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Michigan State preview

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A lack of a Big Ten bloggers' roundtable this week and no guest blogger from Michigan State has lead to a dearth of entries. Election coverage last night prevented me from commenting on a couple of things found in this week's GBI, so here is a rundown before getting to the preview of the Spartans:

  • The Michigan game was the first time ever that Purdue has recovered from two 14 point deficits in the same game to win. Even then, the quarterback (who was also named Big Ten Co-offensive player of the week) may not be good enough to start this week after leading us to more points in one game than the previous four combined.
  • Women's basketball player Lauren Mioton was named as homecoming queen and was recently selected as a Rhodes' scholar candidate. Smart, attractive and a basketball player? It makes me wish I had a little brother just like me that was at Purdue.

  • Kyle Orton was just beginning to turn the corner for the Bears but got hurt last week. Now the Bears get a few weeks of Sexy Rexy again. It was especially crippling, as Orton made a spot start for my fantasy team with Drew Brees on bye. The loss dropped me to 6-3

  • The men's basketball team, especially freshman Ryne Smith looked good against one of the better division II teams in the land. I probably won't get going full speed on basketball until the season opener against Detroit next week, but man did they look good already.

  • Torri Williams will not pursue a medical redshirt to gain a 6th year of eligibility. It's a shame too, because he was finally healthy this season and would have given us some depth in what looks to be a good secondary next year. McLean and McKinley will probably start now with the departure of Duong and Williams.

With that out of the way it is time to look forward to Michigan State. When I did the Know thy Opponent series over the summer I had a funny feeling about the this game. It is the only game against a team that was supposed to be one of our better opponents that I predicted a win against. Obviously, things have been much different on our end of late, but it is a game that I feel a lot better about after watching Justin Siller last week. I am firmly in the camp that Justin Siller starting gives us at least a chance. If Painter starts he has shown me nothing this year to indicate that we can beat a ranked team on the road.

Still, it was only one game against a very bad Michigan team that we have seen Siller. Being just a redshirt freshman his performance can wildly vascillate from one game to the next. He could go out and play even better, or we could be in line for a four turnover game as we lose by five touchdowns. I want to be positive though. One more Siller performance means we're one game away from playing Indiana for an unlikely bowl berth. This is our toughest game left, but it would be poetic justice if Siller won his first start against a ranked team while a 10,000 yard passer would probably lose what would be his final shot at ending an 0-fer streak against ranked teams.

This is also my Big Ten road trip for the year. It is my first visit to East Lansing and hopefully it will go better than my first visit to Bloomington (13-7 loss in 2001), Champaign (OT loss in 2002), Columbus (OT loss in 2003), Minneapolis (double-OT loss in 2005), or Ann Arbor (last year). The only place in the Big Ten I have seen Purdue win in my first visit was Evanston two years ago.

Michigan State offense:

We have seen Beanie Wells, Evan Royster, LaGarrette Blount, and Jeremiah Johnson. They are all great running backs, but none of them have the numbers Javon Ringer has posted for the Spartans. 1,427 yards on 321 carries and 18 touchdowns. That breaks down to more than 35 carries per game, 142.7 yards, and two touchdowns. Ringer is the Michigan State running game. The next highest total on the team is Andre Anderson with just 26 carries for 97 yards and no scores. Most of that came in the blowout of Eastern Michigan. If we can stop Ringer we can stop the ground game, but barely anyone has stopped Ringer all year. Even held to a season low 57 yards last week he still found the end zone twice. He doesn't even get tired.

Our best hope to slow him down is to have Siller and Sheets running the ball as well as they each did last week, keeping him off the field entirely. I am encouraged that we contained Beanie Wells and Terrelle Pryor at Ohio State, but it will take a similar effort to stop Ringer. If the defense that turned Brandon Minor and Armando Allen into top five draft picks shows up we are done no matter what the offense does.

The Michigan State passing game hasn't been great, but it has only had to be very efficient with Ringer carrying the load of the offense. Brian Hoyer was particularly impressive against us last year. He doesn't have Devin Thomas to throw a slant to on every single third down anymore like he did against us a year ago, but he has been serviceable with 1,875 yards and nine scores against four picks. His completion percentage is below 50%, so if we can slow down Ringer we can slow down their offense. Wisconsin did just that a week ago and would have won if not for an utter collapse in the final ten minutes. He isn't particularly mobile, having been sacked 15 times. He's also only gained 39 yards on the ground while losing 149. After facing mobile quarterbacks every week since the Northern Colorado game we finally get a guy that is not a threat to run. Of course, that doesn't mean we can totally ignore him either.

The Spartan receivers are fairly balanced with Blair White (30-508-1) and Mark Dell (27-568-2) leading the way. Charlie Gantt can also be a bit of a deep threat as he has an 82 yard TD catch. Of his 14 receptions a team high four have gone for touchdowns while gaining 249 yards on those catches. B.J. Cunningham (25-370-0) and Ringer (20-130-0) are also threats to catch the ball at any time. This is possibly what makes Ringer so effective. The passing game does not have to do much, but when it does it has a number of options that are tough to defend. That makes teams think about something else other than focusing on Ringer.

Another reason Ringer has done so well is that he has a massive offensive line plowing the way for him. This game could easily turn into the Iowa game from two years ago where our defensive front got manhandled and the Hawkeyes ran all day on us. Our defensive line must come ready and our linebackers have to play in run support or this will quickly turn into a rout. We will likely be able to go back to our 4-3-4 and get Chris Carlino into the game more, but he must be ready to play.

Michigan State defense:

It is good that we are coming off of our most successful day running the football in years because we now face a defense that is susceptible to the run. This is key. more we can run the football and simply keep Ringer off the field by working the clock the better chance we will have. We made our move against Michigan in the third quarter by dominating the time of possession and converting numerous third downs. That kept the Wolverine defense on the field and they simply wore down. We must have a similar effort Saturday in order to have a chance at winning. The weather may be rainy as well, meaning we'll likely stick to the ground more, but the cuts that Siller and Sheets made last week will have to be crisper. Michigan State gives up 152 yards per game on the ground. We need at least this many, and more will help.

The passing defense is only slightly better at 202.2 yards per game. Teams are moving the ball on the Spartans and scoring about 20 points per game, so as long as we can keep the offensive momentum we built up last week we should be able to score some points. Senior safety Otis Wiley is arguably the leader of the defense with 55 tackles, 7 pass break ups, four interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Greg Jones is the team's leading tackler with 88 tackles, nine of them for loss. The rest of the defense is fairly balanced with six guys having 40 or more tackles. It is a particularly opportunistic defense having forced 21 turnovers (12 picks, nine fumble recoveries) led by Wiley with almost a quarter of those turnovers. Wiley also took one of his interceptions back for a score against California in the opener.

I am not sure why GBI says that Michigan State struggles at getting to the quarterback when it averages two sacks per game. Trevor Anderson leads that group with 8 sacks, but he will find Justin Siller to be much more elusive. Once again, this area of the game will come down to who actually gets the start. Siller wasn't sacked at all against Michigan, but Painter likely would have been dropped about five times. Siller is far from Terrelle Pryor, but Pryor caused all kinds of problems when Ohio State blew out the Spartans 45-7 a few weeks ago. If Sheets and Siller can be a poor man's Wells and Pryor and combine for 212 yards and three touchdowns like the Buckeye duo did we will have an excellent chance.

Michigan State Special teams:

When the Spartans get inside the 35 they will get points unless they turn the ball over. Considering they are +6 in the turnover ratio, that does not happen often. The two most popular ways that Michigan State scores is by Ringer touchdowns or Brett Swenson field goal. If you take away the Michigan game where he was 0 for 3, Swenson 19 for 20 on the year and would have made all 19 in a row after missing his first attempt of the season against Cal. Just last week he was 4 for 4 with a 44 yard game winner in the final seconds.

Aaron Bates handles the punting duties, averaging 42.3 yards per attempt. There could be a vulnerability here as he has had a pair of punts blocked. We've come close a couple of times since blocking two against Northern Colorado, so this may be where we could make a game-changing play. The Spartans are also giving up almost nine yards per return and have surrendered a score, so Tardy might have some room on returns.

Godawful is the word I would use to describe our own return defense of late. We gave up nearly 275 return yards last week in both the punt and kick return game, and Michigan State is a team that can more than make us pay for our largesse in this area. Wiley returns most punts and he averages about 11 yards per return. The Spartans do kick retuning by committee with Ringer, A.J. Jimmerson, and Glenn Winston splitting the duties almost evenly. Each averages more than 20 yards per return. What was once an area of strength is now a glaring weakness and you had better believe they will try to exploit it.

Final Thoughts:

On paper this looks very simple. We should start Siller and have him go playstation on a defense that has trouble stopping mobile quarterbacks while stacking the line and daring Ringer to breakthrough or have Hoyer throw. Michigan State struggles most when Ringer is held at least partially in check. Therefore, that has to be our top priority. Hoyer showed he can play a bit as well with a pretty good performance against Michigan two weeks ago. He had three of his nine TD passes in that game, but has played the role of game manager for most of the season. Last year he absolutely shredded us when we refused to cover Devin Thomas for play after play. This year he misses that go to guy, but he has plenty of balanced options.

Siller plainly gives us our best chance to win. If Painter plays he will not be 100% as evidenced by yesterday's injury report. His confidence is clearly shot to hell as well. We still have something to play for this season until the seventh loss is clinched, and as far as I can see that hasn't happened yet. Siller gives us an additional dimension in the running game and he actually looks for other receivers. Last week he even showed a nice touch on his throws at times. We need that additional option in the running game. I mentioned last week how Kory Sheets had over 85% of our rushing offense by himself. Siller is now second with more than 100 yards on the season, but third is now Anthony Heygood who has all 61 yards on his one carry last week. Their weakest area is defending the run, and in Tiller's twilight we are a better team ironically when we run the ball more. We must exploit this, and we can truly do so only if Siller starts. Why not go one step further and do more of the option running with him like we did in 2005?

As far as Ringer goes, he is going to get his yards. The real question is whether we can contain everyone else and make him have to go for 300 yards and five scores to beat us. I liken it to the semi-state championship game my Kats played while I was in high school. We ran into Luke Recker's DeKalb team with a berth in the state finals on the line. We knew he was going to get his points. He had about 26 points in that game, but we shut everyone else down to win 69-46 and end his high school career. We pretty much dared him to score 60 and beat us personally, and he didn't do it. It's a delicate balance, but if we can make Michigan State rely solely on Ringer while not letting him go totally apeshit (i.e. 300 yards, 5 TD's) We have a good chance.

Of course, this is also dependent on our offense continuing to move the ball. Last week we had the ball for almost 16 minutes more than Michigan, but still only won by 6. Simply put, Michigan State cannot score if it does not have the ball. Ringer can't play defense. He cannot hurt us when we have the ball. We therefore must continue to have a high completion percentage and convert on third downs as we did last week.

The final thought I have is how improved the attitude is around the entire program after just one win. Last week I wrote about how we simply needed to get momentum going in our favor. That is how streaks start and we hadn't been able to do so all year. We finally have that going for us. If we can build on it there is still absolutely something to play for out there. I shared with the Boiled Sports guys earlier this week and absolutely wild scenario for playing in the Champs Sports Bowl again this year. A lot of that scenario has to happen elsewhere, but this week we have a chance to tackle our hardest step of the three we can personally handle. If we can build on the momentum of last week we just might do it too.