1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?
3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.
4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.
5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.
The 11-1 Spartans and the undefeated Buckeyes will meet in Big Ten championship game on Saturday, but have taken very different paths to get there.
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AP Photo/Jeff HaynesCarlos Hyde (left), Braxton Miller and the Ohio State ground game faces its toughest test this season.
A matchup of strengths
Ohio State is second among FBS teams in rushing yards per game (321.3), and leads the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and rushes of 10 yards or more (130). The Buckeyes lead all AQ schools with 1,502 rushing yards after contact.
They had four rushing touchdowns last week against Michigan, which is one fewer than Michigan State has allowed all season.
Michigan State has allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (64.4), yards per rush (2.2) and 10-yard rushes (19) in the FBS this season, and has held all but one opponent under 100 yards on the ground this season.
Miller coming on strong
Braxton Miller got off to a slow start running this season, but in his past three games, he’s got 481 rushing yards, which is fifth among FBS players since the start of Week 12.
The key for Miller’s improvement in the running game has been increased efficiency on zone-read plays. In his first seven games he attempted 24 zone reads, gaining 87 yards with no touchdowns. In the past three games, Miller has 21 such rushes for 276 yards and three touchdowns.
What does Michigan State do well?
Michigan State is on pace to allow the fewest rushing yards per game since TCU gave up 47.1 in 2008. One reason for their success is the Spartans do not let opponents turn the corner.
They allowed an AQ-best 2.9 yards per designed run outside the tackles and haven’t allowed one of those runs to go for more than 16 yards.
The Spartans have also done an excellent job limiting opposing quarterbacks on the ground. They’ve allowed -19 rushing yards on 92 carries by opposing quarterbacks this season, the fewest in the FBS.
Michigan State is the only FBS team that hasn’t allowed a run longer than 12 yards to a quarterback and is one of four teams that haven’t allowed a quarterback to score a rushing touchdown.
Looking toward Saturday
Michigan State has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 200 yards in the past two seasons. Both games were last season and the Spartans gave up the majority of those yards to quarterbacks -- Braxton Miller (136) and Taylor Martinez (205).
Martinez didn’t play in Michigan State’s win against Nebraska this season, but Miller will play on Saturday, in what will be the biggest test thus far for both Ohio State’s offense and Michigan State’s defense.
We've got a bona fide heavyweight tilt in the Big Ten championship game, with national title implications at stake. It's time to crown a champion, and we need to be in championship form with these predictions ...
No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE (11-1, 8-0) versus No. 2 OHIO STATE (12-0, 8-0)
Brian Bennett: What a matchup this is, with the unstoppable force that is the Buckeyes' offense colliding with the immovable object of the Spartans' defense. I expect Ohio State to put up its lowest point total of the season as the "No-Fly Zone" led by Darqueze Dennard keeps the Buckeyes' air attack mostly grounded. And I expect the Spartans to make some plays on offense with Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford as they exploit some of the weaknesses of Urban Meyer's defense.
To me, this game comes down to one guy: Braxton Miller. He always seems to rise to the occasion in big spots, and this is the biggest game of his career. As good as Michigan State's defense is, it will have a hard time containing Miller and Carlos Hyde for 60 minutes, and Miller can flummox the best of defenses with his open-field running ability.
The Spartans take the lead into halftime as Cook is sharp early on, but Miller gets loose for a 60-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to give Ohio State the lead. Then he and Hyde grind out first downs in the fourth quarter to protect it. Still, both teams can bite down on some roses, because they're both headed to Pasadena. ... Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24
Adam Rittenberg: This is the matchup we've been waiting to see, and I can't wait for kickoff Saturday night. As I often do, I've changed my mind several times during the week. Michigan State should handle Ohio State's offense better than any defense has all season. Then again, Big Ten championship games are high scoring since teams no longer have to deal with the weather. Cook has never been on a stage like this and could show his inexperience. Then again, he has answered every challenge to date. And Miller hasn't played in a game of this magnitude, either.
I keep thinking back to last year's title game, where Nebraska came in as a favorite but clearly looked intimidated by the setting and the stakes. Wisconsin was the much looser team, played like it and spanked the Huskers. These are two different teams -- I think Michigan State will be the looser one, as the Spartans are likely headed to the Rose Bowl either way. Ohio State finally has the national title game in its sights. How will the Buckeyes hold up against the best team they've faced since 2011?
Ohio State jumps ahead early, as it almost always does, but the Spartans settle down and force two turnovers midway through the game. Cook attacks the secondary with the play-action and fires touchdown passes to Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Miller puts Ohio State in front midway through the fourth quarter with a touchdown run, but the Spartans answer behind Cook and Jeremy Langford, who finds some running room late. Michigan State ends this title game on the right side of a special-teams play, as Michael Geiger kicks his third field goal for the win. And the SEC rejoices. ... Michigan State 30, Ohio State 28
As you probably know, we've selected a guest picker each week this season to compete with us. For a game this big, we thought we needed to do something special. So we reached out to a couple of celebrity guest pickers from each side who have ties to Indianapolis as well.
First up is former Ohio State running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, who's now with the Indianapolis Colts. Herron picks the Buckeyes to win 31-17, saying, "I have confidence in my team and coaching staff. I haven't really watched [Michigan State], but I don't think they can stop our offense, and our defense will get the job done."
Our second guest picker is former Michigan State center Jason Strayhorn, an Indianapolis native who's now an analyst for the Spartans' radio network. Strayhorn says, "I think the game will come down to not only red zone defense, but also whose weakness is stronger: Michigan State's passing game versus Ohio State's pass defense. I say Connor Cook throws for 270 yards and Michigan State wins 28-24. I say that because that was the score we had when we went to Columbus and beat the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes in 1998."
Thanks to Boom and Jason for their picks. We'll find out who's right Saturday night.
Brian Bennett: 80-16
Adam Rittenberg: 79-17
Guest pickers: 75-21
See you at 11.
No. 10 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State have kicked off 24 football games this year and walked away a winner 23 times.
So at the risk of seeking information from wrong sources, ESPN.com surveyed coaches who faced the Spartans and Buckeyes for tips on how to succeed against the Big Ten championship game participants.
We granted anonymity to the coaches, position coaches and coordinators from inside and outside the Big Ten, in order to ensure the most candid responses.
One coach who required no such secrecy, as Brian Kelly of Notre Dame offered sound advice when asked how to attack the top-ranked Michigan State defense.
“You cannot win by trying to get three yards here, four yards there,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to get big chunk plays.”
Kelly’s squad, of course, owns the lone victory this season over one of the Big Ten’s top two squads -- a 17-13 win in South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 21.
Below are excerpts from our other conversations about the Spartans.
Check the Big Ten blog later on Thursday for report on Ohio State.
Coach: They've improved as the year went along. The line's jelled and started playing well together. They're a physical style attack. They're going to run at you. Cook has emerged as very consistent. They don't have a big tight end like they did a year ago, Dion Sims, so they don't have the same tight end receiving threat that they typically have, but they've got a corps of receivers that are good players. They're tall kids. They'll catch the ball. They do a good job attacking you and finding your weak spots and exploiting them.”
ESPN.com: How dangerous is running back Jeremy Langford, who’s rushed for 1,210 yards and 17 touchdowns?
Coach: I was impressed with him before and after our game. He's not small, 6-foot, 206. He's learned how to run physically. Sometimes a receiver moving over, you wonder how physical they're going to be running the ball, but he's done a heck of a job for them. I wouldn't put him in Montee Ball's category, but similar size, speed, jukes. He's not as low to the ground as (Carlos) Hyde, but he's a little niftier."
ESPN.com: Ideally, how do you attack Michigan State’s defense?
Coach: It's very difficult. You may get them on one play, but you're not getting them on that same play twice. Their coaches do a great job of making adjustments, and the guys are smart. They're going to crowd the box to take away your run game, so you've got to get to play-action and make double moves off their safeties, or you've got to beat their corners one on one.
ESPN.com: Easier said than done, right, with Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes out there at corner?
Coach: They've always had a ton of confidence in their corners. Dennard’s a great one. He knows when he has help and when he doesn't. Yes, they do a phenomenal job of taking away your outside guys with their corners. One thing that's underrated is that they have no problem getting their corners involved in the run game. But if you have real good skill kids at slot receiver or tight end, they have trouble covering those guys up. That's an area where we tried. We just didn't do enough it.
ESPN.com: Why does their scheme work so well?
Coach: They have a way of forcing you into something bad, like they make you try to hit a hole too quickly or rush a throw. For whatever reason, they always seem to be in your face. The best way to describe it, they don't stay blocked very long. It's, by far, the thing I noticed compared to everybody else we played this year. We played, fundamentally, up front, our best game of the year. But still, you'd see a play and think it was a seven-, eight-yard gain, and it went for just three, because they refused to stay blocked. Coach (Pat) Narduzzi has them drinking the Kool-Aid big time, because I think physically, there are better groups, defensively, but nobody plays with their hair on fire quite like them.
ESPN.com: If you were calling plays on Saturday, who would get your attention first on that defense?
Coach: I've got a ton of respect for Max Bullough. I think he's a great player. But the best player on the front seven isn't him or Shilique Calhoun. It's the other defensive end, Marcus Rush. Calhoun reminded us of the kid they had last year, William Gholston. He wants to rush the passer. That's his M.O., so we wanted to run at him, because we felt he wouldn't hold up as well. But part of the reason we ran at Calhoun was because we wanted to stay away from Rush. He can just give you fits.
Let’s finish with a thought from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who saw the Spartans up close on Oct. 5 in Iowa City as MSU beat the Hawkeyes 26-14.
“Michigan State's awfully close to being an undefeated team,” Ferentz said. “It's interesting to me. On a national front, they're so far under the radar from what I see. They're not a bad football team. I don't think people realize how good they are. We'll see on Saturday."
The schemes are likely to be pretty similar also, since the sidelines are going to be to stocked with the same people as well.
And mixed in among all the game tapes of Michigan State this season, the Ohio State coaches would be silly not to take a look back at what the same opponent tried to do against them a year ago in the never-ending search for an edge.
"We're a lot different," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "The numbers on the jersey and the names on the back might be the same at a lot of positions, but we're better.
"So schematically, I think it helps a little bit. But I think the ways that if you were a defensive coordinator that you would have attacked us last year might be a hair different this year because of some of the things that we've improved upon and the ways that we have gotten better. Especially individually, across the board we have improved."
That's most clear in the Ohio State backfield, which heading into last season's Big Ten opener on the road at Spartan Stadium didn't even feature Carlos Hyde as a starter.
Eventually he would take over for an injured Jordan Hall in that game and never look back, but back then Hyde certainly wasn't the destructive force he's become as a senior. Against the Spartans a year ago, he rushed just 11 times for 49 yards -- a far cry from the 156 yards per contest he's averaging in Big Ten games this season.
Braxton Miller was already putting his multipurpose skills on display, throwing a gorgeous game-winning touchdown pass to Devin Smith and rushing for 136 yards in last year's 17-16 win over the Spartans. But the junior quarterback is far more deadly now as a passer, which has opened up pages of the playbook that were untouched at that time and figure to provide a lot more options for attacking Michigan State's top-ranked defense.
Hyde and Miller are, of course, the focal point for the Buckeyes, but they're not the only ones who survived the 2012 battle with the Spartans and grew from the experience. There are four returning starters on the offensive line pushing every opponent around, Smith and Philly Brown have given Miller two reliable targets at wide receiver, and Jeff Heuerman has been invaluable as both a run-blocking tight end and a threat in the passing game.
And perhaps more than a glimpse at what the Spartans may do schematically, that improvement might stand out more than anything when the Buckeyes rewind the film.
"It certainly helps you to watch last year and figure out the what [they do]," Herman said. "But the why might be a lot different this year because of who we are and what our personality is on offense now this year.
"We're better than we were last year, and they are too on defense. Let's not kid ourselves on that, either."
On Saturday, both teams will have a chance to see exactly how far they've come since then. No film room required.
2. The Big Ten Championship Game is a classic matchup of strength against strength, Michigan State’s old-school defense and Ohio State’s explosive offense (when the Spartans have the ball, make a fridge run). The Buckeyes rank in the top 10 in seven offensive categories. Michigan State ranks first or second in five defensive categories. Ohio State has played only one top-30 defense: Wisconsin. But the Buckeyes played well against the Badgers, scoring 31 points with a balanced attack. I don’t think Ohio State needs to score 31 to win Saturday night.
3. Marques Tuiasosopo is a 34-year-old assistant coach with a pedigree as a Huskies hero. He led Washington to a Rose Bowl victory in the 2000 season. He has done good work with current quarterback Keith Price. Under different circumstances, it’s conceivable that Tuiasosopo, whom Washington named as interim coach, could be seen as a genuine candidate to replace Steve Sarkisian. But the Huskies have closed a huge gap in the Pac-12 North. It seems as if athletic director Steve Woodward would want a veteran to help Washington catch Stanford and Oregon.
Each week during the 2013 college football season I will offer up my picks and a projected score for the biggest games in addition to a handful of other key matchups.
Week 14 is in the books and my picks went 6-3. Overall, my record now stands at 95-31 this year (67-58-1 versus the spread).
After a week that saw the two-time defending champs dethroned on a miracle finish, championship week sees four of the BCS's top five playing not only for a conference championship but also for a spot in the BCS National Championship on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif.
Big Ten championship
Saturday, 8:17 p.m. ET
No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes versus No. 10 Michigan State Spartans (Indianapolis)
The Buckeyes have won eight of the past nine games in the series, including last year's 17-16 escape in East Lansing. It could be argued that this is the most important Big Ten game played since No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan in 2006. A win here should put the Buckeyes back in the BCS title game for the first time since 2007 while Michigan State, win or lose, looks to be in good shape for its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1987.
The Buckeyes come in winners of 24 straight games, which is the longest streak since USC won 34 straight back in 2003-2005. The Spartans, meanwhile, finished their first unbeaten Big Ten season since 1966 and also became the first Big Ten team since Michigan in 1943 to win all of their conference games by double digits. The two teams have played six common opponents and the Spartans are actually outgaining those foes by 176 yards per game while the Buckeyes are plus-130 YPG.
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Alex from Denver, N.C., writes: Please tell me how the two OSU players can avoid being suspended for an entire game, while Will Gholston in 2011 is suspended for what he did in the Michigan game. Watching the OSU player exit the stadium was ridiculous and the OSU community should be ashamed of that behavior. The Big Ten should be ashamed of condoning that behavior. If you don't discipline it, then you allow it.
Brian Bennett: The argument from the Big Ten is that Marcus Hall and Dontre Wilson were ejected from the Michigan game, and that satisfied the requirement of revoked playing time. William Gholston was not ejected from the game against Michigan in 2011 but was suspended by the league for the following game. There is some logic to that argument, especially as it applies to Wilson. As for Hall, I believe some additional punishment was warranted for his double-bird salute as he walked off the field (Urban Meyer said he has handed out internal discipline to Wilson and Hall and another player). And there were other players involved in the scrum who could have faced suspensions.
My big problem with the ruling is that the fight was an ugly scene in the league's most high-profile game, and it looks as if the Big Ten is protecting its two marquee teams and its championship game. Handing down even a smaller suspension like one quarter would have carried some symbolic weight. Instead, the completely meaningless "public reprimand" comes off looking extremely weak and does nothing to curb incidents like that in the future.
Victor from Columbus, OH, writes: Is it just me or does this Ohio State team have that underdog destiny feeling about them? This team reminds me a lot of the 2002 national championship team. OSU isn't dominating opponents, many people nationally aren't giving them a shot, but most importantly, this team refuses to lose! Even with a decisive win (if OSU wins) this coming Saturday, I believe OSU would still be a relatively large underdog in the BCS championship game. Last time that happened OSU won the national championship and shocked the country. Do you feel the destiny or is it just us OSU fans being over optimistic?
Brian Bennett: Ohio State as underdog? That's something you don't hear much. It's hard to say a team coached by Meyer coming off an undefeated season is in any way an underdog; remember that the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in some preseason polls. The 2002 team was coming off a 7-5 campaign and was not ranked in the Top 10 to start the year, and those Buckeyes had a lot of close, low-scoring games.
Ohio State does, however, figure to be an underdog in a potential BCS matchup with Florida State. But it won't be anything like that scenario against Miami and its roster full of future pros in the Buckeyes' last national championship game win. Things have broken right for Meyer's team this year in that other contenders like Alabama, Oregon, Baylor and Stanford have all lost. And it goes without saying that Florida State has a possible major issue on its hands. So in that sense, perhaps the Buckeyes are a team of destiny.
Justin A. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: First of all I'd like to say that as a Michigan fan living in Columbus, Ohio life can be rough. Attending The Game this past Saturday, felt like a dream that was ended by a rude awakening. It was a heartbreaking loss and I am proud of my team yet I am sure I will hear plenty of smack talk at work on Monday. As for my question, what does more for the Big Ten's perception: Michigan State beating Ohio State in the B1G CG and MSU playing Stanford in the Rose Bowl and OSU getting matched up with Missouri or Alabama and then both B1G teams beat those teams in their bowl games, or OSU winning the national championship against a Florida State team and hearing about how the SEC didn't have a chance to defend its title streak? I think both scenarios would greatly boost the Big Ten's image, yet I can't decide which scenario would boost it more.
Brian Bennett: I feel for you Justin, and for Michigan fans everywhere. I can imagine it's not too fun to see your two biggest rivals play for the Big Ten championship on Saturday. As for your question, I'll go with the national championship. Sure, there would be some griping from the SEC that Ohio State lucked its way to a title, and even more so nationally if Jameis Winston weren't available for Florida State. Still, when people talk about SEC dominance, do they bring up BCS bowl wins? No, they brag about national titles. That's the ultimate prize, and it's been 12 years since a Big Ten team held the crystal football. People would forget in time the circumstances around the championship, but -- as they say -- flags fly forever. A national title from the Big Ten would also give the league a nice boost heading into the playoff era.
Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: I understand the annual awards are individual based, but how can a Michigan offensive lineman POSSIBLY win a conference award? Again, I understand this is an individual award, and Taylor Lewan won the award last year, but let's look at some of the stats that directly relate to the offensive line. Team Sacks allowed -- 3rd worst in B1G. Rushing yards per game -- 2nd worst. So the offensive line couldn't pass protect very well (even with a very mobile QB) and couldn't open up running lanes (again includes yards Gardner earned when protection broke down). What exactly did Lewan do to earn this award?
Brian Bennett: Michigan would tell you that Lewan graded out higher this year than he did a season ago when he was a first-team All-American and the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year for the first time. They'll also say that he didn't give up a sack this year. I feel for Lewan, and offensive line is one area where every single player has to be in sync or the whole thing breaks down. The Wolverines' well-documented blocking woes weren't Lewan's fault. Still, I think some of that lack of team success has to be factored in, and I saw Lewan lose his composure in the Michigan State game. My pick for offensive lineman of the year in 2013 would have been Ohio State's Jack Mewhort.
Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Hey, Brian, not sure how to read the Penn State win against Wisconsin this past weekend. Do you think BO'B squad exceeded their potential, or did they finally just live up to it? I'm thinking it's the latter, in that the talent was there all season but just hadn't been working together at the same time. Seems like they may have a a brighter future than some predicted.
Brian Bennett: Keeping in mind the obvious depth and talent issues that Bill O'Brien faced, there were definitely times that Penn State underachieved this season. The Nittany Lions lost by 20 to Indiana, probably should have lost to Illinois at home and got smoked by 49 points at Ohio State. The defense was a major problem, as was inconsistency on offense. Don't forget that the Lions played with a true freshman quarterback. I saw Penn State as team with some very good players that was capable of putting together strong performances at time. It just happened that its best performance came at the end.
Kevin from Evanston writes: With Northwestern being a Top-5 APR school can't they go bowling at 5-7? If they were to go to the Little Caesars Bowl in Detroit, plenty of fans would travel.
Brian Bennett: There is a way that Northwestern could get into a bowl. I wrote about this last year when the NCAA approved a new bowl waiver. Basically, if there aren't enough 6-6 teams to fill all the postseason slots, the bowls can pick other teams in this order:
- Teams that finish 6-6 with wins against two FCS opponents;
- Teams that finish 6-7 by losing in their conference title game;
- Teams that finish 6-7 but normally play 13 games (so, basically, Hawaii);
- FCS teams in transition to the FBS that are at least 6-6
- FBS teams that finish 5-7, but finish in the Top 5 of the NCAA's academic progress rate
Northwestern ranked No. 1 in the APR so would be eligible under that fifth clause. But it's not going to happen this year. There are 35 bowl games, and more than 70 teams are already at least 6-6 with more possibilities to come this weekend. So the Wildcats will be staying home.
Jim from Albuquerque, N.M., writes: I think Bo Pelini is right. You take all the media hype about whether or not he is on the hot seat, and it's not right. I am glad he stood his ground. The media is not into "equal harassment." As for the refs, they made a bad call on a block NU's wide receiver made on a PSU defender. I would have been angry as a head coach too. That was a reasonable block; and the receiver's head was in front of the defender. The media is ruthless and should be censured for damage they can inflict on a football program's image. And there should be legal implications.
Brian Bennett: Sure, Jim. It's the media's fault that Nebraska gave up 70 points in the Big Ten championship game last year and had a whole bunch of fans ready to make a change. It's the media's fault that Pelini has lost four games every year. It's the media's fault that Pelini hasn't delivered a conference championship or a BCS bowl. It's the media's fault that Nebraska continually shoots itself in the foot with turnovers and has the same volatile personality as its head coach. It's the media's fault that Pelini nearly hit an official with his hat and then cursed in his postgame press conference that was broadcast live, just the latest in a long line of examples of Pelini failing to control his anger.
Yep, all of that is on reporters, because certainly no one else had ever talked about or considered that Pelini might get fired. To borrow another man's words, If you want to arrest me, go ahead and arrest me.
There you'll find two of the nation's best cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both are native Georgians (Dennard grew up in Dry Branch; Roby is from Suwanee), both love press coverage and run support, and both could be the first members of their respective teams selected in April's NFL draft.
Dennard on Monday was named the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year, the latest honor for a player already named a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation's top defensive back) and the Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back). The 5-foot-11, 197-pound senior has 56 tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble and five quarterback hurries for the nation's No. 1 defense. All-America honors are undoubtedly forthcoming.
He's also a captain for No. 10 Michigan State, an unlikely ending for the skinny, soft-spoken kid who arrived on campus in the summer of 2010.
"You really can't see a transformation much more defining than what 'Queze went through," Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. "The success he's had on the field in being a captain and being a very influential person, this team is sitting at 11-1, and he's a big part of that."
Roby is a big part of Ohio State's 12-0 mark, but his season has been anything but smooth. He enjoyed many of the accolades Dennard is now receiving back in 2012, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award after leading the nation in passes defended (1.73 per game).
This season has brought a suspension (following a July arrest), an ejection (for targeting against Iowa) and a humbling performance (against Wisconsin's All-Big Ten receiver Jared Abbrederis on Sept. 28). But the ever-confident Roby didn't let his lows linger and has elevated his play for most of the Big Ten season.
"This year was fundamental," Roby told ESPN.com. "When I made the decision to come back, I felt like this was going to happen. I was like, 'Man, it's too easy, two years and I can already go to the [NFL].' But it's not like that. If I really want to be what I want to be in the long term, I have to go through some things and learn and mature.
"The things that happened, I'm not saying I tied it to those situations on purpose just to get in trouble, but everything that's happened has been serious but also[to] the point where I haven't lost everything."
Roby, who switched his commitment from Vanderbilt to Ohio State weeks before signing day in 2010, arrived in Columbus with a clear plan: redshirt one year, play two and then bolt for the NFL.
But in January, he opted to return for his fourth season, saying he had unfinished business as the Buckeyes emerged from NCAA sanctions. After the first few games, however, Roby was thinking more about the NFL than the BCS.
"I was in a mind-set of, 'Yeah, I'm good enough to play in the NFL,'" he said. "When you start thinking like that, you stop doing the things you used to do, when you were hungry, when nobody knew who you were. It was kind of, 'Oh, I don't have to do this drill today. I don't have to watch film as much.'
"You kind of fall off."
The turning point came after Abbrederis recorded 10 receptions for 207 yards at Ohio Stadium. Although Roby thinks he only had a few bad plays, he admits Abbrederis got the best of him. It forced him to narrow his focus.
The following week at Northwestern, he blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. Special teams are a trademark for Roby, who has three career punt blocks and two touchdown recoveries. Another is never giving up on plays.
"He's my ace on kickoff coverage," coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a very valuable member of this team."
While Roby's growth took place this season, Dennard's began much earlier. He had no scholarship offers as a high school senior when Spartans assistant Dave Warner accidentally stumbled upon him while recruiting southern Georgia.
Dennard came to Michigan State at "165 pounds, soaking wet."
"Man, he was little," Bullough said.
"My body just matured after I got here," Dennard said.
Thanks to strength coach Ken Mannie and others, Dennard added 20 pounds as a freshman, when he appeared in six games, starting two. He recorded three interceptions in 2011, including two in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, yet was overshadowed by fellow corner Johnny Adams.
Dennard finally got his due last season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He thrives in an aggressive scheme that isolates cornerbacks on the edges but doesn't ask them to back off.
"Darqueze has had an outstanding year," coach Mark Dantonio said. "Shutdown corner, great tackler. He's got great skills."
Dennard complements his physical skills with leadership.
"When I first got to campus, I really was a shy guy, didn't talk that much," Dennard said. "Once I got to know these guys ... I started talking more. These past two years, I've really started [to become vocal]."
Roby doesn't know Dennard well -- he wasn't aware they're both from Georgia -- but he has watched Dennard, especially in press coverage, which Roby loves even though Ohio State doesn't employ it as much. Roby is well aware of the praise Dennard and his fellow MSU defenders receive and uses it as motivation this week.
"I came back this year for this reason, to be in this position," Roby said. "I've gone through a lot of things on and off the field, but at the end of the day, I'm still in position to get everything I want and everything I’ve been dreaming of.
"It's all on the line this Saturday."
And while they’re a bit of an unknown to each other, they have six overlapping opponents this season, including the Wolverines. Michigan lost to both teams, though, in very different ways. Here’s a breakdown of what we can draw from the OSU-MSU matchup based off what happened with the Wolverines.
- OSU OFFENSE vs. MSU DEFENSE
OSU offense vs. Michigan defense: The Buckeyes had 526 yards of offense against Wolverines, including nearly 400 rushing yards. The dual-threat rushing attack of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde combined for four touchdowns and nine yards per carry. Miller completed only six passes against the Wolverines and just one receiver (tight end Jeff Heuerman) tallied more than one reception. The 526 yards was right around the Buckeyes’ average of 530 yards per game, but generally their attack is more balanced as they’ve averaged 321 rushing yards and 209 passing yards per game.
OSU offense vs. MSU defense: It’ll be strength vs. strength in this matchup. The Buckeyes prolific rushing attack will attempt to find holes against a Spartan front seven that seems to be a solid wall. It should be interesting because Michigan State hasn’t seen a duo quite like Miller/Hyde. The big key will be whether or not MSU can come up with turnovers. Hyde and Miller will probably be able to find some yards, but if the Spartans can kill some plays, it’d be huge.
- MSU OFFENSE vs. OSU DEFENSE
Michigan offense vs. OSU defense: The Wolverines put together their most complete offensive performance of the season. And it seems pretty fair to say that Ohio State wasn’t really expecting it. Gardner mainly used his arm and short, quick passes to attack the Buckeye defense. His 451 passing yards and four touchdowns absolutely destroyed Ohio State’s average of 256 passing yards allowed per game, and it definitely played toward the problems with OSU's defense. The Buckeyes have given up 30 touchdowns this season and 23 of those have been passing touchdowns, so while they might have an All-Big Ten defensive back in Bradley Roby, their secondary has been an issue.
MSU offense vs. OSU defense: Gardner’s performance against Ohio State showed that there are shots down the field that can be made against the Buckeyes. And with Cook improving with each game, he’ll have to look for those. But what really opened up the field was Michigan's offensive line protecting Gardner well enough and creating enough room for the running backs. The Michigan State offensive line is greatly improved from last season, and Langford has proven himself as a versatile and strong back. However, one of the worst things that could have happened to Michigan State was how well Michigan’s offense played last weekend. Because after that lackluster performance, the Ohio State defense will look to make a statement and Cook and his offense will be on the Buckeyes' defensive menu.