A new week brings a new matchup, which brings a new opportunity for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines. This week, Michigan travels to East Lansing for a contest with the Spartans. Let’s take a look at Michigan State:
Michigan State Spartans
Overall Record: 2-5 (0-4 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (10th season)
Key Wins: N/A
Key Losses: Wisconsin, Indiana, BYU, Northwestern, Maryland
Key Players: R.J. Shelton (WR), LJ Scott (RB), Donnie Corley (WR), Malik McDowell (DL), Riley Bullough (LB)
Score vs. Michigan Last Season: N/A—Didn’t Happen
What We Know:
The Struggle Is Real
If any Big Ten team is on the struggle bus this season, it’s the Michigan State Spartans. In mid-August, many around the country picked the Spartans to win the Big Ten and make it to the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row. Now just eight weeks later, those same people are questioning if Dantonio and the Spartans will even make a bowl game. Things have not been good for the Spartans, who have dominated Big Ten play the past decade or so.
After a shaky 15-point victory over a very weak Furman team to start the season, MSU rolled into South Bend to take on the then ranked No. 18 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Things started hot for the Spartans as they jumped out to a commanding 36-14 lead after three quarters. The Fighting Irish showed some life, putting 14 more on the scoreboard to narrow the lead to just eight. Ultimately, the Spartan defense was able to escape South Bend with what some called “a HUGE road win over a top ranked team.”
However, I took something else away from that game. After watching the Furman game at the beginning of the season, I knew MSU’s offense had its work cut out. The offensive unit looked very out of sync the entire game; like it was their first time ever playing together (which for some, it was). The offensive line looked slow and weak, and the quarterback play was….ehhh.
After the Notre Dame game, when everyone was praising Dantonio and the Spartans, I posted something of the opposite on Twitter.
*Yes I am aware of my typo. It drives me more crazy than it drives you, trust me!*
I tried to tell America that Notre Dame wasn’t very good, and Michigan State wasn’t either. What I didn’t know at that point was just how bad Michigan State would prove to be (and Notre Dame for that matter). That game was back on Sept. 17, and Michigan State has yet to win a game since. They are currently second to last in total offense, fifth to last in total defense, last in sacks, last in time of possession, second to last in first downs, second to last in red zone defense and third to last in turnover margin in the Big Ten. The Spartans are being outscored 139 (27.8 ppg)-81 (16.2 ppg) over the past five games. They are giving up an average of 418 yards while gaining just 374 yards themselves. The yardage totals are close enough to not raise eyebrows, but when you are being outscored by almost 12 points per game, are giving up eight more penalties than opponents during that stretch and have given up the fourth most first downs in the Big Ten, that’s a recipe for disaster. Between poor offensive line play, inconsistent defensive play, quarterback play and penalties, the Spartans are off to their worst start in years.
Speed on the Outside
Michigan State has some talented pieces on their offense, there’s no questioning that. Led by senior wide out R.J. Shelton, the Spartan receivers are a talented bunch. Shelton currently sits fourth in the Big Ten in receptions per game and third in receiving yards per game.
True freshman receiver Donnie Corley isn’t too far behind Shelton, as he has logged 21 catches for 310 yards and two touchdowns this season. Corley was one of the top receiver recruits coming out of high school last season and has shown he has what it takes to play Big Ten football. I like his pure athletic ability, but I still feel like he is very raw at the wide out position. There’s no doubt this kid is going to do some damage sometime in the very near future.
Together, these two have accounted for 45 percent of Michigan State’s completions and 52 percent of their receiving yards in 2016. There’s no doubt the Spartans want to get the ball to these play-makers on the outside, and it will be up to the Michigan secondary to make sure that doesn’t happen on Saturday.
What We Will Learn:
Do We Have a Leader?
There is no question what Jim Harbaugh has done in his year and a half in Ann Arbor is amazing, but the truth is he can’t win us games on the field. That’s right, he can do all the crazy recruiting tactics, announcements of homecoming queens, first pitches at baseball games and star in as many rap videos as he would like, but he can’t strap on the pads and play another down (although we all know he is dying to). It comes down to the guys on the field. We all know the defense is stacked with star power and vocal leaders…but what about the offense? Who do those guys turn to when the game is on the line?
There have been multiple players quoted saying that quarterback Wilton Speight is a great leader in the huddle, and I believe that to be very true. I don’t think Harbaugh would select a guy to run his offense if he didn’t have complete control of the team. Through seven games this season, Speight has thrown for 1,447 yards, is 114-of-182 passing (62.6 percent), has 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He has shown that he can play with the big boy and can win in pressure situations (last year versus Minnesota and this year versus Wisconsin), but what he has yet to do is win a rivalry game. There’s no question in my mind the Spartans are going to bring everything they have on the defensive side of the ball Saturday. Will Speight be able to handle the pressure of winning a rivalry game that Michigan has won just one time in eight years? Will he be able to silence the crowd at Spartan Stadium? And most importantly, will he be able to control the game and lead the Wolverine offense in what could be a hectic game?
We will have to stay tuned to find out the answers to those questions. Make sure you are near your television, radio or computer this Saturday at Noon EST as the Michigan Wolverines try to improve to 8-0 and bring the Paul Bunyan Trophy back to Ann Arbor for just the second time since 2007.