Michigan State is 7-0 for just the eighth time in program history. As the Spartans head into a bye week with high confidence and a monstrous matchup against No. 6 Michigan on the horizon, MSU gets a chance to do some evaluation and extra preparation for its biggest game of the year so far.
Lots of things have gone right, hence the undefeated record, but if you asked Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker he would probably also add that lots of things have gone poorly too. It's a coaching mindset that has produced many slogans and sayings, with the most recent being “So what. Now what?”
So, Michigan State is 7-0. Now, the meat and potatoes of the Big Ten schedule begins with five games remaining. Three of those are against AP top-10 teams in Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, and the other two are against Maryland, who has a winning 4-2 record, and Purdue, who just went into Iowa City and knocked off No. 2 Iowa.
By the time it is all said and done, there will be crystal clarity of what this team actually is. Is MSU actually a competitor in the Big Ten East with College Football Playoff potential? Or did MSU get lucky with an easier schedule to begin with?
If the former is true, the Spartans will need more players to step up. Here are three under-the-radar players that could be X-factors in the five remaining regular-season games:
Senior CB Ronald Williams
Cornerback transfer from Alabama. That short phrase says a lot about Williams’ potential. Originally playing in junior college at Hutchinson Community College, Williams was not just great. He was ranked as one of the top players in all of junior college. That caught the attention of Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban.
However, his transition going from a small junior college to the bright national lights of the Alabama Crimson Tide did not go as planned. An arm injury shut him down for most of the 2020 season, Williams entered the transfer portal, and landed at Michigan State.
Now as a senior, Williams has started all but one game in 2021 and looked pretty solid. In seven games, Williams has made 23 tackles, four pass break ups, two of which came Saturday at Indiana and an interception at Miami. He, and more recently junior Chester Kimbrough appear to be cornerbacks No. 1 and No. 2, respectively in Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton’s unit.
However, Michigan State rotates a lot of guys, including at the cornerback position, and Williams is not immune to it. We have seen the likes of freshman Charles Brantley, graduate student Emmanuel Flowers and redshirt freshman Marqui Lowery all receive playing time at cornerback during snaps that matter. Redshirt sophomore Kalon Gervin also played significant snaps early in the season before entering the transfer portal.
While the rotation has benefits of its own such as keeping fresh legs in the Spartans’ bend-don’t-break defense, it may have some consequences too. The scheme has worked so far, but with three AP Top-10 opponents yet to be played it may not be as effective down the stretch.
That is why someone in the Michigan State secondary will have to step up as a number one shutdown corner. Someone will need to eliminate the opposition’s top receivers instead of continuing to give up six yards at will. It is no guarantee that this roster has someone capable of being that guy, but if anyone is, it is Ronald Williams.
Graduate student kicker Matt Coghlin
Special teams have been an issue for Michigan State for a few years now. Missed kicks, bad punts and an abysmal return game are just a few glaring examples MSU has had to deal with in the past.
But under special teams coordinator and linebackers coach Ross Els, who joined two years ago from Colorado with Tucker, the special teams appear to have turned a page.
Redshirt senior punter Bryce Baringer, who had a rough start but finished strong against Indiana, has turned into an under-appreciated weapon. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed has already returned two punts for a touchdown and also has been a positive for returning kickoffs.
Coghlin, however, has not been completely shining bright like Reed and Baringer. He has connected on 10 of 15 field goal tries for a modest 66.7% success rate. Coghlin has been perfect from inside 30 yards in addition to zero PAT misses, but anything longer has not been easy. In field goal tries of 30+ yards, he is just 4-for-9. One of those misses came from 60-yards out at the end of the first half against Northwestern, but 4-for-8 is still not desired.
To Coghlin’s credit though, he has been great in kickoffs with 80.43% being touchbacks. He also has hit some clutch field goals this year such as the overtime game-winner versus Nebraska and a connection last week to push MSU’s lead to five midway through the fourth quarter. Coghlin went 2-for-2 versus Indiana making from 49 and 51 yards out in a windy environment, showing some signs of encouragement into the bye.
Many of MSU’s seven games have not been particularly close on the final box score, but that likely will not be the case for the next five games. Coghlin will have to make big kicks, some of which may be the difference between a win or loss or perhaps even the difference between a Big Ten East championship or not.
Redshirt senior DE Jacub Panasiuk
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Panasiuk is quietly having a phenomenal season for the Spartans. The redshirt senior is tied for 15th in the nation with 5.5 sacks and leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss. He has been one of the more consistent defensive linemen of the season and even was named PFF Defensive Player of the Week against Nebraska where he generated 14 pressures and had a major strip-sack in the fourth quarter.
His play has been especially key with graduate student defensive end Drew Beesley on the shelf for an extended period of time with an injury. Beesley has played in just three games in 2021, but had 2.5 sacks and looked to be a truly impactful player in the trenches. It is uncertain if or when Beesley will return, meaning that Panasiuk and the other defensive linemen will have to step up.
Panasiuk has done just that in addition to some help from some fellow linemen. Defensive tackles redshirt freshman Simeon Barrow, redshirt junior Jacob Slade and sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski have all shown splashes of exciting moments but need to put some more consistency.
Michigan State’s defense is going to get tested heavily in the remaining five games, highlighted by Ohio State redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud. Outside of Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe, the Spartan pass defense has been gifted with matchups versus numerous mediocre quarterbacks. Generating pressure and making quarterbacks like Stroud feel uncomfortable could go a long way toward continuing MSU’s Cinderella story.
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