Purdue has a very daunting task on Saturday when they travel to East Lansing for its Big Ten opener. This week we have Austin Smith from SB Nation's The Only Colors stopping by to talk about the Spartans. You can check out our answers, provided by Jumboheroes, over at their site.
T-Mill: On paper this looks like a mismatch, but each of the last two years Purdue has had the football with a chance to tie in the fourth quarter. Is Purdue just a bizarre matchup problem for the Spartans?
Austin: Purdue has played MSU tough since the beginning of the Mark Dantonio era. Even though the programs have headed in opposite directions and generally MSU has been the more talented team, this one, for some reason, has given the Spartans trouble — especially in the last two years.
In 2013, Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford and Tony Lippett were all relative unknowns and offensive hiccups were bound to happen. MSU got away with a bad offensive showing thanks to that all-world defense. Last year, they were coming off of an emotionally draining near-disastrous-collapse-
While they aren't an overly difficult team to predict, I think Darrell Hazell deserves some credit for how his team has played against MSU. They've had good gameplans and stuck to them, simple as that. This year, though, it looks like the talent gap might just be too big. MSU's early season performances haven't been the blowouts fans were hoping for, but with this being the Big Ten season opener and the 100th homecoming in school history, I wouldn't be surprised if the Spartans tried to make a bit of a statement. Then again, they might not. That's why they play the games. Brilliant insight, I know.
T-Mill: What have you learned about Michigan State in the non-conference season? Is it a one-game fight to the death with Ohio State from here on out?
Austin: It's been an interesting non-conference season. There have been some real positives but also some real causes for concern.
Personnel-wise, the areas of perceived strength (quarterback, the offensive and defensive lines) have been pretty much as good as advertised. The offense line has given up some pressure, but that can be pinned on injuries to starting tackles Jack Conklin and Kodi Keiler, both of whom are expected to return later this season.
Questions at running back and wideout have been answered fairly emphatically by Madre London, LJ Scott and Aaron Burbridge (not to mention Gerald Holmes, who had two late touchdowns last week against Central Michigan, or R.J. Shelton who is finally doing more than running jet sweeps). On defense, the linebackers have missed some tackles but overall they have recovered nicely from the preseason loss of Ed Davis and look to be a very good group.
The real questions begin in the secondary. The good news: there's a lot of talent. The bad news: it's unclear how it all fits together. Montae Nicholson and RJ Williamson are your starting safeties, but neither is a natural centerfielder a la the departed Kurtis Drummond. On the outside Demetrious Cox looks like a legit top cornerback, but after him it's a bit of a hodgepodge. Redshirt senior Arjen Colquhoun has been the other starter but has struggled in coverage. Junior Darian Hicks took over in the second half against CMU and played well, so a change could be coming there if Colquhoun doesn't improve quickly. Several true freshman have also played and will look to stick in the rotation. There are plenty of capable pieces, but figuring out the right mix is critical to MSU's season.
Despite those sizable questions and the less-than-dominant final scores, I, for one, am not prepared to panic. MSU has clearly been the better team in each game so far, despite being bit hard by the injury bug. In the last two weeks, MSU had at least four starters (Conklin, Williamson, LB Darien Harris and TE Josiah Price) that had to come out of a game due to injury. Tack on the earlier season-ending injuries to Davis and promising corner Vayante Copeland and you can understand why this team hasn't obliterated its opponents. Luckily, all of those non-season-ender's mentioned above (aside from Keiler) are listed as starters or co-starters on this week's depth chart. Dantonio doesn't talk about injuries, so they may not actually play this week (or the next) but having them on the depth chart is a positive sign.
Trips to Lincoln and Ann Arbor still loom large, so calling it a one-game season is overstating it a bit. But, if (mostly) healthy, this MSU team is still better than everyone else in the Big Ten, with the exception of Ohio State. Injuries aside, the Spartans have things to iron out -- just like every single team in America -- but I still expect this Big Ten season to boil down November 2nd in the shoe.
T-Mill: Last year Purdue came storming back with a huge game from Akeem Hunt. Does this Spartan team tend to let off the gas a bit?
Austin: Last year, this team definitely let some games get closer than they should (Nebraska, Purdue) and others completely get away from them (Oregon, Ohio State) due to lapses in execution. This year, it's a little too early to tell if this is a pattern or not but the early season signs aren't optimal. They let Western Michigan keep the season opener close, couldn't run the clock out on Oregon, and were outscored 14-7 by Air Force in the second half. Last week was a slightly different story, as MSU was able to pull away from CMU with a 13-0 fourth quarter.
To me, this looks like a team that is getting used to taking everyone's best shot on a weekly basis. MSU is in uncharted territory at #2 and as much as they love to play the "chip on the shoulder" card, they have crossed into unfamiliar territory as "the hunted". Getting accustomed to that thought process can only happen with time, which is why I think the conference season getting underway is huge for this team from a mental standpoint. Knowing that every game counts towards that Big Ten record from here on out should help them maintain their weekly concentration and give them the motivation they crave. Also, Cook seems to play his best when the lights are brightest so the more pressure he has, the better.
The second half of this one will be interesting regardless of the score. If MSU is up big, you want to see them protect the lead and finally blow someone out. If it's close, you want to see them fight through adversity and come up big under pressure. Either way, I think a lot can be learned from this week's game.
T-Mill: What is different about Michigan State this year on offense?
Austin: Honestly, very little.
Schematically, Dantonio-coached teams are ground-oriented and that is the case again this year. It will be interesting to see if/how the gameplan changes without Conklin and Keiler, neither of whom I'd expect to see on the field Saturday. While they (and starting TE Price) are on the mend, expect to see a lot of TE Paul Lang. He's a blocking specialist and will be a big help to Conklin's backup, redshirt sophomore Dennis Finley, who settled down in the second half against CMU and looked like a capable short-term replacement. Finley will need to contain DE Antoine Miles, who has already piled up four sacks on the year, to help MSU to avoid a major letdown.
Cook is having an eerily similar season to his previous two. Seriously, his completion percentage (58.1%) is the exact same as last year. Kinda weird. He's never thrown many picks and sports a 9-TD-to-1-INT ratio so far. If MSU can't get the running game going, they will not be afraid to let Cook go win this game for them like they did against Air Force.
At the skill positions, Burbridge has taken over the Lippett role as Cook's go-to wideout and the London/Scott/Holmes trio looks strong. Aside from the Air Force game, where they managed only 77 yards rushing in the face of constant blitzing, MSU has actually averaged 190+ per game on the ground. The offense hasn't set the world on fire, but this team is still averaging 30+ points per game and has already beaten four bowl teams from a year ago. We haven't seen complete game from the offense (or defense for that matter) just yet, but it's hardly time to sound the alarm.
T-Mill: What will it take for Purdue to play another close one with MSU?
Austin: The blueprint for hanging with MSU isn't complicated. Offensively, you need to keep Cook and co. off the field. Western Michigan, Oregon and Central Michigan have all done great jobs of attacking the flats and using short passes as their de facto running game. It works. In order to beat MSU, you have to do that well and often. MSU would much rather run the ball, so if Purdue can control the clock and make MSU a pass-first team their chances of hanging around are much better. Not great, but better.
Defensively, attack those backup linemen and force Cook to make mistakes. He doesn't make a ton of mistakes, but this will be his first career start without Conklin on his blind side. Letting him know that safety blanket is gone could make him skittish and force some uncommon errors. Purdue is going to need a turnover or two to make this a contest.
T-Mill: Finally, your prediction?
Austin: There's no sugar-coating it: Michigan State has not played up to their sky-high expectations so far. There are plenty of reasons (injuries, new personnel, becoming "the hunted") but it's time to put aside the excuses and get down to business. I think the Spartans are tired of hearing the whispers about being overrated at #2, and they'll come out and let it rip this weekend. MSU finally keeps their foot on the gas and wins big.
MSU 42 - Purdue 14
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