The next two weeks are essentially a playoff for the Big Ten East division crown. All of the top four teams are still technically in the running, although it’s going to take a lot of good fortune for Penn State to make the trip to Indy. It is possible for Ohio State to lock up the title today, with a win over Michigan State and a Penn State win over Michigan. If the Buckeyes lose, they’ll need a win over the Wolverines and a Penn State win over Sparty next week to secure the top spot. If both Ohio State and Michigan win today, next week’s game will be for the East title, and the Meyer-Harbaugh era of The Game will have truly begun.
Making things interesting will be the conference’s top two running backs in terms of yards per carry (Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley) facing off against two of the conference’s top three rushing defenses in that statistic (Michigan and Michigan State).
Today, Ohio State takes its shot at the Spartans, and even though Michigan State has been solid against the run all year, the cracks have been showing lately. Two of the last three primary running backs the Spartans have faced bested their average yards per carry by about a full yard, and the third (Maryland’s Wes Brown) only missed his by less than five inches per attempt. This is not a good trend for a team that needs to stop a legit Heisman candidate possibly playing in his final home game this afternoon.
Michigan has been having some issues with running backs themselves, with defensive line injuries disrupting the lineup at the worst possible time. Last week, Indiana’s Jordan Howard carved the Wolverines up with 238 yards on 35 carries, over half a yard better than his season average. In the previous two weeks, Rutgers’ Robert Martin and Minnesota’s Rodney Smith each topped their average by over two yards a carry. Much like their in-state rivals, this is a bad sign with two of the Big Ten’s best backs on the horizon.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State’s rushing offense has been dismal all year. They rank 97th in the nation (tied with 6-loss Rice) in yards per carry and have only topped 200 yards on the ground once this year (against Purdue). As a team, the Spartans have only rushed for 99 more yards and 3 more touchdowns than Ezekiel Elliott has alone. And it took them 171 more carries to do it.
Michigan State will instead hope to lean on quarterback Connor Cook for their offensive production, although it remains to be seen how effective Cook will be after injuring his throwing shoulder against Maryland last week. I’ll give Cook a pass for that terrible game since he was hurt for most of it, but the last time the Spartans faced a passing defense comparable to Ohio State’s was their miracle win at Michigan. Cook completed less than half of his passes in that game with just one touchdown. He has a tough task ahead of him even if his shoulder is fine. If it’s not as “good to go” as he says it is, Michigan State could be in trouble.
The Wolverines have spent the last two weeks carving up the Big Ten’s two worst defenses for their most productive performances of the season. Penn State has a much better defense than Rutgers or Indiana, and Michigan needed double overtime to beat the Hoosiers. The most interesting thing to watch in today’s game—and probably the determining factor in the outcome—will be whether or not Jake Rudock’s recent explosion is actual improvement or just a result of playing some pretty horrible defenses.