The big game and the big contract are dominating the headlines about Saturday’s Big Ten football showdown between No. 4 Ohio State (9-1, 7-0 Big Ten) and No. 7 Michigan State (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten).
The game has huge implications for the Big Ten East Division race and for the College Football Playoff chances of the Buckeyes and Spartans.
That’s headline No. 1. But headline No. 1-A is the massive 10-year, $95 million contract Michigan State and coach Mel Tucker are reportedly discussing.
That would put him in Nick Saban territory and make him the highest paid football coach in the Big Ten after only 17 games as MSU’s coach.
Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch summed up that kind of offer this way: Is it a ridiculous amount of money? Yes. Is it what Michigan State has to do to keep its coach? Yes.
Michigan State has seen how good things can be with the right coach when it had Mark Dantonio. It saw how quickly things can go in the wrong direction when it was coached by Bobby Williams and John L. Smith.
Presumably Tucker is focused on Ohio State and his agent and attorney are handling the contract discussions.
But there is the potential for a bit of embarrassment for Michigan State if the announcement of an historic contract is preceded by a blowout loss Saturday.
Long time Ohio State fans remember when OSU announced it was extending John Cooper’s contract by three years the morning of the Michigan game in 1991.
That did not turn out well at all when Michigan won 31-3 and Desmond Howard did his Heisman Trophy pose after returning a punt 93 yards for a touchdown.
So, what needs to happen for Saturday’s game to turn out well for Ohio State?
Five things to watch:
• Ohio State’s passing game against Michigan State’s pass defense.
The Spartans rank last nationally in passing yards allowed per game (329). In their last three games against Michigan, Purdue and Maryland, opposing quarterbacks have averaged 430 yards a game and have thrown 8 touchdown passes. And Ohio State has a better passing game than any of those three teams.
C.J. Stroud had his best overall game when he threw for five touchdowns in last week’s 59-31 win over Purdue. Garrett Wilson had probably his best game as a Buckeye with 10 catches and four touchdowns in that game and Jaxon Smith-Njigba is playing at a level comparable to that of Chris Olave and Wilson.
• Ohio State’s ability to run the ball. Beating a good team with a one-dimensional offense could be risky. Michigan State’s run defense is good enough to be a challenge for the Buckeyes. It hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. If this turns into a high-scoring game, the passing game isn’t the only place to find big plays. No one for Ohio State, not even Stroud, Olave, Wilson and Smith-Njigba, can change a game faster than TreVeyon Henderson.
• Michigan State’s injury report. The Spartans played without four starters in a 40-21 win over Maryland last Saturday.
Wide receiver Jalen Nailor has missed the last two games with a hand injury. Left tackle Jarrett Horst, linebacker Quavaris Crouch and cornerback Charles Brantley did not play against Maryland and kicker Matt Coghlin kicked only extra points apparently because of an undisclosed injury.
• Ohio State’s run defense. When Ohio State’s defense has been questioned it has usually been because of problems defending against the pass. Early in the season OSU also struggled at stopping the run.
OSU has limited its last eight opponents to 113 yards or fewer on the ground. But in the first two games of the season Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim ran for 163 yards and Oregon’s C.J. Verdell gained 161.
Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III is the best running back OSU has faced, and by far the best since the Oregon game. He leads the nation with 1,473 yards, including two games of more than 200 yards and had 197 yards and five touchdowns in a 37-33 win over Michigan.
• Michigan State has come from behind in the second half to win three of its games. The Spartans were behind Nebraska with 6 ½ minutes to play before tying the game on a punt return and winning 23-20 in overtime. They were behind Indiana at halftime before winning 20-15 and trailed Michigan by 16 points late in the third quarter.
The prediction: Ohio State 41, Michigan State 28.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414.