EAST LANSING, Mich. - Big Ten matchups do not get much bigger than Saturday's conference opener between visiting Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan State.
The stakes are particularly high for the Spartans, who have already lost at home (to Notre Dame) and face back-to-back road games at conference rivals Wisconsin and Michigan next month. If not for Ohio State's NCAA probation, the Buckeyes would be the third ranked team faced by Michigan State on the young season.
Perhaps looking ahead to this week's tussle, neither team is coming off impressive performances.
Ohio State improved to 4-0 - all at home - after struggling past Alabama-Birmingham, while the Spartans needed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to finally pull away from winless Eastern Michigan.
About Ohio State (4-0):
The undefeated record aside, the Buckeyes are not winning many converts - including first-year coach Urban Meyer. Following the unimpressive 29-15 win over winless UAB, Meyer described his defense's play as "passive." The offense has also lacked consistency, although dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller has thrown for seven touchdowns and run for seven while ranking second in the Big Ten in rushing at 110.3 yards per game.
The running game should receive a boost with the expected return of Carlos Hyde, who has been sidelined the past two games with a knee injury. Jordan Hall stepped up by rushing for a career-high 105 yards last week. Although the defense has struggled, it has not allowed a point following a turnover this year.
About Michigan State (3-1):
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio was equally peeved by his team's effort in the 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan. Michigan State went seven quarters without scoring a touchdown before Andrew Maxwell connected with tight end Dion Sims midway through the fourth quarter. Maxwell has thrown for three touchdowns and three interceptions while watching his receivers drop 13 passes in the past two games.
The one constant for the Spartans is sledgehammer running back Le'Veon Bell. The 245-pound Bell rambled for a career-high 253 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries - his second 200-yard effort of the season. Michigan State is leading the Big Ten in scoring defense (11.8 points per game), rushing yards allowed (69.2) and total defense (233.5 yards).
Ohio State will be playing on a grass surface for the first time this season. The Buckeyes were 0-3 on grass in 2011.
Michigan State won 10-7 at Columbus last season to snap a seven-game losing streak to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have won six of their last seven games at Michigan State, including the past three, but have not played there since 2008.