In his first “full” season as Michigan State’s head coach, Mel Tucker has the Spartans in good shape at the halfway point in the season. But are they for real?
After being picked to finish last in the Big Ten East by some media outlets, many college football fans may be surprised that the Spartans are coming to Bloomington as the No. 10 team in the country. As Mike Miller pointed out in his late August preview, however, people close to the team had some optimism that this season would be better than last year’s 2-5 campaign. Now that we have six games to look at, I thought we would sum up what we now know (or think we know) about Michigan State so far this year.
Objectively, 6-0 is a lot better than 2-3, so the betting line moving from -3.5 to -4.5 in favor of the Spartans is not terribly surprising. Michigan State has only played one ranked opponent so far this year, though, and that was a Sept. 18 matchup against Miami, which was then ranked No. 24 but has since fallen out of the rankings and is no longer receiving votes in the AP poll. Michigan State also played Western Kentucky this year, winning by a larger margin (48-31) than Indiana did (33-31). It’s worth mentioning that the Spartans hosted Western Kentucky while Indiana played that game on the road and the Hoosiers lost their leading receiver on an early punt return. In conference, the Spartans are 3-0 with an OT victory over Nebraska (lol), a 38-21 win in Evanston, and a 31-13 win in Piscataway (also lol).
Again, 6-0 is a better place to be than 2-3, but they haven’t been tested like Indiana has thus far and a couple of their games so far make their undefeated record look potentially suspect.
The star players
Kenneth Walker III, who transferred to East Lansing from Wake Forest prior to the 2021 season, is currently leading the nation in rushing yards and he’s playing his way into the Heisman conversation at this point in the season. He’s already rushed for over 150 yards in two games this season and he’s averaging 7.1 per carry. And he’s trending upwards still, rushing for 232 yards on 29 carries last week against Rutgers.
Michigan State also has the fifth-best passing offense in the conference in terms of yards per game, so Indiana won’t be able to fully commit to stopping the run without the risk of being vulnerable to the Spartans’ passing game. Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor each come into the game with 23 receptions each, plus five and six touchdowns, respectively. Comparatively, Indiana has five receiving touchdowns total.
With such a high-powered offense, it should be a relief for Hoosier fans to know that the Spartan defense is not having the same kind of success so far this season. After six games, they’ve allowed 420.5 yards per game, good for 12th in the conference and over 30 yards per game behind the 11th-place Buckeyes. They’re comparatively stingy when it comes to giving up points, coming in at sixth in the conference so far, but I’d like to remind you that three of their six games have been against Rutger, Youngstown State, and Nebraska. Significantly, they are last in the conference for passing yards per game allowed and the only team in the conference to give up over 300 yards per game in the air. This could be exactly what Indiana needs to finally settle in on the offensive side of the ball.
Q&A with Ryan O’Bleness
In order to ensure that I’m giving you all accurate, unbiased information about Michigan State, I reached out to Ryan O’Bleness, the managing editor for The Only Colors. Follow them on twitter at @theonlycolors and Ryan’s personal account, @ryanobleness.
1. Is Michigan State as good as your 6-0 record and No. 10 ranking or are you a little nervous about the hype surrounding the team right now?
To be honest, probably nobody outside of the program itself thought Michigan State would begin this campaign 6-0. Michigan State was coming off of a 2-5 year in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and then head coach Mel Tucker and his staff completely rebuilt the roster in the offseason by bringing in a bunch of transfers and having several other players transfer out. Most fans and analysts alike questioned if MSU could even get to six wins on the season and bowl eligibility, let alone accomplishing that feat in the first six games of the season.
To answer your question, though, I don’t think we have even seen Michigan State play its best football yet. Tucker often mentions that the Spartans have not reached their full potential yet and he’s right. For example, last week against Rutgers, MSU got a 31-13 win and set or tied multiple records in the process — one of which was becoming just the fifth FBS team ever to have a 300-yard passer, 200-yard rusher and 200-yard receiver all in the same game — but it also felt like MSU had a lot of missed opportunities and could have had an even bigger day. There were odd coaching decisions, such as attempting a fake field goal on the first drive of the game, bad time management, undisciplined penalties, missed tackles, etc.
So, with that said, there are obviously still a lot of things the Spartans need to improve upon if the team wants to win a Big Ten Championship, and if that is the case, MSU is going to be a problem for a lot of its opponents. Tucker does a great job of keeping his team focused on the current task, though, and the players in the locker room are taking things one week at a time, and not overlooking any team on the schedule.
— Michigan State Football (@MSU_Football) October 10, 2021
2. Does anything specific about Indiana scare you about this upcoming game?
After defeating Western Kentucky at home to go 5-0, I looked at the two upcoming road games on the schedule against Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, and then in Bloomington against Indiana and got an eerie feeling that Michigan State was going to drop one of those two games. The Spartans handled the Scarlet Knights with relative ease, but the game against the Hoosiers still looks tougher to me than people may think. I think Indiana’s defense is better than some of the numbers show, and coming off of a bye week well-rested and with a renewed sense of energy for homecoming could be big for IU — granted, it was Rutgers’ homecoming last weekend, too. With that said, I would feel a lot more confident in a Spartans’ victory if Michael Penix Jr. doesn’t play, and while he’s considered “week-to-week,” he seems more doubtful to me if I am reading between the lines correctly. I do think Jack Tuttle could be a solid quarterback, but watching Penix the past couple of seasons, he certainly scares me more than Tuttle. Indiana has struggled to start the year, but has had a difficult schedule. That is still a talented roster and the team is hungry for a win. Plus, while Michigan State has gotten victories in this series more often than not, Indiana usually plays the Spartans incredibly tough as of late, and the games are often close.
3. What are you hoping to see Michigan State accomplish or prove this week?
Honestly, I just want to see a win. It would be awesome to see the Spartans dominate or set more records, but at the end of the day, a win is a win, no matter how it gets done. On paper, with the teams seemingly heading in opposite directions, Michigan State looks like it should be able to defeat Indiana on the road and likely has the more talented team overall. Good teams beat the teams that they’re supposed to beat, and getting to 7-0 would be an incredible feat for a team that was picked to finish last in the Big Ten East during the preseason. This game is going to be a real measuring stick for MSU to see if the Spartans are real contenders or just pretenders. And please, leave the game without any major injuries.
4. What players do we need to know about? (besides Heisman hopeful Kenneth Walker)
Obviously Kenneth Walker III should be the biggest concern for the Indiana defense, as he is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, but outside of him on the offense, quarterback Payton Thorne, wide receivers Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor and Tre Mosley and H-back/tight end Connor Heyward are all players who can impact the game. Walker, Reed, Nailor and Thorne have all exploded onto the scene this season and are the stars of the offense, but Mosley, Heyward and a couple others have been solid role players who might not show up on the stat sheet as much, but do the little things it takes to help their team win.
Defensively, safeties Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose seem to always be making plays near the ball and make an impact all over the field. Linebackers Cal Haladay and Quavaris Crouch have been a very solid duo in the middle in Michigan State’s 4-2-5 scheme, and on the defensive line, Jacob Slade and Jacub Panasiuk have been playing incredibly well this season. At cornerback, Ronald Williams and Chester Kimbrough will look to lock down the outside.
5. Is the team coming to Bloomington fully healthy?
Michigan State is not completely healthy, but is close to it. Mel Tucker doesn’t like to speak much about the injury statuses of players, but running back Elijah Collins, defensive end Drew Beesley, defensive end Jack Camper and defensive end/outside linebacker Itayvion “Tank” Brown all missed the past couple of games or more and their availability for Saturday is uncertain. So clearly, the Spartans are thin at depth at the defensive end position due to injuries right now, but sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski has really come along nicely as he has been forced into playing a more prominent role. As mentioned, Slade is dealing with a broken hand, as is fellow defensive tackle Simeon Barrow, but both have played through it and should be good to go against Indiana.
6. How confident are you coming into the weekend?
As I mentioned earlier, this game worries me a bit on the road. Michigan State is flying high right now and Indiana could be a reality check. But with that said, the team’s focus is solely on the Hoosiers and the Spartans are not overlooking IU by any means. I think MSU has the more talented and more confident team, and on paper at least, this looks like a game Michigan State should win. Indiana will likely hang tough for the majority of the game, and I think it will be relatively close until late, but the Spartans break away in the fourth quarter. My final score prediction is somewhere around 31-20 with another hard-fought victory for MSU.