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Know Thy Opponent 2015: Michigan State Spartans

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We take a look at Purdue's 2015 Big Ten opener.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the schedule set up beautifully for Purdue to have a dramatic turnaround. With an FCS team and a pair of MACrifices the Boilers should have been able to start 3-1 with some confidence. Well, that didn't happen. The season wasn't necessarily over after losing to Central Michigan, but it certainly took a turn south.

There are no such luxuries this season. Purdue might be lucky to be 2-2 before the conference season starts, and the opening game in conference play is not an easy one. It is only against a team that is 24-3 over the last two seasons and is 16-1 against the Big Ten.

2014 Record: 11-2, 7-1 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Won Cotton Bowl 42-41 over Baylor

Blog Representation: The Only Colors

Series With Purdue: Michigan State leads 34-28-2 (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: 10/11/2014 at Purdue 45-31

Last Season for the Spartans

In one of the most surprising things in recent Big Ten history Purdue and Michigan State have played a pair of close games the past two seasons despite the Spartans being 24-3 overall 16-1 in B1G play in that time and Purdue going 4-20 and 1-15. In BOTH games Purdue had the football down only seven points in the fourth quarter. A struggling offense in 2013 couldn't even reach the red zone against a fantastic defense, but only a Denicos Allen Fumble-six had MSU in front until late. Last season Purdue entered the fourth quarter down 38-17, but a pair of touchdowns and some defensive stops gave the Boilers the football down 38-31 with 2:57 left and at least a chance. Darien Harris picked off Austin Appleby and scored to seal the game, but Purdue played with a ton of heart in Ross-Ade Stadium.

I have always felt that Purdue and Michigan State were similar schools with similar backgrounds. Both are their state's Land-Grant institution. Both have a bigger, more historically respected program within their own states (Michigan and Notre Dame). Both have had to fight off inferiority complexes. I have felt that if MSU can turn into a powerhouse, so can Purdue. Well, the Spartans are there right now. 24-3 over two years with two major bowl wins and a Big Ten title is damned impressive. They can compete with the big boys, Sparty No! is dead, and they are a serious contender for the Big Ten and the playoff going into this year. Only Ohio State is really in their way.

So where does that put the Boilers? Well, it defies all logic, but as Michigan State has gotten better (and we have gotten worse) we continue to play them extremely well. We had no business being in the game with them two years ago, but we were. Last season was even better, as we put up an impressive 31 points on them. The same thing could happen this season too.

Michigan State Offense

It is going to help Michigan State a lot that they have one of the best and most experienced quarterbacks in all of college football. Connor Cook is a rock under center. He threw for 3,212 yards and 24 touchdowns last year against only eight interceptions. He is not going to lose game with his play. You could not ask for a more steady senior quarterback.

Cook has plenty of experienced receivers too. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and  Aaron Burbridge both had 29 receptions last season. They did not put up the numbers that Tony Lippett did, but they are solid possession receivers that can get you first downs. The pride of Greentown, Indiana, Josiah Price, also gives them a big tight end target that, as usual, Purdue will completely ignore over the middle of the field on critical third and long plays.

Where things could get interesting is the running game. Michigan State often has a solid running back that gains the hard yards and lets their defense rest. Last year it was Jeremy Langford, who had a 1,500 yard season with 22 TDs. Even his backup, Nick Hill, was solid with 622 yards and nine scores. Delton Williams, the No. 3 back who has major speed, is also in major trouble after showing off a gun, getting arrested, and is currently suspended. Madre London, T.J. Harrell, and L.J. Scott enter as four-star recruits, but the job is up for grabs going into 2015.

The offensive line is going to be good, giving Cook time to throw and whomever wins the running abck job space to run. Center Jack Allen was an All-American while left tackle Jack Conklin was Second Team all-Big Ten. Donavon Clark, Kodi Kieler, and Brian Allen all have starting experience at the other three spots, so this group will be more than fine.

Michigan State Defense

Arguably, Michigan State's biggest loss was Pat Narduzzi, who left to take over as head coach at Pittsburgh. He built a defense that was fantastic (unless you were playing a mega-offense like Oregon or Baylor) and he had been with Dantonio for 11 years. Many of the top pieces in terms of the individual players are back too, while Narduzzi was replaced by Dantonio's long-time linebacker's coach.

Up front, Shilique Calhoun will challenge to be the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year. With eight sacks, a forced fumble, and 12.5 tackles for loss he is in line to have a dominant senior season. Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas give him two more experienced seniors to rely on up front, too. This unit was a top 10 unit nationally against the run and should be just as good again.

At linebacker starters Ed Davis and Darien Harris are both back. Davis is excellent at slicing into the backfield and causing havoc as he finished last season with seven sacks. Overall, there is talent and depth with only Taiwan Jones lost to graduation.

The vaunted secondary has been one of the best in America for awhile now, but it must replace a pair of starters. R.J. Williamson and Montae Nicholson are back as starters, but Kurtis Drummond was the team's leading tackler and he had four interceptions. Darian Hicks will be the No. 1 corner as well, but he had only two interceptions a year ago.

Overall the unit will be just as good as last year. They don't need to be great, either. The offense does more than enough to both put up points and to keep them off the field and rested.

Michigan State Special Teams

When needed, Mike Sadler was one of the best situational punters in the Big Ten. He is gone, but Michael Geiger, who was perfect on extra points and 14 of 22 on field goals, returns. He struggled from beyond 40 yards, but was much better on the shorter kicks.

In the return game Michigan State was still pretty good. R.J. Shelton returned a kickoff for a touchdown and averaged over 25 yards per return. The F+ (whatever that means) for the special teams overall was 18th nationally. Their coverage rated as one of the best in the country.

Game Outlook

Well, what can you say? Purdue has no business winning this game and probably shouldn't even be competitive. For whatever reason though, two of the best games under coach Hazell have come against excellent Spartan teams. In 2013 Michigan State had a legitimate claim to play Florida State for the National title, but didn't get that shot. Last year the Spartans would have been a playoff team if not for losses to the two teams that happened to meet in the final. Despite this, Purdue has given them fits.

I don't get it, either. Last year it was Akeem Hunt and Danny Anthrop having great days. Hunt ran for 96 yards and three touchdowns while Anthrop had 9 receptions for 133 yards. B.J. Knauf also had 7 catches for 29 yards and a score. Knauf and Hunt are gone, however. Purdue's offense went into the tank when Anthrop was injured, so the Boilers are going to have to find other targets to be effective. I am still not confident in a defense that gave up five critical third down conversions, either.

On paper Michigan State should win in a walk. I still wouldn't be surprised if Purdue hung around yet again, though.

Way Too Early Prediction:

When was the last time Purdue beat a ranked team on the road? It had near misses at Ohio State in 2012, Oregon in 2009, and Michigan State in 2010, but you have to go back to October 18, 2003 when Purdue beat #14 Wisconsin in Madison 26-23. That's almost 12 years, so we're into "believe it when it happens" territory. Michigan State 38, Purdue 21