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Michigan State Spartans at Indiana Hoosiers Game Preview: The Old Brass Spittoon is up for grabs in prime time

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One of the Big Ten's more forgettable rivalries is thrust into the spotlight, with both teams desperately needing victory as the Hoosiers look to make amends for a loss to Wake Forest and the Spartans working with essentially no margin for error in hopes of repeating as division champs.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info / How to Watch

Who? #17 Michigan State Spartans (2-1, #47 S&P+) at Indiana Hoosiers (2-1, #45 S&P+)

When? Saturday, 10/1, 8:00 PM, Bloomington, Indiana

Channel? Big Ten Network

Vegas? INDIANA +7.0

S&P+ Projection? INDIANA (56%)

____________________________________

After a calamitous outing against Wake Forest, Indiana must regroup and refocus. There are nine conference games to be played and S&P+ gives them anywhere between a 42 - 79% chance to win all but two of them, giving Indiana plenty of chances to rack up wins and become bowl eligible for the second year in a row. Losing to the Demon Deacons cannot be undone, but it can be mitigated starting this weekend, under the lights in Memorial Stadium for the first prime time home conference game since 2012.

Like pretty much all of its football rivalries, Indiana's position in the Battle for the Old Brass Spittoon is a lopsided one, going 15-45-2 in the series and riding seven straight losses dating back to 2007. That said, the current versions of the Hoosiers and Spartans are far similar than their AP votes would indicate. Michigan State's stock is in a veritable free fall after getting drubbed by Wisconsin in front of their home fans and watching a previously-good win over Notre Dame completely tank as the Irish lost to Duke in South Bend and dropped to 1-3 on the year, with the lone win over Nevada, who also managed to lose to Darrell Hazell this season.

The Spartans' relative booty-ness has been discussed on our podcast and while losing to Wisconsin isn't exactly anything to be ashamed of, it would seem that Michigan State is more susceptible to an upset this season than they have been in quite some time. The game won't be played on a spreadsheet, but the spreadsheet is giving us plenty of reasons to feel good about Indiana heading into Saturday. A win over an AP Top-25 team, no matter where they end up at season's end, would be a great thing for the Hoosiers' culture, and validation for a coaching staff that again finds itself under fire after a bad September loss.

FIVE FACTORS

(% indicates how often a team wins the game if they win that battle. Explanation here.)

Explosiveness
(86%)
Efficiency
(83%)
Field Position
(75%)
Finishing Drives
(72%)
Turnover Margin
(73%)
INDIANA (#46 Offense) 1.42 (22nd) 46.8% (31st) 27.9 (106th) 4.00 (110th) 0 (60th)
MICHIGAN STATE (#21 Defense) 1.04 (6th) 37.3% (33rd) 27.5 (40th) 5.46 (106th) -1 (71st)

Explosiveness
(86%)
Efficiency
(83%)
Field Position
(75%)
Finishing Drives
(72%)
Turnover Margin
(73%)
INDIANA (#41 Defense)
1.30 (78th)
32.8% (20th)
25.6 (18th)
4.71 (68th)
0 (60th)
MICHIGAN STATE (#77 Offense)
1.17 (102nd)
41.8% (74th)
30.6 (54th)
4.12 (107th)
-1 (71st)

THE OPPONENT

The Spartans come into this game still trying to find their way on offense post-Connor Cook. The transition to Tyler O'Connor hasn't been dissimilar to the transition from Kirk Cousins to Andrew Maxwell and good god all of these guys are probably just different isotopes of the same person. Assuming that's true (and it definitely is), O'Connor is the most volatile version yet. He's completing 61% of his passes and has five touchdowns, but has also thrown at least one pick in every game (five on the season) and was awful against Wisconsin, going 18-38 for 224 yards and three interceptions.

Overall, it translates to a middling passing offense for both efficiency (50th) and explosiveness (56th) but you don't typically end up as the 77th-ranked offense just because you have trouble throwing the ball. As mediocre as their passing numbers are, the running game metrics are just plain ugly as the Spartans currently sport one of the least efficient (88th) and inert (115th) rushing attacks in the country. Simply put, their inability to generate explosive plays makes it critically important to gain a successful amount of yards on every rushing attempt and when they're getting stuffed nearly 20% of the time (81st), they're too often finding themselves behind schedule, and to date the passing offense hasn't been consistent enough to help out.

A lot of offensive warts can be covered up though if you have a strong defense and Michigan State has exactly that. No one in the country is better at limiting explosive plays in the running game and they find themselves well above average in nearly every other facet, be it on the ground or in the air. That said, the Spartans could find themselves shorthanded on Saturday with two starting linebackers (John Reschke and All-Big Ten selection Riley Bullough) not expected to suit up against the Hoosiers.

State has depth to spare at linebacker, however, and a unit that ranks 43rd in havoc rate might not miss a beat given the talent they're surrounded by. There aren't really any true weaknesses that have been exposed to date but the passing defense may be a little bit more suspect than the likes of Furman, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin were able to expose. If the Hoosiers are missing the right side of their offensive line for the second straight week, I'd expect them to dial up plenty of passes to try and see if they can crack that secondary.

THE HOOSIERS

What a difference a couple of weeks make! The passing offense is starting to look a lot more like last year's version, ranking 22nd in efficiency and 9th in explosiveness with Nick Westbrook and Ricky Jones averaging over 20 yards per catch and over 13 yards per target. Lagow can't make a habit out of throwing five interceptions per game, but you can live with a couple of turnovers when you're generating yardage at the clip they've settled into. Lagow's arm is inarguably B1G-caliber and it's not as if he can't make a mistake or two per game, it's just a matter of being more good than bad. Hell, the kid chucked five picks and still nearly made up for all of them.

The running offense, unfortunately, is stuck in mud following injuries to Dimitric Camiel and Dan Feeney, neither of whom are certain to return against the Spartans. They're still a fairly efficient unit but have been unable, thus far, to generate a lot of yardage beyond what gets blocked for them. That becomes a real problem when the best blockers on the team hit the shelf and you end up with what you saw against Wake Forest, a rather toothless rushing attack.

A guy who might be able to change that is Camion Patrick, who made it onto the field last weekend but didn't come close to touching the ball. I'm of the belief that Wilson put him out there as a signal that he's ready to start contributing and the hype can finally give way to what is hopefully a glorious reality. That, or Wilson wanted to make MSU devote some time to figuring out a player that won't end up getting any meaningful work.

Meanwhile, Tom Allen's defense remains resurgent thanks to their ability to keep offenses off inefficient on early downs. They remain a work in progress when it comes to giving up long plays, but that's mostly because they had so very far to go after being among the worst in that regard last year. They're 21st and 25th against the run and pass, respectively, when it comes to efficiency, but 77th and 69th with regard to explosiveness, not nice. Mind you, Indiana was 113th overall in defensive explosiveness last season, and they're up to 78th this year. That's not bad!

THREE THINGS

  • Avoid the Meat Grinder: MSU is ninth in the country when it comes to calling run plays on standard downs, and unless Indiana can knock them off schedule or race out to an early lead, they could be susceptible to the Spartan meat grinder, as LJ Scott and company gets little chunks of yardage every single snap and eventually the 30-play, 8-hour drive culminates in a heart-wrenching touchdown. The Hoosiers must force long 2nd and 3rd downs to force Tyler O'Connor to beat them.
  • FINISH. DRIVES. I harped on it last week and I'll do it again now. The Hoosiers are now 110th (out of 128) in points per trip inside the 40, averaging a meager 4 points. Indiana cannot afford to get bogged down that close to paydirt if they want to stay in games with conference opponents and things like endzone picks, blocked kicks, and failed 4th down conversions do exactly that. A unit that ranks this well in efficiency and explosiveness shouldn't be struggling in opponent territory like this.
  • Give me more short yardage Tyler Natee: Just not with him also doing some weird zone read beforehand. I like Tyler Natee, I like a direct snap, but I'd just prefer he get going forward as soon as possible. The defense might know it's coming, but that doesn't mean they can actually tackle him.

PREDICTION

I predicted this as a win in preseason because I like to go way out on a limb on things that don't matter. The numbers like Indiana in this game and I like numbers so I'll stick with the Hoosiers on Saturday night. After all, if the #CHAOSTEAM doesn't start actually winning some of these big games, then they're just the #MEDIOCRETEAM. Indiana: 29, Michigan State: 23