A quarter of the regular season is over and so is the nonconference portion of the schedule.
Michigan State (2-1) opens Big Ten play on Saturday (3:30 pm, BTN) against Minnesota (3-0) in East Lansing.
While the Golden Gophers rolled through their first three games, the Spartans are coming off a 39-28 loss at Washington.
Michigan State owns a 30-17 advantage in the all-time series against Minnesota, including five straight wins. This will be the first meeting between the programs since the Spartans won 30-27 in Minneapolis in 2017 and the Golden Gophers haven’t played at Spartan Stadium since 2013.
Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s game and a final score prediction:
What’s the response?
Michigan State was thoroughly outplayed from the start in Seattle as Washington took an early 22-0 advantage and led by 25 points in the fourth quarter. The Spartans had miscues in all three phases of the game and did not rise to meet their first big challenge of the season.
Coach Mel Tucker called the performance “very disappointing” and said he was “just sick at some of the bad football we played.” Given that he also coaches cornerbacks and Michigan State gave up 397 passing yards against the Huskies, Tucker called himself “a horse(bleep) football coach right now.”
Michigan State is not going to ‘freak out’ while looking to rebound from losses
Tucker accepted blame for the loss while also saying “hell yeah I take it personal.” Now he’s looking to see what the response is from the players, who defended their coach and took responsibility for mistakes made on the field.
Coming off an 11-2 season that began with an 8-0 start, Michigan State set goals of winning the Big Ten and a national title but didn’t make it out of September without suffering a defeat and one that was mostly one-sided . If the Spartans are going to make any sort of run in the Big Ten, they’ll need to respond quickly with a very challenging schedule ahead.
Michigan State was able to get off the mat quickly last season and followed ugly defensive performances in losses at Purdue and Ohio State with a win both times. We’ll see if that trend continues or if the Spartans are a .500 team heading into October.
How good is Minnesota?
Through the first three games, Minnesota outscored its opponents by a combined margin of 149-17. The Golden Gophers are second in the nation in total offense (554.7) and total defense (170.3), are eighth in scoring (49.7) and tied for fourth in scoring defense (5.7).
The numbers are impressive but the competition they were racked up against isn’t. Minnesota’s first three games were wins at home against New Mexico State (38-0), FCS program Western Illinois (62-10) and Colorado (49-7). Those three have a combined record of 0-10 so far this season.
Minnesota loses top receiver to injury heading into Michigan State game
Coach PJ Fleck led the team to a trio of bowl appearances in his first five years and the Golden Gophers are coming off a 9-4 season so this is a solid program. But, given the easy schedule to start this year, it’s difficult to get a feel for how good they really are.
After dominating inferior competition, this will be the first real test and road game for Minnesota while Michigan State is coming off a wake-up call in Seattle. Maybe that plays a factor on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Strength vs. strength
A week after being dominated by a prolific passing offense, Michigan State’s defense will be challenged by a run-first team. Minnesota ranks second in the nation in rushing at 312.7 yards per game and first in rushing touchdowns with 16.
The star of the backfield is sixth-year senior Mohamed Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year who has bounced back from a season-ending injury suffered in the opener last year. He has 67 carries for 464 yards (6.9 average) and seven touchdowns this season. His average of 154.7 rushing yards per game ranks second in the nation.
Pressure’s on Scottie Hazelton, Michigan State defense in opening Big Ten stretch
Minnesota has other threats in the running game as Trey Potts has 40 carries for 219 yards and three touchdowns while Bryce Williams and Preston Jelen have combined for 21 rushes for 173 yards and two scores.
Run defense is a strength for Michigan State, which is 26th in the country at 89.7 yards per game. The Spartans have allowed two rushing touchdowns and opponents are averaging only 2.7 yards per carry.
Michigan State will face a major challenge trying to limit the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Ibrahim and the Golden Gophers on the ground and may be shorthanded up front. Starting defensive tackle Jacob Slade did not make the trip to Washington due to injury while starting defensive end Jeff Pietrowski suffered an apparent leg injury in the first half against Washington and did not return to the game.
Secondary confidence and personal changes
If Michigan State can slow down Minnesota’s run game and force third-and-long situations, that will obviously put more pressure on the Golden Gophers’ passing attack. And that’s where it could be really interesting.
Minnesota has attempted only 68 passes this season – fewer than all but 13 teams in the country. Sixth-year senior Tanner Morgan is 30-12 as a starter and has more wins than any other quarterback in program history. He set school passing records in 2019 but that was while targeting a pair of future NFL receivers and he struggled last year.
Through three games, Morgan has been efficient and completed 71.7 percent of his passes (38-for-53) for 618 yards, four touchdowns and one interception and has three rushing scores. He will be without his top target as Fleck on Monday announced starting receiver Chris Autman-Bell is out for the season due to an injury suffered last week. Michael Brown-Stephens (six catches, 107 yards) and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford (eight catches, 127 yards, one touchdown) are among those the Spartans will need to watch while receivers Clay Geary and Dylan Wright each have a touchdown catch.
Mel Tucker calls himself a ‘horse(bleep)’ coach amid Michigan State struggles
Although Minnesota likes to keep the ball on the ground, it’s not a stretch to think the staff saw opportunities to attack Michigan State through the air based on the loss at Washington. Michael Penix Jr. threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns as the Spartans’ pass defense problems from last year resurfaced.
Tucker believes the defensive scheme was sound against Washington and on Monday indicated personnel changes are coming. It’s unclear what those will be but nickelback Chester Kimbrough was picked on by Penix and replaced after halftime by Justin White while cornerback Ameer Speed and safety Angelo Grose were beaten multiple times. The Spartans are also without the most experienced member of their secondary as fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson suffered a right leg injury in the season opener, missed the last two games and it is unclear when he will return.
Given how Penix threw the ball all over the Spartans, there’s a question about the confidence level among the defensive backs. Tucker said he saw a confident team in practice on Monday but noted there’s still a need to make sure those who will have a role in Saturday’s game actually believe in what they’re doing.
Can Michigan State’s run game get back on track?
Through two games, Michigan State’s reworked backfield showed promise. There was no real expectation for someone to replace Kenneth Walker III but transfers Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard were solid and combined for 58 carries for 362 yards and six touchdowns. Berger began his Michigan State career with back-to-back 100-yard games.
A week after the Spartans racked up six rushing touchdowns in a 52-0 win against Akron, the ground game was shut down. Michigan State had 29 rushes for 42 yards, which is the lowest total since Tucker took over the program in 2020 and the fewest rushing yards for the team since 21 carries for 30 yards in a 38-0 loss at Wisconsin on Oct. 12, 2019.
Berger had 13 carries for 27 yards while Broussard finished with only four rushes for three yards. It was a rough day for Broussard, who took a safety after he slipped in the end zone and got his legs tangled up with right guard Matt Carrick. He also dropped a 2-point conversion pass and took a big hit on a kickoff return. Elijah Collins had a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
With the run game ineffective and the Spartans in a big hole, they relied heavily on quarterback Payton Thorne, who had a strong bounce-back performance after a shaky game against Akron. He completed his first 10 passes of the game and finished 30-for-42 for 323 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The redshirt junior also had a 21-yard run and lowered his shoulder against a defender in an attempt to pick up a first down.
How Michigan State’s offense is looking to improve after losing at Washington
Thorne on Tuesday reiterated the need to be balanced while offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said the focus remains on establishing the run game. That’s understandable but Michigan State really only moved the ball through the air last week and wide receiver Keon Coleman had a breakout performance while posting career highs with nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Minnesota has allowed only 69.7 rushing yards per game and zero touchdowns on the ground along with 100.7 passing yards per game with two touchdowns through the air against two interceptions in its three blowouts. Thorne and Michigan State’s talented receivers will represent the biggest challenge for the Golden Gophers so far this season and the Spartans would clearly benefit from the return of top target Jayden Reed, who did not make the trip to Washington after suffering a reported cut to his back against Akron.
Michigan State will obviously look to establish the run early against Minnesota but if the production isn’t there for a second straight week, Thorne is capable of shouldering a larger burden and leading the offense.
Minnesota could go on to win the West Division or this may just be a decent team that bludgeoned lesser programs through the first three weeks. Meanwhile, Michigan State’s inability to run the ball and the reemergence of pass defense woes last week are major red flags. If the Spartans can at least limit the damage Ibrahim does on the ground, force Morgan to make plays with his arm and generate pressure that was lacking against Washington, they’ll have a good chance of avoiding an 0-1 start to Big Ten play . Michigan State 27, Minnesota 24
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