Three times this season the Michigan State Spartans have been double-digit underdogs. In the first two matchups, the Spartans shocked the college football landscape by winning straight up.
First was the 27-24 victory over rival Michigan, which seems less impressive week to week as the Wolverines flounder. But MSU managed to win despite entering as 22-point underdogs.
After two blowout losses to Iowa and Indiana, sportsbooks had MSU giving 13.5 points to Northwestern, expecting another listless performance from the Spartans. But MSU managed to score in the first half for the first time in three weeks and would jump out to a 17-0 lead before holding on for the 29-20 upset over the Wildcats.
It marked another signature victory for first-year head coach Mel Tucker, whose team apparently thrives when no one expects it to win. MSU is 2-0 as a double-digit underdog and 0-3 in the rest of its games, including a season-opening loss to Rutgers as a 10-point favorite.
But even in an up-and-down season, Tucker’s victories as an underdog give him an edge over rival coach Jim Harbaugh. In six years at Michigan, Harbaugh has never won a game as an underdog. Meanwhile, Tucker now has two underdog victories.
MSU can make it 3-0 as a major underdog, but the Spartans will be facing the biggest odds to date. MSU enters Saturday’s matchup with the Ohio State Buckeyes as 24-point underdogs — the largest spread it has faced this season. For the daring bettor, MSU’s moneyline is at +1050. A $100 bet on the Spartans to win would net a profit of $1,050.
There remains uncertainty about who will be available for the Buckeyes on Saturday. Ohio State resumed team activities on Tuesday after pausing activities last Friday before canceling its game with Illinois due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program. The school hasn’t revealed how many players were affected or those that tested positive. The only news to come out was that Coach Ryan Day was one of those diagnosed with COVID-19 and will not coach Saturday in East Lansing.
Ohio State’s Big Ten title chances are dependent on finishing out the season. At 4-0, the team will need to play this week and next week against Michigan to meet the minimum six-game requirement to qualify for the Big Ten championship. But even if Ohio State plays this week, there’s no guarantee it will take the field against Michigan. The Wolverines canceled Saturday’s game with Maryland due to the amount of new positive COVID-19 cases within the program.
In MSU’s two wins, the common denominator has been its ability to run the football. Against Northwestern, the Sparatans ran for 195 yards on 47 carries (4.1 per attempt). They were also efficient in the win over Michigan with 126 yards rushing as quarterback Rocky Lombardi had his best game against the Wolverines, completing 17 of 32 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns.
But in the three losses, MSU’s run stats were anemic. Just 50 yards on 39 carries against Rutgers, then 59 yards on 32 attempts versus Iowa and 60 yards on 24 tries in the loss to Indiana.
The overall season offensive stats for MSU are troubling. The Spartans rank 112th in total offense per game (331) and 117th in points scored, averaging 18 per contest. Overall, the run game is 122nd in the nation in yards per game (98).
MSU’s best chance for offensive success may come against an Ohio State secondary that ranks 117th in passing yards allowed per game (291). Lombardi would have to duplicate his numbers against Michigan in order for the Spartans to have a chance at pulling off the upset.
When looking at the starts these teams get off to, it’s pretty clear: Ohio State is one of the best teams in the first halves of games, while MSU is one of the worst.
The Buckeyes average a nation-best 27 points per game in the first half, while MSU’s 8.8 points per opening half ranks 115th in the country. The points in the first half against Northwestern were MSU’s first after being shut out in the opening halves of blowout losses to Iowa and Indiana.
The first-half spread for the game in Michigan currently lists Ohio State as 14.5-point favorites over the Spartans.