There is no question that Michigan State is having a fantastic season. In the summer I felt this would be one of Purdue’s easiest games, but the Spartans have exceeded all expectations and are legitimately in the playoff discussion. This week we get to talk to Ryan O’Bleness of SB Nation’s The Only Colors to discuss the success of Michigan State.
1. This has been a tremendous surprise of a season for Michigan State. Aside from Kenneth Walker III, what is the biggest reason for the turnaround?
Obviously Kenneth Walker III has been a big part of the success and has given the Michigan State offense a home run threat every time he touches the ball. This was huge given the Spartans’ struggles in the run game in the past few seasons. But it goes beyond Walker and there are several things that have led to the turnaround. First and foremost, head coach Mel Tucker won the transfer portal in the offseason by getting dynamic players like Walker and several other players who now start for the team, such as left tackle Jarrett Horst, linebacker Quavaris Crouch, cornerbacks Chester Kimbrough and Ronald Williams and others who have come in and made an immediate impact. Tucker and his staff completely tore down the roster and rebuilt it in their vision, bringing in the guys they saw as difference-makers. A lot of credit needs to be given to the staff for their ability to not only identify talent in the portal, but to recruit those players to East Lansing.
There have also been younger players who were already with the program such as linebacker Cal Haladay, quarterback Payton Thorne and safety Angelo Grose who have stepped into huge roles this season and delivered, while true freshmen, such as cornerback Charles Brantley, have shown that the moment isn’t too big for them. Of course, veteran players such as safety Xavier Henderson, defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley and others have played well on the field and led their team off the field as well. It’s been a total team effort.
I also think that Tucker’s culture and mantra has been instilled into the team. He uses phrases like “Relentless” “Keep Chopping” and “Neutral Thinking” — not getting too high or too low and just focusing on the next play. These players have completely bought in, take things one week at a time and are playing confident football.
2. Nebraska seemed to hold Walker in check in your closest call thus far. How were they successful?
The thing that makes Walker so good is his ability to create yardage by himself. He often turns runs that look like losses into positive yards or big plays and his teammates and coaches have called him “The Eraser” for his ability to erase the mistakes of missed blocks/assignments and make something happen. With that said, he obviously can’t do it alone and he needs his teammates to help. Walker is always first to credit this offensive line, but what Nebraska was able to do against Michigan State was dominate the trenches and take away the cutback lanes so that Walker had trouble both running in between the tackles and trying to bounce things outside. The offensive linemen couldn’t generate much of a push against the Cornhuskers, and Walker finished that game with just 61 rushing yards and 3.2 yards per carry. Really, Nebraska just had a sound defensive game plan and the players in the defensive front simply fit their gaps effectively, won the battle of the trenches often and took away space for Walker to maneuver. Indiana had similar success, holding Walker to 84 yards and 3.7 yards per carry. But outside of those two teams, no other defenses have been able to slow him down.
3. Purdue’s pass defense has been excellent this year. Will making MSU one-dimensional help spring the upset?
Michigan State can certainly win the game on the legs of Walker and the rushing attack, but the Spartans are going to need to use the run to set up the pass — particularly the play-action passing game — if the team wants to leave West Lafayette with a victory. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Walker have another 100-plus yard rushing game, but if the Boilermakers shut down Thorne and the passing game, then obviously that makes things a lot more challenging. While the rushing game has been tremendous for the Spartans (200.3 yards per game), the passing attack has been solid, too (244.4 yards per game), and that offensive balance has been essential to the overall success the team has had this season. Purdue definitely matches up well and has limited most teams it has faced through the air, though. Wide receiver Jalen Nailor injured his hand against Michigan and his status is uncertain for Saturday, which could further hinder MSU’s passing game if he is out. So, surely, making MSU one-dimensional by taking away the pass and being able to key in on shutting down Walker and the rushing attack would be a great game plan for the Boilermakers — but shutting down Walker is a tall task, no matter how well the passing attack is doing.
4. Does Michigan State’s last rated pass defense against a pretty good passing offense give you concern?
Yes and no. Am I concerned that Aidan O’Connell is going to throw for 300-plus yards and David Bell is going to put up 200 yards or more receiving on the Michigan State secondary? Yes. Do I think Purdue will move the ball between the 20-yard-lines with ease? Yes. Am I concerned that Purdue will score a lot of points? No. Michigan State plays a “bend-don’t-break” style defense and the passing yards allowed numbers are certainly not pretty, but part of that is scheme, as the Spartans elect to keep everything in front of them and perhaps give a little bit too much of a cushion to opposing passing attacks. Obviously it would be better to force more punts and get off of the field quicker, but this style of play has worked well for the Spartans thus far. What MSU does really well is hold teams out of the end zone, and ranks 29th nationally in points per game allowed (20.5). Purdue struggles to finish off drives, and only averages 22.9 points per game (No. 103 nationally). So yards are one thing, but points are a totally different story, and the Michigan State defense often tightens up in the red zone and keeps teams out of the end zones quite well.
5. Is there a chance of a letdown here, like Iowa had against Purdue?
Absolutely. This game makes me nervous. Purdue ranks No. 17 nationally in total defense and in the top-10 in passing defense and scoring defense. Plus Purdue is playing at home. The Boilermakers love to take down top-ranked opponents, and already upset then No. 2-ranked Iowa earlier this season. O’Connell and Bell are a dynamic passing duo and will get their yards. Like I said, though, for Purdue, I think it comes down to being able to end drives with touchdowns and that is not something Michigan State allows often. So I still think the Spartans have the advantage, but if MSU is caught sleeping and comes out flat, or has an emotional hangover after the big win over rival Michigan, it will surely result in an upset win for Purdue. With that said, Tucker does a great job of keeping his team focused each week, and the Spartans aren’t going to take the Boilermakers lightly.
6. What do you see happening on Saturday?
I see a hard-fought game throughout, similar to how the Michigan State versus Indiana game played out a couple weeks ago. I expect it to be close throughout with the Purdue defense giving the Michigan State offense fits. On the other side of the ball, I see Purdue moving the ball, but eventually breaking down and settling for field goals and punts. I don’t think it will be a super-high scoring affair. At the end of the day, Michigan State has proven time and again this season that it knows how to win close games. I think that is the case here and the final score is something around Michigan State 27, Purdue 20.