Michigan State football: Spartans still have a lot to prove after 7-0 start
In 2015, Michigan State started 8-0 before losing 39-38 to Nebraska. The Spartans still ended up in the Cotton Bowl, finishing 12-2, but the loss to Nebraska hurt — especially because 2015 was punctuated by wins over Michigan and Ohio State.
MSU nearly stumbled Saturday vs. Indiana. It wasn’t pretty the week before vs. Rutgers.
A bye week has come at the right time, as the Spartans (7-0) really need to fine-tune their offense and passing defense before their date with Michigan on Oct. 30 in East Lansing.
Through the first 5 weeks, Michigan State gained national attention. The Spartans were legit.
They still are … but based on the past two games, the Spartans don’t look like they have enough consistency across the board to take down the Wolverines, who face Northwestern this weekend. The past two weekends could have been minor hiccups, or they could have been signs of major weakness for the Spartans.
Taking advantage of the bye week is a must. The Spartans can’t let a couple of near-misses linger as they prepare for what will be the biggest game of the season, Version 1.0.
Then there’s Ohio State and Penn State…
More star power
The absence of game-shifting plays by RB Kenneth Walker III, WR Jayden Reed, WR Jalen Nailor and QB Payton Thorne was alarming this past Saturday vs. Indiana. With that foursome essentially neutralized, the Spartans struggled offensively. If not for the defense, MSU wouldn’t had even put points on the board during the first half vs. the Hoosiers.
Walker, Reed, Nailor and Thorne have all had breakout games through the first half of the season. They’ve been consistent, too. A slight power outage is one thing, but getting almost nothing from all four was unprecedented.
If Walker doesn’t run well, the Spartans won’t have a chance at topping the big dogs in the Big Ten. If Thorne doesn’t return to previous form, same scenario. Same goes for Reed and Nailor.
Passing defense liabilities
Entering Saturday, Michigan State was allowing three entire fields’ worth of passing yardage per game. Name a team that gives up that much through the air and remains in contention for a conference championship.
Hoosiers QB Jack Tuttle, in relief for injured starter Michael Penix, Jr., had moments of pure precision vs. MSU’s defensive backs. Methodical with bubble screens, accurate on intermediate routes — he hit all the right throws and engineered a handful of quality drives. Indiana couldn’t capitalize, settling for a flurry of field goals, but Tuttle moved the chains: He completed 8 of his 12 initial attempts, good enough for 4 first downs.
Letting teams stay in it
Letting Michigan hang around, like Rutgers and Indiana did, won’t pan out for the Spartans. It might be a close one with Michigan, just because of the intense rivalry, but allowing long 3rd-down conversions and constantly hiccupping in the defensive backfield won’t yield desired results.
Had Penix been healthy, the Hoosiers would have racked up more than the 188 passing yards that they did. And it wasn’t even so much the total, which wasn’t a stat-sheet highlight, but it was the means by which Tuttle got those yards. If the Hoosiers could do that, imagine the outcome vs. a player like Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud or Penn State’s Sean Clifford.
Or even Michigan’s Cade McNamara, who would thrive off the bubble-screen life vs. the Spartans. Michigan is a lot faster than Indiana. The coverage that was displayed vs. the Hoosiers wouldn’t fly vs. the Wolverines.
Indiana’s Stephen Carr is a solid running back. He only rushed for 53 yards, but made big plays late in the game, keeping the Hoosiers close enough to feel good about upsetting a top-1o program. MSU couldn’t really stop the senior running back during critical moments. Imagine what Michigan RBs Blake Corum or Hassan Haskins would have done.
Michigan State has hung on by threads the past two weeks, in terms of being in the “elite” Big Ten conversation. Yes, the Spartans are a top-10 team, but what happens when they face a team that won’t be as forgiving as the Scarlet Knights or Hoosiers?