Can the Spartans shut down the Buckeyes?
The two top teams in the Eastern division of the Big Ten meet this weekend when Ohio State hosts Michigan State, and there’s a lot at stake for each program.
The Buckeyes are undefeated and chasing an obvious path in to the College Football Playoff, with a real chance to repeat as champions and further enhance Urban Meyer’s legacy. Meanwhile, with one defeat on their resume already, the Spartans can’t afford another and are already just barely clinging to their playoff hopes. They need to beat Ohio State this weekend, take out an undefeated Iowa the following week, and still cross their fingers for a bit more help elsewhere in the college football landscape. As of writing, FiveThirtyEight gives Michigan State a 12 percent chance of making the playoffs, so this is a game neither side can afford to drop.
There are several interesting matchups in this game, but it is likely all going to boil down to whether the Spartans can bottle up Ezekiel Elliott and force Ohio State into the air. If they can, they have a real shot of pulling off the upset.
Elliott has been the Buckeyes’ workhorse back this season, carrying the ball 222 times for 1,433 yards and 16 touchdowns and blocking better than any back in the nation when called upon to do so. He has topped 100 yards rushing in every game this season and has chipped in with 24 receptions for another 171 yards over the year. He has only failed to catch one of the 25 targets sent his way.
At six-feet tall and 225 pounds, Elliott is a bruising back who can run right over people in a heartbeat, turning good gains into huge plays while leaving a would-be tackler in a heap on the floor. Over half (55.0 percent) of his rushing yardage has come after contact this season and he’s broken 43 tackles over the year.
Where this becomes a potential problem for the Spartans is at the second and third levels of their defense.
The team has six players at those levels that have missed five or more tackles on the season, including all three starting linebackers and their strong safety — or the four players most likely to be tasked with bringing down Elliott if he makes it clean to the second level through the line.
Ohio State has been pretty good at getting him to that level all season long, and when they do he can drag players for extra yardage like nobody else in college football.
Take this play against Illinois. The Buckeyes get him through clean to the second level and Elliott is five yards past the line of scrimmage with a head of steam before he receives any contact. The would-be tackler goes low and hard, but still bounces off and Elliott drags defenders for another seven yards before finally being brought down.
This isn’t unusual either — in fact, when he does get clean through to the second level he is gaining extra yardage through the tackle point more often than not, and if he breaks a tackle at that level can be gone for a much bigger play.
Again, this time against Rutgers, Elliott has a nice path through the line and this time rumbles for about a dozen more yards while defenders try desperately to pull him down from behind. This is far from ideal defense, but the point is that this is what Elliott can do in the face of that kind of tackling.
If Michigan State wants to contain him, they can’t try and bring him down in this manner, but rather need to hit low and hard and wrap up through the tackle. If they allow him to win the collision, then he can do untold damage to a defense whose strength against the run lies closer to the line of scrimmage.
Again, this time against Penn State, Elliott makes it through the line and is five yards into the defense before being mobbed by a trio of white jerseys. Most players would fall at this point, but the pile is dragged another five yards before Elliott is finally brought to ground. These plays are the difference between drives being extended or failing, between punts and points, and ultimately between winning and losing games. In a game of inches, this is a player that is gaining yards more than he has any right to.
The performance of players like Connor Cook, especially deep down the field, is going to be huge for the Spartans on that side of the ball, and there are other interesting matchups to watch out for, but the key to this game is Michigan State controlling the damage Ezekiel Elliott can do to them. If they can bottle him up, and prevent a dominant display without completely selling out to stop the run then they are in good shape in this game.
If they lose the battle at the line of scrimmage, and Elliott finds his way consistently to the second level of that defense then they simply don’t have the power and physicality to stand up to what he brings with a full run up, and it will lead to big plays that Ohio State can capitalize on.
Ancient Sparta’s greatest foe was once the entire Persian army, but for these modern day Spartans that foe is just one man: Ezekiel Elliott. They will only hope they can block his way as effectively.