Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Preview: Michigan State hosts Minnesota to open Big Ten play

September 22, 2022
<p>Redshirt sophomore running back Jalen Berger, 8, pushes into the end zone during Michigan State’s home opener against Western Michigan at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 2, 2022. The Spartans ultimately beat the Broncos, 35-13.</p>

Redshirt sophomore running back Jalen Berger, 8, pushes into the end zone during Michigan State’s home opener against Western Michigan at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 2, 2022. The Spartans ultimately beat the Broncos, 35-13.

Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

After going 2-1 in non-conference play, Michigan State will open Big Ten play this weekend, hosting the Minnesota Golden Gophers for a 3:30 p.m. matchup. 

Last weekend, the Spartans suffered a bitterly disappointing 39-28 road loss to Washington.

Defense was by far the most concerning aspect of the game. MSU’s secondary was torn to shreds by Michael Penix Jr. and the Husky wide receivers, giving up 397 passing yards. The front seven, which impressed against Western Michigan and Akron, failed to notch a single sack or QB hurry against Washington. 

“It was embarrassing,” senior defensive back Kendell Brooks said. “We got a lot of things we need to clean up.”

In his Monday press conference, Head Coach Mel Tucker mentioned "personnel changes" in relation to the defense, but did not elaborate further. 

While Saturday night’s loss to Washington was mostly bad, there were a few bright spots. 

After a shaky couple of games to start the season, redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne really seemed to find his footing against the Huskies. He threw for 323 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, all without any real support from the run game (redshirt sophomore Jalen Berger and fifth-year senior Jarek Broussard combined for just 30 rushing yards against the Huskies).

Sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman was the other primary highlight for MSU, finishing with 116 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Thorne-Coleman connection is finally starting to click.

Michigan State could be without some key players against the Gophers. Fifth-year safety Xavier Henderson, redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade, redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed, redshirt senior Dashuan Mallory and redshirt sophomore cornerback Marqui Lowery Jr. all did not make the trip to Seattle with the team due to injury. Junior defensive end Jeff Pietrowski Jr. also left midway through last week's game with an injury and did not return. The injury status of the six players is currently unknown. 

Scouting the opponent 

As it stands, Minnesota is a bit of a question mark. All the stats show a team that could very well finish atop the Big Ten West this season, but the Gophers' three wins are against low-tier opponents (New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado). 

Minnesota’s running game has been prolific. Led by Mohamed Ibrahim, whose 464 rushing yards are tied for the second most in the country, the Gophers’ rushing attack is averaging 312 yards per game, the second highest average in college football.

“They’re tough, they’re physical," Brooks said. "Their backs run hard, they protect the ball well.”

Michigan State’s rushing defense has been solid so far, letting up an average of 89.7 rushing yards per game. However, Minnesota may have the best running attack MSU will face all season. Slade’s potential absence in the interior of the defensive line presents a tough wrinkle for the defense as well. 

Through three games, Minnesota’s offensive line has performed admirably. The starting five have allowed just two sacks, and they’ve obviously been a key piece in the efficiency in the running game. John Michael Schmitz may very well be the best center in the country.

“They have one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Tucker said. “They’re big and they’re very good at what they do.”

While the line has been great so far, it’s a relatively inexperienced unit -- Schmitz is the only returning starter from last season. Michigan State’s defensive line will be, by far, the best Minnesota has faced so far. After a poor showing in Seattle, this Saturday could be a bit of a bounce back for MSU’s front seven. 

With over 40 collegiate games under his belt, quarterback Tanner Morgan gives the Minnesota offense stability and experience. He hasn't been asked to throw the ball much this year, but with his limited passing attempts he's been extremely efficient. Morgan has a 71.7 percent completion percentage, with 618 passing yards, four touchdowns and one pick. He was reunited this offseason with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who returned to the Gophers after holding the same position during Morgan's 2019 breakout season.

However, Morgan will be without his top target this weekend. Due to a lower-leg injury suffered against Colorado on Saturday, wide receiver Chris Autumn-Bell will miss the rest of the 2022 season. The Gophers have a few other capable wideouts, but the absence of a player as proven as Autumn-Bell is sure to sting. 

Defensively, Minnesota has been just as impressive. Ranking in the top ten in both passing and rushing defense (fourth and ninth, respectively), the Gophers have taken care of business against their inferior opponents. Minnesota's third-down defense is another strong suit of the team; opponents are converting at a rate of just 11.8%, the best in college football.

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"Third down is one of, if not the most important parts of the game," Thorne said. "Good offenses convert on third down."

Again, those stats have been racked up against some extremely weak competition, but there’s no doubt that the Gophers have talent. Much like Michigan State a week ago, Minnesota is finally facing its first real test of the season this Saturday.

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