sacks to lead the team.

When Michigan State has the ball: The Spartans, if the chatter is to be believed, have achieved a nice balance among the interplay between Ringer and the passing game led by Hoyer.

"They've got things going the way they'd like to go them," Tressel said. "You have Javon Ringer who you better have a whole bunch of helmets up there to get stopped. … You better be prepared to have him tote the ball 30-plus times in the ball game, and the thing that makes that difficult is that usually it takes extra people there to stop him, which makes you a lot more vulnerable to the play action pass and to the pass game and so forth.

"And Michigan State's done a good job, especially in the last three weeks of really hurting people with their pass game because everyone has seen what they need to do to stop the run."

Hoyer's numbers certainly have improved during Big Ten play, even as the receiving corps has become a little banged up.

At the start of the season, it appeared that sophomore Mark Dell was the player to watch among the receiving corps, and that talk was only enhanced when he caught 202 yards worth of passes against Cal. However, since then he has just 241 yards in six games while battling injury worries.

A couple of other players have stepped up as the year has gone along. Redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham has four catches in each of the last two games, junior Blair White has three each in those games, and freshman Keshawn Martin, the talk of camp after an impressive performance, has five catches in Big Ten play after none in nonconference action.

"I've seen a lot of good things out of Mark Dell, No. 2," OSU safety Anderson Russell said. "He's made a lot of big plays for them. I think he's kind of their go-to guy in the passing game. (Martin) showed a lot of quickness and he gets around really well. Also, (Cunningham), he's made a lot of big plays for them too."

Hoyer also has had a pair of tight ends rise up in the passing game in Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek.

The best way to get the ball to those weapons, it appears, is play-action and through deep balls. The presence of Ringer helps make the play-action game more effective, and Hoyer is averaging a less than modest 15.3 yards per completion.

"From what I've seen, they throw a lot of deep balls with him, and he just gives his receivers a chance to go up and make a play on the ball," Russell said.

Starting all parts of the attack is an offensive line that appears to be getting into a groove. Michigan State has allowed just six sacks in seven games, and Ringer's ability to run the ball shows a line that has been a force to be reckoned with. Miller and right guard Roland Martin have combined for 60 career starts, while the rest of the group has played well – so much so that Ringer brought members of the group to the press conference after the Notre Dame game to credit them for his success.

"That shows the respect he has for his O-line, and you see on film they get after it," Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "They're guys that are physical and guys that create holes for Javon."

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