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7-1 start would be best since '66

October 14, 2003
Junior safety Jason Harmon returns a fumbled ball for a touchdown Saturday in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. Harmon ran 52 yards for the score and also had an interception in the third quarter. —

Despite an early falter, this season's MSU football team has the opportunity to make history.

With a win against Minnesota, this would be the best start for a Spartan team since they finished second in the polls in 1966.

But with senior defensive end Greg Taplin questionable (sprained knee) for the game and junior defensive tackle Brandon McKinney out, the No. 15 Spartans (6-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) have a tough battle ahead of them when they play the No. 25 Golden Gophers (6-1, 2-1) at 12:02 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.

"He'll get a couple more treatments today and they'll look at him again tomorrow, but I still think (Taplin is) questionable at best," head coach John L. Smith said. "If it's loose at all, he can't play - if it's tight and sore, then he can play."

If Taplin does not play against the Gophers, junior defensive end Clifford Dukes will likely move over to Taplin's defensive end position while redshirt freshman Clifton Ryan and senior end Luc Mullinder will fill in at the other end.

"Any time you lose a guy, it creates a hole that somehow needs to be filled," Smith said. "You have to fill it with personnel or you have to fill it with scheme."

Others recovering

While the Spartans can't wait for the bye week to recover from their injuries, the team might be missing several players again this weekend.

After separating his shoulder on Saturday, sophomore wide receiver Kyle Brown is 50-50 at best while sophomore Agim Shabaj still is battling a shoulder injury.

Two players who did not play against Illinois are expected to return this weekend. Senior wide receiver Ziehl Kavanaght and bandit Monquiz Wedlow both are listed as probable.

"Ziehl and Wedlow could have (played), but they didn't practice much and we didn't want them to play," Smith said.

Turnovers

For the third consecutive game and four of the last five, the Spartans did not commit a turnover.

Over the past five games, MSU has won the turnover battle 16-3 and the team is first in the Big Ten and fourth in the nation in turnover margin at 1.7 per game.

"Our turnover ratio has been huge the last couple games," Smoker said. "We haven't turned the ball over the past three games and the defense has been getting turnovers."

Harmon honored

For the fourth consecutive week, MSU had one player named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.

With a forced fumble, interception and touchdown on a 51-yard fumble return, junior safety Jason Harmon joins Taplin, Mike Labinjo and Eric Smith on the list.

Running D

For the fourth consecutive game, MSU allowed more than 100 yards rushing in a game, which could be a bad sign heading into Saturday's matchup with the Big Ten's best rushing offense.

The Golden Gophers have run for 298 yards per game this season. The Spartans are still seventh in the nation in rushing defense, but that has been changing recently.

"As long as the W column is in the right, they can run for 1,000," Smith said. "The biggest thing is winning that game. We're going to have to play our best game without a doubt. People didn't want to run the ball on us earlier in the season."

Who's that returner?

With Kavanaght out and Shabaj nursing an injury, the Spartans' new punt returner Saturday was Dave Lesmeister, a 5-foot-9, 150-pound true freshman from Dearborn's Divine Child.

In the Illinois game, however, Lesmeister fair caught every return. But he's sure that he'll return one soon.

"The first one, I was told to fair catch, but the other ones, I just fair caught because there were guys right on me and there's no use of me trying to make something happen that's not there."

Staff writer Jon Malavolti contributed to this report.

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