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Offseason Dispatches: A Q&A with The Only Colors

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Ryan O’Bleness wins us today to discuss Michigan State

Michigan State Spring Game Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Purdue has not played Michigan State in a while. It has not played Michigan State at home in an even longer time. That leads to some unfamiliarity, so let’s learn more about the Spartans from Ryan O’Bleness of The Only Colors.

1. Year 1 under Mel Tucker was not great. Was it a carryover of the slight downturn Dantonio had near the end or more weird COVID year?

All of the above. I will always be appreciative of what Mark Dantonio did for the Michigan State program, taking it to incredible heights during his tenure with Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl victory, and a College Football Playoff appearance. However, there was a noticeable dip in his recruiting efforts toward the end of his time in East Lansing, and his stubbornness when it came to making necessary changes on his coaching staff was frustrating (for example, swapping position coaches around as opposed to firing them for poor performance and hiring new ones). So, while there were a couple really good players left on the team for Mel Tucker, the roster was mostly devoid of talent.

The COVID-19 pandemic was also a huge factor. Tucker didn’t take the job until mid-February of 2020 when Dantonio abruptly retired, well after most new coaches had already been established with their programs, built a staff and got familiar with their teams. Essentially, Tucker built his staff out within the first few weeks he was hired, and the pandemic hit in March. He had barely been on the job for a month. Offseason in-person workouts and spring ball were cancelled. Tucker and his staff had to implement the new offensive, defensive and special teams schemes via Zoom, which isn’t very practical when you can’t do it on a football field. This obviously carried on throughout the summer, then the season was postponed, and finally the Spartans got on the practice field in late September. That is tough for anybody to manage, let alone a first-year head coach, but Tucker never used it as an excuse, He expects his team to perform much better in 2021.

2. Like many, Michigan State hit the transfer market hard. Who are the best newcomers and will they make a difference?

Michigan State was one of the most active programs in the transfer portal this offseason, with 27 players transferring out and 19 players (including preferred walk-ons) heading to East Lansing. You can keep up with everything on The Only Colors’ transfer portal tracker post. As for the players who are expected to make an immediate difference, Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker III — who was recently named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List and named preseason first-team All-Big Ten by Pro Football Focus — tops the list. MSU has struggled to run the ball in recent seasons, to put it mildly, and Walker — who had 1,158 yards and 17 touchdowns in 20 games with the Demon Deacons — should help remedy that right away.

Anthony Russo, a Temple transfer, will battle Payton Thorne for the starting quarterback spot, and obviously if he wins it, will be a key part of the Spartans’ success or failure — but Thorne will not go down without a tough fight.

Other names to watch out for include offensive tackle Jarrett Horst (Arkansas State), defensive end Drew Jordan (Duke), linebacker Quavaris Crouch (Tennessee), cornerback Ronald Williams (Alabama) and cornerback Chester Kimbrough (Florida), among others. Several of the transfer additions are expected to earn immediate roles.

3. Michigan State had the worst scoring offense and worst scoring defense in the league last year. What happened?

In addition to what I mentioned above with the lack of being able to implement new schemes and practice leading up to the season, which obviously was a big deal, there were several on-the field issues as well: shaky play from the quarterback spot, downright putrid offensive line play, no lead running back who stepped up, injuries, etc. All of that really hindered the offense. The offense also struggled with turnovers throughout the season, and often put the defense in bad positions on the field. Defensively, there were issues with missed assignments and missed tackles, and of course defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton implemented his 4-2-5 system, which was all new for the players who were previously on the roster and were used to Dantonio’s more 4-3 base scheme. But the offensive issues — turning the ball over or not being able to move the ball efficiently — often forced the MSU defense to have to defend a short field, which is a big reason why the scoring defense for the Spartans didn’t look so pretty.

The run game was horrid. MSU averaged just 91.4 yards per game (ranking 122nd out of 127 FBS teams Ed. Note: still ahead of Purdue) and a mere 2.68 yards per carry (ranking 124th). In fact, the Spartans didn’t have a single running back on the roster who scored a rushing touchdown in 2020. The advanced stats in the running game are even more damning. For example, Michigan State ranked 124th out of 127 teams in “Line Yards Per Carry” with a mark of just 1.96 yards per carry, according to Football Outsiders. That needs to change immediately. Obviously, whether it’s Russo or Thorne starting, the quarterback needs to be more consistent, too, especially when it comes to accuracy, holding on to the football and guiding the offense to more sustained drives.

Defensively, there will be a lot of new players in 2021, mostly transfers, who will likely see the field. Getting the new players to gel quickly and learn the 4-2-5 system will be key in MSU’s success on that side of the ball.

4. It was surprising to see that this is only Michigan State’s 2nd visit to West Lafayette since 2009. Are we really in the same conference still?

Haha, yeah, apparently splitting up into the East and West divisions has not been great or the Michigan State/Purdue series. I was actually at Spartan Stadium the last time the Spartans and Boilermakers played, when Rocky Lombardi made his first career start due to an injury to Brian Lewerke. Lombardi led MSU to the 23-13 win. Things didn’t go so great for Lombardi after that, though, and he transferred to Northern Illinois after the 2020 season. Michigan State has won eight games in a row in the series, but this year could be a good chance for Purdue to end the losing streak, playing at home against a team that has low expectations and a lot of new pieces.

5. How does Michigan State match up to the East and what are your expectations?

Expectations from the national media are very low for Michigan State in 2021. In fact, MSU was just picked last in the East by cleveland.com. After a tough year last year, and with so many players both leaving and coming into the program, it is understandable why analysts would be low on the Spartans. The Big Ten East is one of the toughest divisions in the country, with Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana all looking like real contenders this season. Michigan is coming off of a down year (and of course, a loss to Michigan State!), but will look to turn things around. Maryland and Rutgers are looking to ascend as well, and Rutgers actually had a decent season in 2020 (and defeated the Spartans).

For me personally, though, I see MSU surprising quite a few people this season. Honestly, it’s hard to predict with this team because the roster is so different compared to last year. I could see the Spartans winning as many as seven or eight games, or as few as three or four. My guess as of right now, before fall camp begins, is it will be somewhere in the middle, around 6-6 with bowl eligibility. I don’t think Michigan State finishes last in the division.

6. How do you see this game playing out?

Michigan State has had Purdue’s number, with the aforementioned eight-straight wins and a 36-28-3 all-time advantage. Will that continue? Purdue has pretty low expectations this season as well, as the Boilermakers were voted sixth in the West by cleveland.com.

It will be interesting to see who wins the starting quarterback job for Purdue between Jack Plummer or Aidan O’Connell, and if the player who wins the job can step up and lead Purdue to hard-fought victories. Same thing can be said for Michigan State with Thorne and Russo. Purdue also lost Rondale Moore, but the Boilermakers should be OK at wide receiver with David Bell and Milton Wright both returning.

While I’ve mentioned a lot of offensive players, it will also be interesting to see which defense steps up more in this game. I also think playing at home will be a big advantage for Purdue. This could be Jeff Brohm’s chance to get his first career win against Michigan State. With that said, my gut tells me that this is going to be a close game and by the time these two teams meet in November, the Spartans may have come together as a team by then, with all of the transfer additions, and overall may have the more talented roster.

I don’t have a score prediction or a winner just yet, as it is a bit premature for that, but I say this game comes down to the final possession and could go either way.