Last year was just bad all around, but one of the more surprising results came in East Lansing on October 19th. Despite Purdue finishing among the worst FBS teams in the nation and Michigan State finishing with a solid argument to play Florida State for the title had the Playoff existed last year, the Boilermakers dragged the Spartans down into a punt fest. Sparty managed only a 45-yard fumble-six by Denicos Allen for three quarters as Purdue hung around and hung around. The Boiler offense couldn't get in scoring range, but the defense held strong until a mid-fourth quarter touchdown.
That result showed that almost anything could happen. Danny Etling outplayed Connor Cook, but Purdue missed two field goals and had very little running game. Michigan State was better, but wasn't a lot better.
We now fast forward a year and the teams will meet at Ross-Ade. Purdue is a little better and Michigan State is a little worse. It will still take a lot for Purdue to spring an upset, but we at least get a national ABC audience and a non-noon kickoff to show if we can do anything else this year.
Who to Watch on Offense:
Connor Cook - Quarterback - Cook grew up over the second half of last season and, as a result, Michigan State got a lot better. Their offense seemed to find a rhythm and was much better than the team that Purdue played in October. As good as the MSU defense is, Cook's progression is what has pulled the entire team into Elite status. He has 1,071 yards and has completed 60% of his passes with 10 TDs and three picks. He makes the passing game effective and opens things up for a strong running game that has scored 18 total touchdowns.
Jeremy Langford - Running back - Langford had a big game against Purdue last season with 131 yards as he was pretty much their entire offense. He is well on pace for a 1,000 yard season with 469 yards and four TDs. He averages a nice five yards per carry and is good at creating third and shorts that the MSU offense can convert. He's not flashy, but he is definitely productive.
Tony Lippett - Wide Receiver - Lippett is among the Big Ten's best at receiver with 25 catches for 525 yards and 7 touchdowns. That's an average of 21 yards per catch. He is by far Michigan State's leader in receptions and he is still a big play guy. He entered the season with 1,574 yards so he already is close to 2,100 career yards. He can finish as one of the most decorated receivers in Big Ten history.
Josiah Price - Tight End - Price can be considered one that got away, as he hails from Greentown, Indiana, less than 60 miles from Purdue. His high school is never good in football, but Mark Dantonio found him and he has 10 catches for 145 yards and two scores. If you're looking for an answer as to who will be completely uncovered on third and long, it will be Price.
Who to Watch on Defense:
Shilique Calhoun - Defensive End - Calhoun is one of the best defensive ends in the country. He was a preseason All-American and he already has three sacks, six QB hits, and a lengthy fumble return. Calhoun against David Hedelin is a critical matchup for any success Purdue is going to have. You can't truly stop him, but we at least need to slow him down a little or he will be in Austin Appleby's lap all afternoon.
Kurtis Drummond - Safety - The captain of the defense is one of the best safeties in the Big Ten and, like Calhoun, is very likely off to the NFL after this season as a high draft pick. He brings size, speed, and sure tackling ability to a position that needs those abilities. Drummond leads MSU with 24 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
Ed Davis - Linebacker - Davis replaced Allen and he leads the Spartans with four sacks as a disruptive linebacker. The Spartan defense excels at tackles for loss (34 in five games) and Davis usually gets one per game.
Marcus Rush - Defensive End - Want to double team Calhoun to slow him down? Well, you're going to have to deal with rush, a 6'3" 251 pound defensive end that has 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. He is stepping up well for Calhoun, who receives more attention on most downs. We can forget about Rush at our own peril.
Who to Watch on Special Teams:
Mike Sadler - Punter - Cody Webster and Mike Sadler engaged in a punt off last season in East Lansing as two of the better punters in the league. Sadler's average this season is below 40 yards, but he is still very good at pinning teams deep with nine inside the 20. Michigan State has struggled on punt coverage too. They have given up a touchdown, so Frankie Williams might be able to spring one with as good as he has been.
Michael Geiger - Kicker - Geiger is 6 of 8 on field goals, but only has a long of 42 yards. This means Paul Griggs is probably an advantage here.
Michigan State is a good team, but they are not the murderball team they were a season ago. They gave up only 13.2 points per game in 2013. This year they are giving up over 20. That is skewed a bit by surrendering 43 to Oregon and a few late scores to Eastern Michigan against the third stringers. The only game in which they have not had a huge lead was at Oregon.
Perhaps the biggest hope for Purdue is the letdown factor. They just had a big night game at home and they are entering a three-game "easy" stretch with Purdue, bye, Indiana, and Michigan. There may be some let down, and Purdue is pretty much as high as it has been in awhile after winning a conference game for the first time in two years. Yes, it was over a godawful Illinois team, but that is still a step forward for as far as Purdue has fallen.
Will that be enough? The defense is going to have to play well against a team that has lit up some bad teams, but has stumbled a bit against the likes of Oregon and Nebraska. Purdue is probably in the middle there defensively. The run defense has actually been decent, but MSU has a nearly even split between the run and the pass. Purdue's deficiency has been on third down, and that's where Michigan State is good.
Purdue's defense is going to need a similar effort to last year, when Cook was pretty bad and Langford was the only one moving the ball with any consistency. They kept giving the offense chances, but Purdue couldn't move against an all-World defense. On that side, Appleby is an X-factor. He wasn't asked to throw a lot, but he just looked better over a full game than Danny Etling looked at any time this season short of the first half against Notre Dame. Appleby certainly has confidence, and that helps. If the ground game can keep moving even half as well as it did at Illinois Purdue has a chance.
Keys to the Game:
- Get off the field on third down
- Find a way to beat the 72 ypg average on the ground that MSU gives up
- Contain Langford
- Pray Calhoun and Rush don't go nuts
- Cover their only two receivers, Lippett and Price