A lot of Purdue fans are predicting death by Sparty in this one, but even in Purdue's disappointing 1-3 start we have seen some margin of improvement. Instead of getting blown out by superior teams Purdue has at least improved to the point where it beats itself again. Yeah, that is a small measure of progress, but going from "We're getting drilled by 30 by everyone" to "We lost, but it was due to mental mistakes," is improvement. And that's exactly what has happened. A pair of pick sixes resulted in the loss at Marshall, and a slew of penalties and other mistakes led to a loss to Bowling Green. Yes, Purdue could legitimately be 3-1 right now.
That is the "could" game, and at some point Purdue needs to simply win, no matter how it happens. The Boilers now enter Big Ten play where the schedule gets harder, but there is still an opportunity for improvement, and that begins on Saturday against the No. 2 ranked team in the country.
Beating Michigan State is a longshot. A victory over the Spartans would suddenly make any other game winnable, as well as bring questions of "where the hell was THAT" for the previous three losses. It may not be as surprising as some would think, however. Even though Purdue went 4-20 the last two seasons they play Michigan State tough each time. Could this be the bizarre matchup where Purdue has no business being competitive, but is against a strong opponent like Danny Hope was against Ohio State? In both 2013 and 2014 Purdue had the football trailing by only 7 points in the fourth quarter. That's incredible when the Boilers have been one of the worst teams in America in that time and Michigan State has been one of the best.
I am not saying Purdue will win on Saturday. In fact, I would be stunned by a win. This Purdue team is still better, at least from a talent standpoint, than the last two teams that already played the Spartans tough. Maybe something weird will happen.
2015 Record: 4-0
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
Who to Watch on Offense
Connor Cook - QB - Cook has never been the flashy quarterback that goes mad bomber for 400 yards and 5 TDs. He is a very consistent, solid player that is going to make the plays he needs to make and not screw things up. Already this year he has 838 yards and 9 TDs against a single interception. His line protects him well so he has plenty of time to make great decisions, as he has been sacked only three times. He is also one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the Big Ten with an impressive 27-3 record as a starter and a 16-1 record against B1G opponents.
Aaron Burbridge - WR - Cook's favorite target this year has been Burbridge. The 6'1" senior has 24 of Cook's 61 completed passes, 405 yards and four touchdowns. It is a good bet that Cook will look to him first on every passing down.
Madre London - RB - London is another big, strong running back that has had a solid debut as a redshirt freshman. He went over 100 yards against Oregon and he has 275 yards rushing and three scores as the top tailback.
Josiah Price - TE - The pride of Greentown, Indiana, Price is a red zone favorite for Cook. He only has seven receptions in four games, but four have been for touchdowns. Last year he had six TDs on 26 receptions. He is a big, reliable target at 6'4" 252 pounds.
Who to Watch on Defense
Everyone - This is a bit of a catch-all, but when you go 27-3 over the last 30 games you have an excellent defense. That has been Michigan State's calling card during this run. Not only will the defense shut you down, they are capable of scoring on their own. Two years ago Denicos Allen returned a fumble for a touchdown against Purdue and the Spartans smothered the meek Purdue offense into a 14-0 submission. Last season a couple of fourth quarter TDs from Akeem Hunt gave Purdue a chance, but Darien Harris sealed the 45-31 win with a pick-six in the last 90 seconds. For Purdue to have any chance at all it cannot give up a defensive TD.
Shilique Calhoun - DE - The 6'5 defensive end already has 4.5 sacks and is a two-time First Team all-Big Ten player. He might be the best defensive end we will see all season, and he is definitely one of the best in America.
Riley Bullough - LB - Bullough is just a solid middle linebacker with 46 tackles, 3 sacks, and a fumble recovery so far. He is a tackling machine that always seems to be near the ball.
Montae Nicholson - S - The sophomore is in his first year as a starter and he already has a pair of interceptions. Look for him to prey on a freshman quarterback when David Blough makes his first Big Ten start.
Who to Watch on Special Teams
Jake Hartbarger - P - As if it wasn't hard enough moving on Michigan State's defense, Hartbarger is averaging 46.5 yards per punt and he has downed 6 inside the 10.
For Purdue to have a chance in this game it is going to have to play perfect. That is also why Michigan State will very likely win it. In 28 games under Darrell Hazell Purdue has never played anything close to perfect. The best might have been last season at Minnesota, and that resulted in a one point loss because of two costly mistakes at the end. Michigan State is a team that will make you pay a full measure for each mistake.
I still have some hope because Purdue has played them so well in recent seasons. I also still (probably misguided) have hope that there will be a game where everything finally clicks under Darrell Hazell and Co. I think one of the reasons that Purdue plays Michigan State so well is because Mike Dantonio and Darrell Hazell are so similar in coaching style. They don't do anything fancy, but Michigan State happens to have much better discipline and execution than Purdue. That is the difference. Purdue can do well enough to stay close, but Michigan State is just better and it shows in the end. Sure, the 14-0 win two years ago wasn't pretty, but it was a win. Mcihigan State's offense struggled to move the ball, but the defense got it 7 points and was more than good enough to sit on Purdue's head the rest of the day while the offense figured things out.
That's probably what happens here. Purdue can make a few plays on both sides of the ball and maybe keep it close for a half or even three quarters. In the end though, Michigan State is just better.