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Purdue at Michigan State Preview

Purdue’s passing game is very good. The Michigan State pass defense is... not.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for an encore. Purdue now enters the Michigan State game with a ton to play for, as it is in the middle of a wide open Big Ten West race. Purdue, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa all find themselves with one conference loss. Purdue lost to Northwestern and Iowa lost to Wisconsin, so there are a few tiebreakers in play, but by the end of the day the race can be vastly different. Wisconsin plays Northwestern on Saturday. Iowa is also at a ranked Penn State team. With Iowa and Wisconsin still slated to come to West Lafayette a Purdue road win would set up a huge final four games.

The Spartans are a shell of their former selves, too. After being ranked for much of the season the Spartans are sitting a 4-3 with a wealth of injuries. Quarterback Brian Lewerke has a banged up shoulder. Felton Davis III, their top receiver, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. LJ Scott has been banged up at running back. Cody White, their No. 2 receiver, has a broken hand. This is a beaten up football team with a struggling offense.

Clearly, Purdue has to stay focused. I don’t think it will be hard to bring this team back down from Saturday night’s high, either. All the coaching staff should have to do is pop in the tape of the Eastern Michigan game to show them what can happen if they are unfocused.

2018 Record: 4-3, 3-2 Big Ten East

2017 Record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten East

Bowl Result: Beat Washington State 42-17 in Holiday Bowl

Blog Representation: The Only Colors

Series with Purdue: Michigan State leads 35-28-3

Last Purdue win: 17-15 at Purdue on 11/4/2006

Last Michigan State win: 24-21 on 10/3/2015

Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (104-48 in 12th season at Michigan State, 122-65 overall)

The Spartans have had an up and down season so far. They struggled on the opening night, barely getting past Utah State 38-31. They then went out for a late game in the desert and lost at Arizona State 16-13. After handling Indiana and Central Michigan they struggled offensively in a home loss to Northwestern. They got some fortuitous bounces their way in a nice road win at Penn State, but managed only 94 yards of offense last week against Michigan.

Nothing worked for Michigan State offensively against the Wolverines. The only score came on a trick play after they recovered a fumble at the Wolverine 7 yard line. Otherwise it was the all punt offense as MSU punted 11 times and managed only 11 first downs.

Michigan State enters this game ranked 108th in total offense at 23.4 points per game. 20 points appears to be their magic number. When you hold them under 20, they lose. If they get to 21, they win. They are 122nd in rushing at 107.6 yards per game and 55th in passing at 244 yards per game. Our pass defense has been… not good (127th nationally at 296.4 yards per game), but our run defense has now improved to 41st at 136.7 yards per game. We also are a good bad defense in that we give up a lot of empty yards. We have given up only 11 touchdowns on 26 red zone trips by our opponents and seven times (including three Saturday night) the opponent got nothing inside the 20. Saturday night Ohio State had five red zone trips and got 6 points.

This certainly appears to be a game where, if Purdue can build a lead, the Spartans lack the firepower to make a comeback. Only Rutgers has a worse offense in the Big Ten.

Who to Watch on Offense

Brian Lewerke – QB – Assuming Lewerke can go, he is not having the season many expected. He has thrown for 1,653 yards and 8 TDs against 7 interceptions. He also has only 72 yards rushing. He was much, much better last season in both categories. He had 559 yards rushing last year and only 7 INTs compared to 20 TDs. If he doesn’t go Purdue will likely see Rocky Lombardi, who has a single completion this year for 9 yards. Lewerke’s ability to scramble has been neutralized this season, and that has greatly limited the Spartan offense. He’s also been sacked 19 times.

LJ Scott – RB – Scott played last week for the first time since week 2 at Arizona State and Michigan held him to 25 yards on 10 carries. His absence has been a major factor, too. He had close to 1,900 yards and 14 touchdowns in the last two seasons and much was expected of him this year. He’s also been a receiving threat out of the backfield. Without him the running game has been extremely limited with Connor Heyward (194 yards, 3 TDs) and La’Darius Jefferson (189 yards, 2 TDs) doing most of the work. If Scott is healthy and effective he is the best thing for the Spartan offense.

As for the rest of the Spartan offense, it is banged up. The top two receivers are out and the offensive line has had five contributors miss time with injury. There is no question the Michigan offense is good, but the Michigan State offense wasn’t doing a lot even before it was hit with all the injuries. Purdue just held a better rushing team in Ohio State in check all night, and the Buckeyes have a much, much better passing game to compensate. If Lewerke is limited Michigan State will struggle.

Who to Watch on Defense

As usual, the Michigan State defense is pretty good. It is 37th in points per game at 22.1 and third against the run at only 79.6 yards per game. D.J. Knox has been playing well, but he will face two of the best run defenses in America the next two weeks.

Where there is a huge red flag, however, is the pass defense. It is awful. Michigan State is 116th nationally against the pass at 275.7 yards per game. Only they are slightly worse than Ohio State and only slightly better than Nebraska and Illinois. Conveniently, David Blough just threw for 1,083 yards and 7 touchdowns against only one interception against those teams while completing over 60% of his passes. Oh, and it is a pass dfense only slightly ahead of Missouri, whom Blough lit up.

Joe Bachie – LB – Bachie is the leading tackler on the defense with 53 and is your typical good Michigan State linebacker. He also has a sack and an interception to his credit.

Kenny Willekes – DE – Willekes is third in the Big Ten with 5.5 sacks on the season and has 11 total tackles for loss. He will be a handful for Grant Hermanns and Matt McCann on the ends, as he is good at disrupting the passing game.

Khari Willis – S – The senior safety is the only defender with multiple interceptions on the year. He also has 44 total tackles and 7 pass break-ups, so he can be effective against the pass. Overall though, this is definitely a run first unit. If Purdue rushes for 100+ yards I don’t see them stopping the pass.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Tyler Hunt – P – Michigan State lost a major weapon when punter Jake Hartbarger was lost for the season. He was averaging almost 49 yards per punt. Hunt is just over 40 yards per kick, giving a significant difference in field position.

Matt Coghlin – K – Coghlin is a perfect 8 for 8 on field goal attempts with a long of 49 yards, so if the Spartan offense can get close enough he can at least put points on the board.

Game Outlook

I am trying to temper my expectations because Purdue is coming off of its best offensive performance of the season and Michigan State is coming off of its worst. It is unlikely Purdue will be that good against a very good Michigan State run defense, nor will the Spartans be that bad against a worse defense than Michigan. Still, it is hard not to get excited.

Michigan State struggles against the pass and Purdue has the No. 6 passing offense in the nation at 337.6 yards per game. Blough has been playing extremely well the last three games against similarly rated defenses. Purdue is clicking on all cylinders offensively, and that is before you factor in Rondale Moore. He is a true “Just how the hell do you stop that guy?” guy. This is a struggling secondary that hasn’t seen anyone like him.

Then you have the MSU offense. It is… not good and injured. They can’t run the ball right now and probably won’t be able to unless Scott returns to form. Lewerke was pretty awful against Michigan and has a bum throwing shoulder. Even if the Spartan defense holds us to 25 points I have my doubts that they can score 26 to beat us.

As usual, turnovers and penalties can be a great equalizer, but this is a game that could quickly get out of hand. Imagine if Purdue scores on its first two drives and is up 14-0 late in the first quarter with a misfiring Spartan defense. How much pressure will they be facing if it is 3rd and 12, down 14 points, from their own 27 late in the first quarter?

There is a lot to be excited about here on paper. Purdue has a lot of advantages, but this is still a solid program that is well coached. It won’t be easy.