For Ohio State to qualify for its second consecutive College Football Playoff, Urban Meyer’s outfit needs to get through Michigan on Saturday.
An Ohio State loss — which would be the team’s first in 14 months — gives the Spartans the tiebreaker advantage in the Big Ten East division and, should Mark Dantonio’s squad win the subsequent week against Penn State, Meyer’s team would be left out of the Big Ten title game altogether.
Conversely, a loss eliminates the Spartans from playoff contention, but considering that Michigan State hasn’t won a national title in nearly five decades, this is fairly new terrain for Dantonio.
While the neverending conundrum that is Ohio State’s quarterback situation garners much of the attention each week, the team’s defensive line has the potential to swing this matchup.
Quarterback Connor Cook is unquestionably Michigan State’s offensive linchpin; he’s tied for the conference lead in touchdown passes (21), ranks second in total quarterback rating (76), and third in yards per attempt (eight). A rushing attack that ranked 21st two years ago ranks 93rd this season, and the team has been more reliant on the senior quarterback than ever before. That being said, the Spartan offensive line has protected Cook consistently throughout the 2015 campaign — he’s only been sacked 12 times — allowing him ample time to dissect defensive units.
It’s highly unlikely that he’ll have that kind of time Saturday.
Behind Joey Bosa (No. 1 pass-rush grade among edge defenders, per Pro Football Focus) and Adolphus Washington (No. 2 pass-rush grade among interior defenders, per Pro Football Focus), the Buckeyes’ defensive line is as formidable as any.
“Our D-line and our front seven are real good at getting to the quarterback, so they help us get picks,” sophomore cornerback Gareon Conley told Tim Shoemaker. “We all fit together.”
Ohio State has 10 interceptions this season, and putting Cook under duress could provide a few more. The Buckeyes rank seventh nationally in adjusted sack rate, which divides sacks by sacks plus passes, and have racked up 30 this season.
Furthermore, the Buckeyes have the nation’s eighth best pass defense, allowing just 171.6 yards per game, and rank seventh in defensive efficiency. With Michigan State generating better than 62 percent of its offensive production each contest through the air, shutting down Cook and the passing attack would put Ohio State in the driver’s seat.
Since Meyer arrived in Columbus, Ohio State has put up at least 380 yards and better than 5.6 yards per play in each matchup with Michigan State. An inconsistent offense has distressed Buckeyes fans this season, but they needn’t worry—the team’s defense should win them Saturday’s game.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.