Indiana Football will travel to East Lansing, Michigan this Saturday for a game against Michigan State. Ryan O’BlenessEditor-in-Chief of The only colorssat down with us to talk about Spartans football.
Here’s what he had to say:
From the outside, it looks like Michigan State has fallen back to earth a bit in its third year under Mel Tucker. What went wrong this season and what are the main differences between this year and last year?
OK, long-winded answers are coming. To be honest, there are a few reasons Michigan State struggled this year after an 11-2 season in 2021 that included a New Year’s six-bowl win. First and foremost, MSU lost a generational running back talent in Kenneth Walker III. He covered up so many shortcomings of last year’s team and no doubt single-handedly raised the 2021 team’s cap. The 2021 team also included guys like wide receiver Jalen Nailor, tight end Connor Heyward and offensive tackle AJ Arcuri, who now, like Walker, play Sundays in the NFL. There were several other contributors from last year’s team who would have made a huge difference in this year’s team but have not returned.
Even without Waker and others, MSU — while not expected to finish above Ohio State or Michigan — should be a contender in the Big Ten this season. That was not the case.
Mel Tucker doesn’t use it as an excuse, but injuries have played a big part in Michigan State’s struggles this year. In the first game of the season against Western Michigan, MSU lost linebacker/safety Darius Snow for the year. Also in the WMU game, the Spartans lost the safety of Xavier Henderson for a longer period of time. Then wide receiver Jayden Reed, defensive tackle Jacob Slade, defensive end Jeff Pietrowski, defensive end Khris Bogle, and so many others (I could list all the starters and contributors who got injured, there’s probably at least 15 others, but we’d be here for a while ).
Henderson, who ended up missing four games (unsurprisingly four losses for MSU), is the roster’s top safety and he’s also the team’s biggest leader. The Spartans looked lost on defense without Henderson orchestrating and have played much better with him since he returned for the Wisconsin game (3-1 in their last four games, with the only loss to a top- 5 team from Michigan). Slade’s return was tremendous in central defense, and a healthy Reed makes a difference day and night for MSU’s offense. The team is just beginning to recover, although fresh injuries have since surfaced on the offensive line with right defender Matt Carrick and left tackle Jarret Horst being unavailable lately. Pietrowski and Bogle remain outside, and depth in the defensive end position is so depleted that MSU has been forced to start defensive tackles on the perimeter for the past two games.
In addition to the injuries, Michigan State currently has Eight players were suspended due to suspension following the Michigan tunnel incident, including star linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon, starting nickel back Angelo Grose, starting defensive end Zion Young, and several others. Of course, such behavior is not acceptable in East Lansing, but Mel Tucker and his staff handled it quickly and correctly. With all of these guys absent, MSU has somehow found ways to win the last two games, but their absence makes things harder.
Offensively, Michigan State has struggled to get a running-game boost for much of the season and quarterback Payton Thorne’s play has been inconsistent. The Spartans, however, were able to thrive on the ground against the top-ranked Illinois defense two weeks ago and against a solid defense at Rutgers last week. Thorne is still missing some of the shots you’d expect from him and he needs to work on his accuracy and touch, but for the most part he’s been solid over the past few weeks. The unit improves.
For the defense earlier in the year it was an inability to stop the pass (similar to last season). Pass defense is much better since Henderson’s return. Now, however, the Spartans are struggling a bit to stop the run and the tackles against Rutgers have been poor. MSU allowed the Scarlet Knights to rush for 224 yards. But again, the depth of the defensive unit is completely depleted due to injuries and suspensions. Defending on third-down and fourth-down was also poor.
Special teams didn’t have a field-goal-kicking game this season, although MSU had two against Rutgers (the Spartans had only two field goals all season before).
In addition, the coaches should also take some of the blame for the poor results on the field: sometimes questionable play calls and poor management in the game, especially late in the games, were frustrating. However, the coaching staff, particularly defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, has shown a willingness of late to make necessary adjustments and mix things up. So a lot of that falls on the execution of the player as well. But overall the team has improved a lot in the last four games or so.
The good news is that despite everything that went wrong, Michigan State is one win away from bowl eligibility and could potentially end the season with eight wins if the Spartans claim a bowl win.
One thing about Indiana is that the Hoosiers really lack identity on offense and defense. What is Michigan State’s identity on both sides of the ball this season?
I actually had asked that very question in the midst of Michigan’s losing streak because at the time it didn’t seem like MSU had an identity on offense, defense, or as a team. The Spartans lost a few more games after I wrote that, but then things got a little better.
It’s still hard to tell whether either offense or defense has an easily recognizable identity. What I think the offense want to be is a team that can run the ball on its own terms, bully opposing defenses on the ground, and finally open up the game action passing game and vertical passing game. In reality, MSU ranks only 115th on the FBS in rushing yards per game (108.9) — although the Spartans have had more success in ground play over the past two weeks — and a more respectable 62nd in passing yards per game ( 235.3). MSU had to rely heavily on their outside playmakers — Reed and his colleague Keon Coleman — to move the ball. It would be nice if others rose in the unit.
Defensively, Michigan State’s program has long been known for having a hard-nosed, hard-hitting and very tight-fisted unit, especially against the run. What the Spartans actually have on that side of the ball now is a “bend-don’t-break” defense (although coaches don’t like to describe it that way), which is actually a huge improvement over early-season teams like Washington , Minnesota and Ohio State dismembered the Spartans with ease. As mentioned, forward defense has dropped a bit lately, but pass defense has been better. As mentioned earlier, the Spartans are having a really hard time coming off the field third and fourth down. What sets MSU apart is forcing fumbles and goal-line stands.
For now, though, I’d say the team’s overall identity is “resilient.” It would have been easy to fold after a four-game losing streak. But then the Spartans defeated the Wisconsin Badgers. It would have been easy to quit after being punked by rival Michigan (especially after the poor decision making shown by certain players in the aftermath). Instead, Michigan State edged out No. 15 Illinois on the road, though eight defenders were out through suspension (and several more through injury). MSU has now won three of its last four games, including two in a row, to put itself in position for Bowl eligibility with another win. It’s a testament to the culture that Mel Tucker built.
Who are some players to watch on both sides of the ball for Michigan State?
On offense I mentioned Thorne, Reed and Coleman as obvious choices, but last week against Rutgers Michigan State finally started getting the tight ends going, with Daniel Barker and Maliq Carr seemingly getting a few more looks in the passing game. Tyler Hunt is the other tight end to keep an eye on. The running back trio of Jalen Berger, Jarek Broussard and Elijah Collins have been on the rise a bit lately. Expect Berger to lead the way here.
On the defensive side of the ball, as I’ve mentioned a number of times, there are many players who are injured and suspended. Many players who may be lesser known nationally, especially freshmen, will get plenty of playtime for MSU this weekend (Malik Spencer is a freshman defensive end who’s been drawing some long looks lately). That being said, of course, Henderson and Slade are the big names, but Kendell Brooks is another safety who’s played really well for the most part this year. Linebacker Cal Haladay comes out Back-to-Back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week nods and will likely be all over the field on Saturday. Simeon Barrow is another player to watch on the defensive line.
What is your point prediction for this game?
Indiana has lost seven straight games while Michigan State finally seemed to be gaining traction. I think MSU will keep the momentum going at home on Seniors Day and cover the spread against the struggling Hoosiers to get approved for the Bowl.
State Michigan 30, Indiana 13
I can’t make the trip this weekend but I know others who will. Where in East Lansing should they go for breakfast and dinner?
Oh, it’s actually been a while since I’ve had breakfast in East Lansing. I’ve heard good things about them Soup spoon cafehowever. Konrads is also an option for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
When it comes to dinner, there are so many great options. The Peanut Barrel, Crispy, HopCat, pizza house, Harpers, Funny pumpkin and barrio are all popular spots.