Michigan State football: 5 Spartans to watch vs. Hoosiers
They had some big-play luck against Rutgers and barely escaped Nebraska. The Michigan State Spartans have had a couple of close calls, and they can’t afford another one this weekend at Indiana.
The No. 10 Spartans (6-0) are projected to finish 10-2 this year by recent (and constantly changing) ESPN FPI calculations. Those losses are predicted to be against No. 6 Ohio State and No. 8 Michigan.
But they’ve found ways in the past to emerge with wins against the Wolverines and Buckeyes, even when the odds weren’t in their favor. During the Mark Dantonio era, the Spartans notched a couple of program-defining wins against Ohio State. They did the same against Michigan.
Facing those rivals will be the focus down the road. Right now, the Spartans need to take care of the Hoosiers, who have underwhelmed throughout the first 6 weeks. At 2-3, the Hoosiers just haven’t found the same magic they had in 2020, so that’s probably why ESPN FPI gives them just a 33.3 percent chance of beating Michigan State.
With one of the best offenses in the Big Ten, the Spartans have the tools necessary to stretch the field and score a lot of points. But their passing defense has been suspect all season, prompting a bit of caution.
Simply put, they can’t let IU QB Michael Penix Jr. (or Jack Tuttle if Penix can’t go) and WR Ty Fryfogle — one of the best WRs in the B1G last season — find a rhythm in Bloomington.
QB watch: Eyes on Payton Thorne
Turnovers kill momentum, especially on the road. Spartans QB Payton Thorne has thrown just 2 INTs this season. If the Spartans are to win at Indiana, they’ll need zero picks by their quarterback. Ideally, of course. At least not one that will cost the game, if that makes sense (it should).
He’s completing 63 percent of his passes. He’s thrown for 1,575 yards and 14 TDs, too. Thorne is definitely a player to watch, and he’ll be one the rest of the way for Michigan State, which has gone 15-3 vs. Indiana since the calendar flipped into the new millennium.
Big plays: Hello, Jalen ‘Speedy’ Nailor
Michigan State’s newest shiny toy put the Big Ten on notice with 208 receiving yards during the first half of a 31-13 win at Rutgers. If not for Nailor’s TD grabs of 63, 63 and 65 yards, the Spartans probably wouldn’t have gotten past the Scarlet Knights. Big plays ruled the day. Take those out of the equation, and you have a very winnable game for Rutgers.
It’s not like Nailor is some unknown; however, when RB Kenneth Walker III, a Heisman candidate, is on your team … along with WR Jayden Reed, who burned the Huskers with a couple punt return TDs 2 weeks ago … well, sometimes your name might get lost in the mix.
Explosive plays aren’t a new thing for the Spartans. They’ve had several throughout the first 6 weeks. They were known for trickery and pulling off the impossible during the Mark Dantonio era. Expect to see Nailor on the end of at least one 30-yard plus connection with Thorne on Saturday.
Get defensive: Backfield-invading specialist Jacub Panasiuk
He’s among the sack leaders in the Big Ten, coming in with 4.5 through the first half of the year. A surefire All-Big Ten selection, the redshirt junior will certainly have to be the engine for a defense that has struggled on the back end.
Pressuring Penix and/or Tuttle will be a key factor. Making sure IU’s QBs don’t get clear looks downfield to Fryfogle should be a top priority for a DL that has to compensate for a shaky secondary.
As long as Panasiuk gets lanes into the backfield, Michigan State should have a decent shot of grounding the Hoosiers’ aerial plans.
Safety support: Xavier Henderson
Panasuik has been the key to the defense, but Xavier Henderson has also put himself into the conversation surrounding MSU’s most important defensive players.
Two years ago, Henderson began a streak of 20 straight starts at safety, and he’s been there ever since. Now a three-year starter, Henderson has evolved into one of the Big Ten’s surest tacklers: He has 52 stops, 6th-most in the B1G, and 2 sacks for good measure.
Though passing has been a little more fruitful thus far, Indiana can still run the ball: The Hoosiers average 126 yards per game. Henderson lends solid run support, so he’ll be needed to contain RB Stephen Carr, the No. 10 overall rusher in the Big Ten.
Penix isn’t throwing the ball all around the field these days. He’s going with shorter routes, and he’s thrown 7 picks, the second-most in the Big Ten. Along with run support, Henderson will be valuable during those intermediate route scenarios (even more so if Tuttle is in). If he lurks hard enough, he may grab his second interception of the year.
Field goals could be important: Matt Coghlin
In 2020, Indian beat Michigan State 24-0 in East Lansing. It was an embarrassing loss, especially for coach Mel Tucker, who was in his first season with the Spartans. During the Dantonio era, MSU lost once to the Hoosiers, a 24-21 OT setback in 2016, which, in itself was also pretty bad. That year, MSU went 3-9 and won only 1 conference game (Rutgers).
So, even though the Hoosiers aren’t that good this season, Coghlin will be of the utmost importance. He’s only hit 8 of 13 field goals this season, about 68 percent — a far cry from the approximately 80 percent he hit in 2017 and 2018.
In a tight game, the FG kicker has to be the hero. Who knows? The Spartans could blow out Indiana, something like the old days under Dantonio … and every other MSU coach. The Spartans have a 48-17-2 record against IU, so it’d take a couple decades of pure failure for the series to even get close.