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With the Urban Meyer Era fewer than 50 days aways from kicking off in Columbus, we at Buckeye Grove- with some help from our friends in the Rivals.com network- have decided to take an in-depth look at each of Ohio State's opponents for the 2012 season. Today, we'll be examining the Buckeyes' fifth opponent of the season: the Michigan State Spartans. You can see yesterday's preview of the UAB Blazers by clicking here.
After accepting the Ohio State head coaching position on Nov. 28, it didn't take long for Urban Meyer to make a splash in the Big Ten. Two weeks after signing his new contract in Columbus, Meyer received a verbal commitment from defensive end Se'von Pittman, who previously had been committed to Michigan State.
Pittman's change of heart drew the ire of Spartans' head coach Mark Dantonio, who referred to Meyer recruiting an already committed player as "unethical." Never one to mince words, Meyer took Dantonio's criticisms to heart.
"You're pissed because we went after a committed guy? Guess what, we got nine guys who better go do it again," Meyer said at the Ohio High School coaches clinic. "Do it a little harder next time."
But while Meyer and Dantonio's war of words in press conferences and radio interviews certainly made for entertaining fodder for the blogosphere, the two will finally get a chance to settle their differences on the field on Sept. 29 when the Buckeyes head to East Lansing for their Big Ten season-opener with the Spartans.
"It's a big game," Paul Konyndyk of SpartanMag.com said. "There might be some bad blood, I don't know. There's probably some, with all the recruiting stuff that's happened, you know it is what it is."
A year after Michigan State picked up a 10-7 win in Columbus on its way to a 9-3 season that ended with an Outback Bowl win over Georgia, the Spartans are now attempting to replace their all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns in Kirk Cousins. Fourth-year junior Andrew Maxwell will get the first shot at replacing Cousins.
"He signed with Michigan State in 2009 as the highest-ranked quarterback in the Big Ten. He's a pro-style guy, he's an Elite 11 guy, he's got a big arm, very accurate, makes good decisions, and really the only thing he lacks is experience," Konyndyk said of Maxwell. "He's had a little playing time, but he knows the offense about as well as you could for someone who hasn't started and they expect some big things from him."
While Maxwell seems to have a firm grip on the Spartans' quarterback position, more questions surround a receiving corps that will attempt to replace a pair of NFL draft picks in B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Helping ease the load on the Michigan State receivers will be junior running back Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011.
"You're going to see more of a balance between the run and the pass this year given that Michigan State's got an offensive line that was kind of makeshift last year and a lot of these guys got experience and they kind of gelled at the end of the year," Konyndyk said. "I don't think Michigan State's going to be afraid to use the entire playbook if needed."
Much like last season, the strength of the Spartans lies with its defense, where despite losing second round pick defensive tackle Jerel Worthy to the NFL, they return 19 of the 22 members on their two-deep.
"They lose Jerrel Worthy, that's a tough thing, but if Anthony Rashad White, who's going to be a senior this year, if he plays as well as he did in the bowl game, that's going to take a lot of heat off the defensive ends," Konyndyk said. "They need some guys to step up next to him at defensive end, but with William Gholston going into his junior year and Marcus Rush going into his sophomore year, they feel really good about that. I think you'll see a rotation of about five-deep at defensive tackle and you'll see five guys rotate in at defensive end."
Even with the athleticism of quarterback Braxton Miller, the Spartans' deep and athletic defensive line could spell trouble for the Buckeyes and their inexperienced offensive line, especially when you consider that Michigan State recorded nine sacks in its meeting with Ohio State a season ago.
"I think Braxton Miller is a terrific quarterback, he's going to be a lot better this year, but one of the strengths that Michigan State does a very good job with on the defense that they run is they're able to carrel mobile quarterbacks," Konyndyk said. "Denard Robinson at Michigan has said that three of his worst games have been when he's played Michigan State. They've been able to handle for the most part mobile quarterbacks."
With just three points separating the two teams a season ago and what appears to be two evenly matched teams, this year's matchup could come down to execution and special teams. That would be especially fitting for Dantonio, a former Ohio State defensive coordinator, who's used former Buckeyes' coach Jim Tressel's values to help elevate Michigan State into only one of seven programs to win at least 11 games in the past two seasons.
"When Mark Dantonio took over, the guys from Ohio on the Michigan State football team sort of felt like they weren't as good as the guys at Ohio State. I think that attitude's is completely, completely gone," Konyndyk said. "Any time you get two teams that have some of the same goals and have the talent to do it, I think you're going to have some pretty tight games. I expect this to be the same."
A kickoff time for the Sept. 29 matchup between the Buckeyes and Spartans has yet to be announced.
You can follow Paul Konyndyk on Twitter @Pkonyndyk.
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