Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio (left) and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer need their struggling units to step up. | AP
No. 2 Ohio State vs.
No. 10 Michigan State
The facts: 7:17 p.m., Fox-32.
The records: Ohio State 12-0, 8-0 Big Ten; Michigan State 11-1, 8-0.
The story line: So what does this game really mean for Michigan State? Besides, of course, that it could win a Big Ten championship?
The answer might be nothing.
Win, and the Spartans play in the Rose Bowl. Lose, and they still might play in the Rose Bowl, with Ohio State likely headed to the national championship. It’s reasonable to speculate that the Rose Bowl committee will look to pick a Big Ten team for the game’s 100th edition, even if it isn’t the conference champion.
But while Ohio State has much more to gain, neither team has assurances about its postseason. The Spartans’ goal is the Rose Bowl, but they’re only assured of playing in Pasadena with a victory.
If the Buckeyes win, they still could be passed by third-ranked Auburn in the BCS standings. So Ohio State might not just be looking to win, but win convincingly.
That will be as big of a challenge as the Buckeyes have had all season against a Michigan State defense that is averaging the fourth-fewest points allowed nationally.
Ohio State offensive lineman Marcus Hall won’t start after being ejected for fighting in the first half of the victory over Michigan last Saturday. But Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer indicated that Hall could play.
The line: Ohio State by 51⁄2.
Gruen’s pick: Ohio State 24-20.
2012: Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31
2011: Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39
Updated: January 8, 2014 6:12AM
INDIANAPOLIS — Anyone who doesn’t know better might think that all Ohio State needs to do to win the Big Ten championship Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium is to run the ball. And all Michigan State has to do is stop it.
Even the conference itself is salivating about a matchup between the Buckeyes’ rushing offense, which ranks No. 1 in the country, and the Spartans’ run defense, which also is tops in the nation.
That will sell the game. Win the game? Maybe.
Michigan State’s offense vs. Ohio State’s defense? It isn’t sexy, but one of those units stepping up could determine who hoists the Stagg Championship Trophy.
“The biggest focus is that as an offense we have to be consistent, not beat ourselves, and we have to do what we have to do,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I can’t say that we have to get off on a fast start and score the first three possessions. That’d be great, but I think this is over a long haul.”
The long haul means at least half the game. That’s how much time Michigan State’s offense will be on the field. And if the defense plays like it has all season and keeps Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller contained, the Spartans’ offense might play an even bigger role.
Meatballs itching for a classic, hard-nosed, smash-mouth Big Ten football game might call it blasphemy. Reality is the more appropriate characterization.
The latest installation of an up-and-down season for the Spartans’ offense was a 14-point output last week against Minnesota.
The identity of the Buckeyes’ defense can be similarly characterized.
Ohio State allowed 41 points to Michigan in a narrow victory last week. That was the epilogue to an inconsistent Wolverines offense that marched 84 yards to score with 32 seconds left and cut the Buckeyes’ lead to one.
“Sunday was not the easiest day because we had to get through the film, make corrections,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “But everything was focused on Michigan State from that point forward.”
Sell it any way you like. Put a positive spin on a game that features two dominant units. That easily could be the story line of the game.
But don’t be surprised if the matchup amounts to a battle of futility.