Know Thy Opponent 2014: Michigan State Spartans

Kevork Djansezian

When the Big Ten's best met the Big Ten's worst last season it was a surprisingly competitive game.

There were very few happy moments during the 2013 season, but Purdue's trip to East Lansing was one of them. Aside from a stumble in South Bend, Michigan State's season could not have gone any better, yet Purdue hung with the Spartans for four quarters in a good, old-fashioned punt off. If not for a first half defensive touchdown the Boilers would have been right there at the end, but the fantastic Spartan defense and the awful Purdue offense made the first half defensive score more than enough.

Heading into 2014 Sparty should once again be very good. Unlike our previous opponent in Illinois, who has lost 21 of 22 Big Ten games, MSU is on a 10-game conference hot streak if you count their Big Ten title game win over Ohio State. A Purdue victory over Michigan State this year would be a stunning upset, but stranger things have happened in this game called football.

2013 Record: 13-1, 9-0 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Won Rose Bowl 24-20 over Stanford

Blog Representation: The Only Colors

Series With Purdue: Michigan State leads 33-28-2 (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: 10/19/2013 14-0 at Michigan State

Last Season for the Spartans

It took awhile for the offense to get going, but often the defense did more than enough to get the job done. In six of 14 games the Spartans held their opponents to six points or less, plus it had five defensive touchdowns overall. They were third nationally in scoring at 13.2 points per game and did not have a single 30 point game in 14 outings.

Basically, the Spartans strangled you to death. The only team to survive was Notre Dame, who needed four questionable pass interference calls in a 17-13 win. The Big Ten was not so fortunate. In five of the eight regular season league games their Big Ten opponents did not even reach the end zone as Purdue, Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, and Minnesota managed only a combined five field goals. Indiana and Nebraska each got to the end zone four times, but the offense had two of its biggest days in those wins.

Naturally, there were some losses, but overall the Spartans will still be an excellent team.

Michigan State Offense

Michigan State averaged under 30 points per game last season, but did not need much when its defense was virtually flawless. It really struggled at the beginning of the season and its game against Purdue was far from pretty, but it was more than good enough. Against the boilers the offense gained less than 300 total yards, but a touchdown by Andrew Gelichert from Tony Lippett sealed the game midway through the fourth quarter.

With another year of experience Connor Cook should be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten in 2014. Hardly flashy last year, he still had 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions. He grew possibly more than any player in America over the course of the season:

Improvement happens. Players learn and grow, obviously. But the dichotomy of September Connor and December Connor was stunning. In his first three games against FBS opponents, Cook completed 28 of 59 passes (47 percent). But State coaches stuck with him, and in his last four, which included games against Ohio State and Stanford, he completed 72 of 119 (61 percent). He had a nearly four-to-one TD-to-INT ratio, and he proved wonderfully adept at rollouts, which kept linebackers more honest than they had to be early in the year. He showed just enough mobility and just enough efficiency to help State move the ball and set up the defense. And I didn't even remotely see it coming.

Helping matters is the return of running back Jeremy Langford and his 1,422 rushing yards with 18 TDs. Basically, the defense can strangle the life out of you while the offense pounds the ball on clock-killing drives and lets the defense rest up. It is a killer combination that few teams can match.

At receiver they have plenty of options. The top two guys in terms of receptions are back in MacGarrett Kings, Jr. and Tony Lippett, but the loss of Bennie Fowler hurts some. Fowler is the only player that caught a pass last season that is not returning, so the offense that came together later in the season returns almost entirely intact. Tight end Josiah Price, from my home county of Howard County and a high school that is most certainly not known for its football, has become a reliable target with 17 catches for 210 yards.

The only significant losses were on the offensive line, where three starters are gone. Jack Allen at center and Travis Jackson at left guard provide some stability in the middle, but both tackles have to be replaced. Jack Conklin has 13 career starts, however, and Donavon Clark has six starts, while both are huge guys that can play on the end.

Michigan State Defense

Last year the secondary was incredible as the "No Fly Zone" and the front seven was great. A pair of starters from that secondary are gone, but Kurtis Drummond returns as one of the best safeties in the Big Ten. He is a ballhawk that had 70 tackles with four interceptions and he can still make plays in the backfield. Trae Waynes was the No. 2 corner last year behind the magnificent Darqueze Dennard and still had three picks and 42.5 tackles. R.J. Williamson will likely step into the strong safety role and should be fine.

At linebacker, MSU won't get better losing Max Bulloush and Denicos Allen, but Taiwan Jones is still one of the best the conference has to offer. His numbers were better than Bulloch last year, and there is some solid young talent to come in and play around him.

Up front we should be absolutely terrified of Shilique Calhoun. Given our struggles at tackle, Calhoun could be in store for a monster game after he had 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last year. He could be in line for Defensive Player of the Year honors in the Big Ten and it would not surprise me. He has a good teammate on the other end in Michael Rush, but both tackle spots needs to be replaced.

It's going to be hard for the defense to be as good as it was last season, but it is still going to be very, very good on scheme alone. This is a defense that gets after the football, can flip the field in a hurry with defensive scores, and has a ton of young talent that is still not on the field. Malik McDowell is a five-star freshman coming in at defensive end and there are still eight players that were four star recruits that haven't seen the field yet.

Michigan State Special Teams

When you get into defensive-minded close games the Special Teams can be a huge asset. For Michigan State, they are solid. Mike Sadler probably takes over for Cody Webster as the best punter in the Big Ten and Michael Geiger was 15 of 16 on field goals and 36-38 on extra points.

The return game wasn't that great to speak of, so Purdue, once again, should have an edge with Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt.

Game Outlook

Michigan State was the best team we played all of last season and will probably be the best team we play in 2014. If you look at their schedule they essentially have a two game season. They have a delicious week 2 game in Eugene against Oregon and a home game on November 8 against Ohio State. Their next two toughest games against Michigan and Nebraska are at home, and the only road game in league play that looks tricky is the trip to Penn State. They certainly are not thinking Purdue is a difficult game.

Still, Purdue played out of its mind last year and had at least a shot at a monumental upset. Brandon Cottom and Akeem Hunt moved the ball somewhat effectively on the ground and if not for Danny Etling getting sacked five times, there were some good drives. Purdue missed a pair of long field goals, but basically never had a chance to score and gave up 131 tough yards to Langford. Really, Langford was the only dominant player on the field offensively.

It comes down to their excellent defense against our putrid offense. Unless there is drastic improvement in our offensive line or a major step back due to their personnel losses it is going to be very, very tough for Purdue to score enough points. That means Michigan State's experience offense can wear us down almost at their leisure. Prediction: Michigan State 27, Purdue 7

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