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Buckeyes Battle Spartans to Start Season's Home Stretch

It seems almost like yesterday that we were preparing for the Buckeyes to begin the 2015 season. Now, 11 weeks and 10 games later, the Buckeyes are finally starting the stretch of the season we've all been waiting for. That of course is the three game gauntlet consisting of the Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, and the Big Ten title game.

It's this stretch of the season against a preseason title contender and the number 9 ranked team in the country in Michigan State, their arch rival from that school up north, and what is looking like an undefeated Iowa team that will make or break the Buckeyes' season. Get through this stretch unscathed and they're looking at a date in the National Semi-final. But, should one of these three teams pull off the impossible and beat the Buckeyes, then it's likely, given their performance this season, current ranking, and the status of the teams around them, that Ohio State could find themselves on the outside looking in.

Will Braxton Have a big day?
Photo: Peter Casey, USA TODAY Sports
One thing working in the Buckeyes' favor today will be an overwhelming wave of emotion. As the final game of the year in The Shoe, it is senior day. That means all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the culmination of several careers. As the first senior day since winning a national title and the last chance for fans to celebrate Braxton Miller, Joshua Perry, Jacoby Boren, and Adolphus Washington, among others, emotions will be riding high. Look for the fans to be loud and the players to be that much more motivated to turn in an all-time performance.

It won't be easy, though. This Michigan State team is legit. They were a preseason title contender. Despite their one glaring loss to Nebraska, Sparty may still find themselves in the college football playoff if they can run the table to close out the season in impressive fashion. Soundly defeating the defending national champions in their own stadium on senior day would be a great start.

For the Spartans, their success or failure will begin and end with their quarterback, Connor Cook. Hands down, Cook is the best quarterback the Buckeyes have faced this season and may end up being the best they see all season long. He's that good and why he is regarded as a top 10 prospect in next year's NFL draft.

The native Ohioan is having another great year for the Spartans. With just under 2,500 yards passing and 21 touchdowns against just four interceptions, Cook has proven himself to be among the best of the nation's signal callers. He's a veteran who has been through the battles and won't be shaken by the atmosphere at Ohio Stadium. If anything, Cook is likely to feed off of that energy and use it as motivation to pull off the upset of all upsets.

Can the Buckeyes slow down Connor Cook?
Photo: DETROIT FREE PRESS

It'll be up to the Ohio State defense to make life difficult for Cook. With the likes of Von Bell, Eli Apple, and Tyvus Powell in the secondary, Aaron Burbridge, the Big Ten's leading receiver, should be easily limited in the passing attack. Forcing Cook to make additional reads and work through his progressions could allow the defensive line, specifically Joey Bosa, the time to battle through one of the nation's top ranked offensive lines and create pressure. Pressure leads to mistakes and it's something that even the best quarterbacks struggle to deal with, Cook included.

Of course, if there is one area the Ohio State defense has routinely struggled this season, it is stopping the run. The Buckeyes have routinely been gashed against the run, with things hitting critical mass against Maryland when they allowed 253 yards on 42 attempts. Things have gotten better since then with players, specifically inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan, dedicating themselves to their assignments and plugging the proper gaps. Nonetheless, the Spartans may view this as a potential weakness and counter that with a heavy does of freshman running back LJ Scott

Scott, a freshman from Hubbard, Ohio, leads the Spartans in rushing this season with 519 yards and 9 touchdowns on 94 carries. He has proven himself to be a formidable running back in his first season in the Big Ten. Scott may also have added motivation due to the lack of interest the Buckeyes showed in him during the recruiting process. What better way to stick it to Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes than by ruining their run at a second straight national championship?

The Buckeyes can prevent all that, however, if they just commit themselves to sound defensive principles and play the kind of defense we all know they are capable of playing. They have to commit to their assignments, not over pursue once they get penetration, and set the edge on the outside. Do those things and they can make things difficult for Cook and the rest of the Spartan offense.

Speaking of offense, the biggest key to the Buckeyes' success this season has been and will continue to be the performance of the offensive line. Be forewarned, that was not meant to serve as a compliment. In fact, the Buckeyes' success this season has been more in spite of the offensive line rather than because of it.

Bad snaps, awful penalties, and shoddy pass protection have plagued a unit that was believed to be a strength to start the season. After all, "The Slobs" were returning all but one player from a unit that dominated on their way to the national title. To struggle the way they have at times this season, especially against some of the competition the Buckeyes have faced makes no sense.

Can "The Slobs" contain Shilique Calhoun?
Photo: App.com
But today, the offensive line is going to have their hands full against a Michigan State defensive line that is just as, if not more talented than they are. Shilique Calhoun is a nightmare at defensive end and Malik McDowell is a beast at the defensive tackle spot. If the Buckeyes can't keep them at bay and limit the amount of damage they can do, we may be looking at yet another sub-par day from the offense.

Undoubtedly, the Buckeyes will once again rely on the continued dominance of Ezekiel Elliot and ride his legs to victory. I think it's getting to the point now that when we look back at the 2015 season we'll remember it as the season of Zeke. The Buckeyes have been smart to ride him to a 10-0 record. With 1400-plus yards and 16 touchdowns and counting on 220 rushing attempts, Zeke is putting together a legendary season for the Buckeyes. In what is likely his final game in The Shoe (he is the top rated running back prospect an likely headed for the NFL draft), look for Elliot to have a huge day, record setting, even.

And then there is the quarterback.

At this point I think we can all agree that Urban Meyer has made the right decision by switching to J.T. Barrett on a full-time basis. His command and execution of the offense is superior to that of Cardale Jones. That being said, it's not as if Barrett has come in and blew the doors off of opposing defenses. Of course a one game suspension for a DUI did nothing to help maintain consistency and flow.

For the Buckeyes, it's almost gotten to the point where the quarterback, no matter who it is, just needs to get out of the way. Give the ball to Elliot and watch him do his thing. Make the smart pass on time and let the playmakers go to work rather than waiting until protection breaks done and forcing a bad throw to a covered receiver. At least in the case of Barrett, he can fall back on his legs and athleticism to extend plays. His ability to run the ball brings in an added dimension missing from Cardale Jones. Look for him to use it to his advantage if the Spartans over pursue him on the rush.

So what do I expect from today's game in the end? Well, I expect a Buckeye victory. I also expect them to be focused in their first legitimate test of the season against a team that has quickly become a bitter rival. On senior day in The Shoe, with everything on the line... I expect the Buckeyes to dominate and look like the team we thought they would be. If I'm calling a shot, I say 35-13 Buckeyes in a rout with a reaffirmation of who really is the best team in the country.
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