A Michigan State season that gets more disappointing by the week could end up taking a dramatic turn for the better if the host Spartans can upset No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday at East Lansing, Mich.
The Spartans (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) have three consecutive losses after opening with wins against Mid-American Conference schools Western Michigan and Akron.
The schedule gets more challenging when the Buckeyes (5-0, 2-0) roll into Spartan Stadium with the No. 1 scoring offense (48.8 points per game) in FBS, even though quarterback C.J. Stroud had a subpar performance in a 49-10 win over Rutgers on Saturday.
“We know everything’s not always peaches and cream,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said Monday. “There are bumps in the road, and some are severe and some are not so much. If you’re sitting here waiting for the easy bus to come around, the easy bus isn’t coming.”
The Buckeyes are favored by nearly four touchdowns. The last time Michigan State was as big of an underdog was 1998 when the Spartans, coached by Nick Saban, defeated the top-ranked Buckeyes at Columbus, Ohio.
Tucker, a graduate assistant for Saban then, and later an Ohio State assistant coach (2001-04), knows what is needed for an upset.
“First of all, you have to believe,” Tucker said. “That’s one. And you have to strip the name off the jersey and go to work.”
The problem is deciding how to contain the Buckeyes. Rutgers concentrated on the passing game, and Stroud was 13 of 22 for 154 yards, a career low in yardage as a starter. While he did have two touchdown passes, he threw his second interception in as many games.
Stroud will look to bounce back against a Spartans pass defense that ranks 115 of 131 schools (275 yards per game).
“I think C.J. will tell you that all he wants to do is win,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “He was the happiest guy on Saturday.”
The Buckeyes’ Miyan Williams did not have to share the running duties last weekend because TreVeyon Henderson was injured. Williams responded with a career-high 189 yards and five touchdowns on 21 carries to tie the school rushing-TD record held by Pete Johnson and Keith Byars.
Williams’ production came against a Rutgers defense that was second nationally by allowing only 56.5 rushing yards per game.
“He’s tough. He’s rugged and he’s a violent, violent player,” Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford said of Williams.
The best defense against the Buckeyes will be limiting their possessions, but the Spartans have been erratic. In a 27-13 loss to Maryland last Saturday, the Michigan State offense gained just 75 of its 321 total yards in the second half, when Payton Thorne was 7 of 20 for 41 yards after he threw for 180 yards and a TD in the first half.
Ohio State will play on the road for the first time this season but is going to a place that historically has favored the Buckeyes, who have not lost in eight games in East Lansing since 1999.
“It will be new challenge for us,” Day said. “It’s going to be hard to win up there. It always is.”
The Buckeyes have won six straight overall in the series, by a combined 233-54 score, including 56-7 last season at home when the Spartans were ranked seventh.