Michigan State football: Spartans' history proves program has chance to upset Wolverines
Sure, it’s possible. Even the most cynical Michigan State fan has to realize keeping the Paul Bunyan Trophy in East Lansing isn’t as far-fetched as some would make it out to be.
Even with the Spartans’ recent track record of playing underwhelming football, Michigan State has a chance to take down Michigan Saturday at The Big House. The Wolverines (7-0, 4-0 B1G) appear to be as dynamic in 2022 as they were last season en route to a conference title and College Football Playoff appearance.
That didn’t stop Kenneth Walker III from running rampant for 5 TDs on a defense that finished top-20 as a unit and featured 3 top-50 NFL Draft picks.
Last season’s 11-2 record under Mel Tucker might have been a 1-year fluke. Playing its best ball against the in-state rival isn’t. Since 2008, the Spartans have gone 10-4 against the Wolverines. They’re 4-3 against Jim Harbaugh and 2-0 with Tucker at the helm.
Is it improbable? Perhaps. MSU’s offensive inconsistencies and woeful secondary likely won’t bode well in the eyes of oddsmakers. Vegas already has Sparty entering Week 9 as a 21.5-point road underdog coming out of its bye.
Then again, the Spartans were underdogs last year at home. Check the scoreboard. They were underdogs in 2020. The scoreboard says otherwise.
“We all know what this week is. It’s not just another game for us,” Tucker said Monday at his weekly press conference. “Our players understand that, our staff understands that, our fans understand that as well.”
Here are 3 ways the Spartans can at least make sure Saturday’s game ends in close fashion to where fans are pleased with the direction of the program:
Contain the run game
Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy might have the highest completion percentage in the FBS, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s personally lighting up scoreboards or the stat sheet. Since taking over as the full-time starter in Week 3, McCarthy has only finished with 30 or more pass attempts once. He’s also only surpassed the 300-yard mark once, and that came against Indiana with a career-high in drop-backs.
Part of the reason for the limited play from Harbaugh’s clone is due to the effectiveness of the run game. Blake Corum is contending for the title of top B1G running back while Donovan Edwards has been a complementary No. 2 option. Both players are averaging over 6 yards per attempt and have combined for 17 of the Wolverines’ 24 rushing touchdowns.
Stopping the run will be easier said than done for the Spartans, mainly because it’s been a concern all season. Teams are averaging 153.3 yards per game against MSU’s front 7. They’re also averaging 4 yards per attempt.
But again, McCarthy has shown limitations in his game as a passer. Is that based on play design or other facets? In reality, we aren’t sure because the Wolverines have simply pushed the passing attack to the side in favor of a more dynamic run game. And while the Spartans’ secondary might be the worst among B1G programs, who’s to say the lack of chemistry between McCarthy and his receivers couldn’t factor into early struggles and perhaps a turnover or two?
The only way to know for sure what McCarthy is made of is by forcing the offense to become 1-dimensional. It might end up meaning nothing, but one has to try, right?
Throw it early, throw it deep
Dink-and-dunk throws from Payton Thorne won’t work on Saturday. The Wolverines’ front 7 hasn’t missed a beat in terms of keeping plays in front of them, largely factoring into their status as the No. 5 defense in college football. The Spartans haven’t been able to push the ball forward on the ground, and Saturday won’t be the time to trust that Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard will figure it out and somehow become Walker 2.0.
Thorne’s best chance of keeping things close relies on the deep ball. The good news? He has 2 weapons who certainly will be up for the challenge against a secondary that’s held offenses to under 170 passing yards and quarterbacks to a 52% completion rate. Currently, Keon Coleman is averaging 12.7 yards per catch. Jayden Reed is close behind at 11.7.
Both receivers have at least 3 explosive catches of 20-plus yards through 7 games. Germie Bernard has been MSU’s most consistent vertical threat with 4 of his 7 catches going for over 20 yards. And while the Wolverines have allowed a mere 5 touchdowns in coverage, 2 have come on throws of over 15 yards.
Trust Mel Tucker
It’s crazy to think now looking back at the 4-game losing streak, but Tucker knows what he’s doing against Harbaugh. There’s a reason that despite being the lesser team in talent, Michigan State remains undefeated against its in-state rival under the 3rd-year coach.
Tucker understands the sentiment of this game and what it can do for the program’s future in terms of recruiting. outlook and attitude for the remainder of the season. It’s why he isn’t afraid to abandon certain formations and play designs if they aren’t working early.
Last season, Tucker stopped trying to attack the middle of the field with the passing attack. Thorne threw a pair of early interceptions, both of which led to UM scoring drives and an early 10-0 deficit. What happened next? The Spartans attacked the perimeter with guys like Reed and Jalen Nailor, thus setting up the run for Walker to carry the team on his back into the end zone.
Tucker wants to win the rivalry game. Beat your “big brother,” own bragging rights (and perhaps ease the hot seat flames a little bit) for another season. If the passing attack falters early, Tucker will try to establish the run. If the run game is all but depleted, he’ll make sure Thorne is slinging the rock as much as possible.
Even when the odds have been stacked against MSU, the Spartans have found ways to win. That’s in large part due to the adaptability of Tucker’s play design. He’s undefeated versus UM, so until given a reason, why doubt his ability to go for the 3-peat?