Know Thy Opponent 2013: Michigan State Spartans

Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

Michigan State returns to Purdue's schedule after a two-year absence.

I have always had a bit of a soft spot for Michigan State when it comes to the Big Ten. Only three states in the conference have two teams: Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. Northwestern is not a state school, so the only major in-state rivalries in the conference are Michigan State-Michigan and Indiana-Purdue. I have always felt like MSU is the Purdue of Michigan. IU fans like to call us Little Brother in basketball just as Michigan State is Michigan's Little Brother in football. Michigan has the Wal-Mart Wolverines and IU fans work at Wal-Mart. Both MSU and Purdue are land-grant schools in their respective states.

It is appropriate then that the Spartans are on our schedule for at least the next three years. We're basically taking their place in the divisional realignment, but for the first two years of the 14-team Big Ten they are on Purdue's schedule as a crossover opponent. The overall series between the schools is relatively close and there have been some memorable games like 1997 and 1998 that I remember fondly, and others like 2010 I don't remember so fondly.

This should be a good mid-level Big Ten game for the next few years.

2012 Record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Won Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl 17-16 over TCU

Blog Representation: The Only Colors

Series With Purdue: Michigan State leads 32-28-2 (Purdue's win total includes an MSU forfeit of a 42-30 win in 1994)

Last Purdue win: 11/4/2006 at Michigan State 17-15

Last Michigan State win: 11/20/2010 at Michigan State 35-31

Last Season for the Spartans

The defense was great, rating as the ninth best unit in the country in holding teams to 16.3 points per game. Unfortunately the offense was pretty bad. It rated 110th nationally and only scored 20 points per game. Nebraska scored the most points against MSU in a 28-24 win, but the Spartans only topped 24 points three times: against Central Michigan, Indiana, and Minnesota.

The recent series with Michigan State has been quite entertaining. Purdue had a big lead over the 11th ranked Spartans in the last meeting in 2010 before falling completely apart in a 35-31 loss. Before that they won 40-37 in Ross-Ade again after Purdue had a double digit fourth quarter lead. The last Purdue win was on an 18-yard field goal by 5th-year senior Casey Welch with 4:49 left that was the only attempt of his career. That was Purdue's 7th win in 8 tries, but MSU has won four straight since.

In other entertaining games of note there is Purdue's 45-52 win in 2002, when Kyle Orton came off the bench and tossed a fourth down TD pass and two-point conversion after sitting in the bitter cold for over three hours. Two years before that MSU nearly ruined Purdue's Rose Bowl dreams with a stunning 30-10 win two weeks after Brees-to-Morales. The 1997 and 1998 games saw Purdue erase double-digit deficits with less than 5 minutes to play each time against some guy name Nick Saban.

Michigan State Offense

Last year's offense was bad, and the potential is there to be worse because of the loss of one player. Le'Veon Bell was the do-everything player in an offense that gained just 4,671 yards as a team. Of that total, Bell rushed for 1,793 yards and caught 32 passes for 167 more and 13 of their 27 touchdowns. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the NFL after leaving his senior season on the table. With numbers like that can you blame him?

Bell's departure obviously is a huge hole in an offense that struggled mightily to score points. In six of 13 games the Spartans were held to 20 points or less. Five of the six losses would have been victories with just one more touchdown, including a 12-10 defeat to Michigan where the defense did not give up a touchdown.

Things could get better with Andrew Maxwell entering his second year as the starter under center. Mazwell only completed 52% of his passes last year for 2,606 yards and 13 scores against nine interceptions. He'll be a different type of quarterback for Purdue to face. After consecutive weeks of Jordan Lynch and Taylor Martinez as running threats Maxwell is basically a statue in the pocket. He had -109 yards rushing last year and was sacked 22 times.

The running game is being handed over to Nick Hill (48 yards, 1 TD) and Jeremy Langford, so this will be much like the transition after Javon Ringer left. Gerald Holmes could also get carries as a true freshman.

Keith Mumphrey (42-515-1) returns as the teams leading receiver along with Bennie Fowler (41-524-4). There is not a lot of overwhelming size at the position outside of Tony Lippett (36-392-2). There is variety, as six different players averaged at least two receptions per game. Maxwell may not complete a lot of passes, but there is not one player to single out on the receiving end.

The offensive line has experience in seniors Dan France and Blake Treadwell at the guard spots. Fou Fonoti is also a senior at tackle with Skyler Burkland and Travis Jackson taking the other two line spots as juniors. Much of the offense will rely on Maxwell, however, who has to play better without Bell as a safety valve.

Michigan State Defense

Despite the impressive numbers only Max Bullough was a First Team all-Big Ten selection on the defense last year. The senior linebacker is back as one of the league's best after 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble in 2012. Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones are also back, giving Michigna State three very good linebackers to build that defense around. Allen had 79 tackles and an interception while Jones had 38 stops.

Up front Michigan State did not have a great pass rush, but team sacks leader William Gholston is gone to the NFL. James Kittredge and Tyler Hoover are expected to man the tackle spots with Marcus Rush and Shilique Calhoun on the ends. The quartet only had three combined sacks in 2012, however.

Darqueze Dennard gives Michigan State an all-Big Ten caliber cornerback like Ricardo Allen for us. He had three interceptions last season and was an effective tackler with 52 stops. Johnny Adams is replaced on the other side by sophomore Trae Waynes. Kurtis Drummond and Isaiah Lewis are also back at the safety spots, giving this defense a ton of continuity.

Ultimately, that is where Michigan State will have to win games if the offense struggles again. Most of that lights out defense is back, but the offense could be significantly worse without Bell. That means it could be a very frustrating season full of 13-10 ballgames.

Michigan State Special Teams

Michigan State could struggle in close games after losing senior kicker Dan Conroy, who was Second team all-Big Ten last year. He kicked the game winner in the bowl game, but he leaves Kevin Muma, with one career attempt from only 28 yards, as the only experienced kicker. MSU did recruit a solid HS kicker in Michael Geiger, however.

Mike Sadler returns as one of the Big Ten's best punters with a 43.3 yard average and 31 downed inside the 20. Nick Hill is likely the player that will handle both kickoff and punt return duties.

Game Outlook

I have looked at this game as a winnable one for some time even though it comes on the road. Purdue generally plays well up in East Lansing and outplayed a better Michigan State team (with a worse Purdue team) in our last visit. They are still going to have a good defense, but the offense is facing a lot of question marks after relying so heavily on Bell last season.

Purdue is likely going to rely on its defense as well, making points at a premium in this game. It could be a must-win after four brutal games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, and Nebraska. Our own offense will be more run-oriented and it goes against a run defense that did not give up 100 yards per game. Going against what some are calling Mark Dantonio's best defense on the road does not fill me with confidence.

If we look at common opponents last year Purdue did do better. MSU lost to Notre Dame 20-3 at home and Purdue was within a field goal of the Irish. Purdue walloped Eastern Michigan while MSU struggled. Purdue scored 56 against Indiana's "defense" and MSU only had 31 in a 31-27 win. Purdue won at Iowa and the Hawkeyes won in East Lansing. Conversely, Michigan State beat Wisconsin in overtime in Madison and I think Montee Ball just scored again at Ross-Ade.

Prediction

This should be a close one and it would not surprise me if both teams were held under 20 points. Purdue has the slightly better offense because of Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom, plus the running element of Rob Henry. I think that might be just barely enough. Purdue 17, Michigan State 16

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