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Early analysis: Ohio State vs. Michigan State

No. 14 Ohio State at No. 20 Michigan State
3:30 p.m., ABC
Line: Michigan State -2.5

The Ohio State Buckeyes will take to the road for the first time this season after establishing a 4-0 record while playing at home so far through September. Their first road test is a big one, with Michigan State bringing a very solid defense to the table while searching for some offensive life after a sluggish couple of weeks.

Ohio State has their offensive spark in quarterback Braxton Miller but the sophomore will be faced with one of his biggest challenges in his young career as he looks to give Ohio State some revenge after losing a defensive battle last year in Ohio Stadium, 10-7. The battle to determine just who is the top Big Ten program could be decided this weekend in East Lansing. Lets take a closer look at this match-up.

For Ohio State to Win: Take advantage of the red zone opportunities. Sure, that seems sort of silly to say, but the fact is Michigan State does not allow their opponents to get inside the 20-yard line too often.Through four games this season only six times has the opposing team entered the red zone against this Michigan State defense, with Boise State and Notre Dame each doing so three times. 

In the season opener Boise State was held to two field goals on their three trips inside the 20-yard line, and the Broncos failed to leave East Lansing with a win despite playing well on defense. Notre Dame was able to score one touchdown on their three red zone trips, and the Irish added a field goal to help leave town on a happier note than Boise State did weeks before. The red zone scoring percentage goes in the books the same way for Boise State and Notre Dame, but if you cannot get in the end zone against the Spartans defense when you get so close, getting away with a win might be pretty tough.

The Buckeyes will enter this week having scored 14 touchdowns on 17 red zone opportunities, along with one field goal. Now, can they do it against the best defense they have faced to this point, away from home? This is the big question for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes.

For Michigan State to Win: Don't make Andrew Maxwell have to win it for you. While the future is still said to be bright for the junior quarterback, he is still learning as he goes as the starting quarterback for Michigan State. His 56.6 completion percentage has been OK but his touchdown-interception ratio of 1:1 tells the story all by itself. The good news is Maxwell threw three interceptions in the season opener against Boise State and has not been picked off once since.

If four games is enough of a sample size to draw from, it looks as though Michigan State will need to make sure they have the game in control entering the fourth quarter, as Maxwell's completion percentage is just 53.8 percent in the fourth quarter and his third and long completion percentage is below 42 percent.

Maybe this is a breakout game for Maxwell and you can throw these stats out the window.

Braxton Miller.Key Player, Ohio State: Forgive me for taking the easy answer here by suggesting quarterback Braxton Miller is the key player this weekend for Ohio State. But there is a reason to my logic here.

Just a sophomore, we are watching Miller literally grow up in front of our eyes on a weekly basis. This weekend he will face one of his toughest challenges by taking on one of the top defensive units in the Big Ten on the road against a team in need of a solid victory. Last year Miller led the Buckeyes to a 1-3 record on the road (1-4 if you include the Gator Bowl loss to Florida), with the lone win coming against an imploding Illinois team in which he completed one of four pass attempts in the entire game. If Miller is going to be a legitimate contender in the Heisman trophy race this season, then this is a game he must come up big in for the Buckeyes.

The good news for Ohio State fans is Miller is more than capable of doing damage a number of ways, as we have already seen this season and at times last season. But can he do it against a defense like this?

Key Player, Michigan State: While Michigan State could benefit from seeing their own young quarterback, Andrew Maxwell, mature a bit this week, the focus on the offense has to reside wit running back Le'Veon Bell. When Bell has a big game, the Spartans are generally in good shape. Against Boise State Bell rushed for 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the winning effort. Against Notre Dame he was limited to just 77 yards on 19 carries and held out of the end zone for the first time in five games dating back to the 2011 season.

The Buckeyes have been solid against the run, for the most part, but California showed that the scarlet and gray are far from impenetrable as the Bucks yielded 224 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns at home just two weeks ago. Cal was able to use a more fast-paced offensive style to exploit those weaknesses at times, which is not necessarily what Bell is known for, but if he can find one of those holes he will likely be able to pound out some good yardage.

I'm going to bend the rules though and mention one other key player for Michigan State, which is defensive end William Gholston. Gholston has not been sharp this season and is coming off one of his poorest outings as a Spartan last week against Eastern Michigan. What kind of character does he have to come back in a big way against one of the toughest conference opponents on the schedule? If he is at the top of his game, then he could find a way to disrupt Miller's mindset by bringing pressure. If Miller is scrambling around in the backfield he can still be dangerous against the Spartans defense, but he is also prone to make some mistakes under pressure as a young player.

Key Stat: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has accounted for 14 total touchdowns (passing and rushing) this season. Michigan State, as a team, has scored nine touchdowns through four games.

Ohio State had won seven straight meetings against the Spartans until Michigan State was able to leave Columbus last season with a 10-7 victory. Michigan State is currently 6-1 in their last seven games against Ohio State (1-0), Michigan (2-0), Wisconsin (2-1 – lost in Big Ten Championship Game) and Penn State (1-0) and are undefeated in regular season play against those traditional Big Ten powers (Michigan State lost at Nebraska last season).

 

Kevin McGuire is the national college football writer for Examiner.com and host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Follow him on TwitterGoogle+and Facebook.

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Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Managing editor of Crystal Ball Run and contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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