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Penix-led Washington offense to provide first true test of the year for Michigan State’s defense

September 14, 2022
Senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon, 4, celebrates blocking a pass during Michigan State’s game against Akron on Sat., Sept. 10, 2022 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans earned a decisive victory with a final score of 52, zip.
Senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon, 4, celebrates blocking a pass during Michigan State’s game against Akron on Sat., Sept. 10, 2022 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans earned a decisive victory with a final score of 52, zip. —
Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

After a couple of home games against MAC opponents, Michigan State is heading out west to face its first Power Five team of the year. 

With junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and what looks to be a lethal passing game, the Washington Huskies will provide the Spartan defense with their first true test of the season. 

"It's a very good football team. They've had top -5 recruiting classes the last four or five years," Head Coach Mel Tucker said. "They have very good personnel and that's a tough place to play."

A familiar face at QB

Michigan State’s defense will have to contend with a familiar face at quarterback. Penix. has assumed the starting role for the Huskies after transferring from Indiana in the offseason. 

After a 2021 campaign affected by injury, Penix looks much more like his 2020 self when he earned second-team All-Big Ten accolades. He’s impressed through his two starts (albeit against inferior opponents), racking up six touchdowns and 682 yards with one interception. 

“He’s an athlete, he’s got a good arm," redshirt sophomore linebacker Cal Haladay said. "He can make plays."

While it would be inaccurate to call Penix a true dual-threat quarterback, he’s certainly not afraid to use his feet to gain some yardage. MSU’s linebackers will be key in limiting the Indiana transfer this Saturday, both in coverage and in limiting the quarterback’s ground game. With junior Darius Snow out for the season, the remaining linebackers will certainly have their work cut out for them. 

Last weekend, Akron’s mobile starting quarterback DJ Irons gave Michigan State a bit of trouble before exiting the game due to injury, finishing with 123 yards through the air on 13 attempts and 30 yards on the ground. While Penix likely won’t be quite as eager to gain yards on the ground, his speed and athleticism will certainly provide a similar challenge to the Spartan defense. 

Penix has a couple of starts against Michigan State under his belt. In 2019, he finished with 286 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 40-31 loss for the Hoosiers. A couple of interceptions put a blemish on his 2020 start against the Spartans, but he still threw for 320 yards with a pair of touchdowns en route to a 24-0 win. 

However, this version of Michigan State looks nothing like the program that Penix faced a few years ago. Thanks to the typical roster attrition of college football and a reliance on the transfer portal, there aren’t too many members of MSU’s current roster with in-game experience against Penix. Those that played against the former Hoosiers QB did so in limited roles. 

Just how good is this defense

Just a few weeks into the season, it seems as though Michigan State’s defense is, at the very least, competent. Leading the nation in sacks (12), the Spartans front-seven has looked especially lethal, harassing the opposing quarterback and consistently applying pressure. Though still struggling at times, the secondary also looks improved after a disastrous showing in 2021. 

However, the sample size is just too small. Two teams from the MAC aren’t exactly the best way to test the strength of a Big Ten defense. The Huskies should finally provide a true test for Michigan State’s defense -- the Penix-led offense currently ranks sixth nationally in passing yards per game. UW also ranks in the top-50 in rushing yards per game. 

Although Michigan State’s defensive strength is a bit murky, it’s very clear that senior Jacoby Windmon, the linebacker/defensive end from UNLV, is special. With 5.5 of Michigan State’s 12 sacks and four forced fumbles, Windmon is a force to be reckoned with. He was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week for the second week in a row, the first Spartan defensive player to ever do so.

“I’m sure every team is looking at him now, figuring something out," Haladay said. "One on one -- that’s a tough block.”

Last year, Michigan State really started making noise nationally after defeating the Miami Hurricanes. Things are a bit different a year later. Just outside the top-ten in the AP Poll, MSU is no longer the unranked underdog heading into a non-conference road game (although Vegas has the Spartans as 3.5 point underdogs). Still, a win on the west coast - a place that Michigan State has struggled in the past - would show just how good this team is. If Windmon and the defense can stay productive against a Power Five opponent, the rest of the Big Ten will take notice.

"We're going to find out more about our team on Saturday," Tucker said.

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