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Indiana at Michigan State: Football Q&A with The Only Colors

Plenty of football left, folks.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana football will travel to East Lansing, Michigan, to take on Michigan State this Saturday. Ryan O’Bleness, Managing Editor of The Only Colors, sat down with us to talk Spartans football.

Here’s what he had to say:

From the outside, it feels like Michigan State has fallen back to Earth a bit in year three under Mel Tucker. What’s gone wrong this season and what are the main differences between this year and last?

OK, long-winded responses incoming. Truth be told, there are a few reasons as to why Michigan State has struggled this year after an 11-2 season in 2021 that included a New Year’s Six bowl win. First and foremost, MSU lost a generational talent at running back in Kenneth Walker III. He covered up so many deficiencies on last year’s team, and, without a doubt, single-handedly raised the 2021 team’s ceiling. The 2021 team also included guys such as wide receiver Jalen Nailor, tight end Connor Heyward and offensive tackle A.J. Arcuri, who now play on Sundays in the NFL, just like Walker. There were several other contributors from last year’s team who would have made a huge difference on this year’s team, but didn’t return.

Even without Waker and others, though, MSU — while not expected to finish above Ohio State or Michigan — was expected to be a competitor in the Big Ten this season. That has not been the case.

Mel Tucker doesn’t use it as an excuse, but Injuries have played a huge role in Michigan State’s struggles this year. In the first game of the season against Western Michigan, MSU lost linebacker/safety Darius Snow for the year. Also in the WMU game, the Spartans lost safety Xavier Henderson for an extended period of time. Then wide receiver Jayden Reed, defensive tackle Jacob Slade, defensive end Jeff Pietrowski, defensive end Khris Bogle and so many others (I could go on listing all of the starters and contributors who were hurt, there are probably at least 15 others, but we would be here for a while).

Henderson, who ended up missing four games (unsurprisingly, four losses for MSU), is the best safety on the roster, and he is also the biggest leader on the team. The Spartans looked lost on defense without Henderson orchestrating, and have played much better with him available since he returned for the Wisconsin game (3-1 in the past four games, with the only loss to a top-five Michigan team). Slade’s return has been huge on the defensive interior, and a healthy Reed makes a night-and-day difference for the MSU offense. The team is just now starting to get healthy, although new injuries have since popped up on the offensive line with right guard Matt Carrick and left tackle Jarret Horst not being available as of late. Pietrowski and Bogle remain out, and the depth is so depleted at the defensive end position that MSU has been forced to start defensive tackles on the edge over the past two games.

In addition to the injuries, Michigan State currently has eight players suspended due to suspension following the tunnel incident at Michigan, including star linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon, starting nickel back Angelo Grose, starting defensive end Zion Young and several others. Of course, that kind of behavior is not accepted in East Lansing, but Mel Tucker and his staff have handled that swiftly and in the right way. Still, with all of those guys missing, MSU has somehow found ways to win the past two games, but their absence makes things more difficult.

Offensively, Michigan State has struggled to generate a push in the running game for much of the season and quarterback Payton Thorne’s play has been inconsistent. However, the Spartans were able to find success on the ground against Illinois’ top-ranked defense two weeks ago and against a solid defense in Rutgers last week. Thorne is still missing some throws you expect him to hit, and needs to work on his accuracy and touch, but for the most part has been solid the past couple of weeks. The unit is improving.

For the defense, early in the year, it was the inability to stop the pass (similar to last season). The passing defense has been much better since Henderson returned. However, now, the Spartans have been struggling a bit to stop the run, and the tackling was poor against Rutgers. MSU allowed the Scarlet Knights to rush for 224 rushing yards. Again, though, the defensive unit’s depth is completely depleted due to injuries and suspensions. The defense on third-down and fourth-down has also been poor.

On special teams, the field goal kicking game has been nonexistent this season, Although, MSU did make two against Rutgers (the Spartans only had two made field goals on the entire season before that).

In addition, the coaches should shoulder some of the blame for the poor on-field results as well: questionable play calls at times and poor in-game management, especially late in games, have been frustrating. However, the coaching staff, particularly defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton as of late, have shown a willingness to make necessary adjustments and mix some things up. So, a lot of it falls on player execution as well. But overall, the team has been much improved over the past four games or so.

The good news is, despite all that has gone wrong, Michigan State is one win away from bowl eligibility and could potentially finish the season with eight wins if the Spartans get a bowl victory.

One thing about Indiana is that the Hoosiers really lack an identity on offense and defense. What’s Michigan State’s identity on both sides of the ball this season?

I had actually asked that very question during the midst of Michigan State’s losing streak because, at the time, it didn’t seem like MSU had an identity on offense, defense or as a team. The Spartans proceeded to lose a couple more games after I wrote that, but then things got a little bit better.

It’s still hard to say if either the offense or defense has an easily recognized identity. What I think the offense wants to be is a team that can run the ball on its own terms, bully opposing defenses on the ground, and eventually open up the play-action passing game and vertical passing game. In reality, MSU ranks just 115th in the FBS in rushing yards per game (108.9) — although the Spartans have had more success in the ground game the past two weeks — and a more respectable 62nd in passing yards per game (235.3). MSU has had to rely a lot on its playmakers on the outside — Reed and fellow wide receiver Keon Coleman — to move the ball. It would be nice for others on the unit to step up.

Defensively, Michigan State’s program has long been known as having a hard-nosed, tough as nails and very stingy unit, particularly against the run. What the Spartans actually are on that side of the ball now is a “bend-don’t-break” defense (even if the coaches don’t like describing it that way), which is actually a big improvement from the early season when teams like Washington, Minnesota and Ohio State carved the Spartans up with ease. As mentioned, the rushing defense has slipped up as of late, but the passing defense has been better. Also as mentioned, the Spartans have a really hard time getting off of the field on third down and fourth down. What MSU excels at is forcing fumbles and goal-line stands.

However, right now, as a whole I would say the team’s identity is “resilient.” It would have been easy to fold after a four-game losing streak. But then the Spartans defeated the Wisconsin Badgers. It would have been easy to quit after getting punked by rival Michigan (especially after the poor decision-making displayed in the postgame by certain players). Instead, Michigan State then went on to beat No. 15 Illinois on the road, despite being down eight defensive players due to suspension (and several more due to injury). MSU has now won three of the past four games, including two in a row, to put itself in position to become bowl eligible with one more win. That is a testament to the culture Mel Tucker has built.

Who are some players to watch on both sides of the ball for Michigan State?

On offense, I’ve mentioned Thorne, Reed and Coleman as the obvious choices, but last week against Rutgers, Michigan State finally started to get the tight ends going with Daniel Barker and Maliq Carr seemingly getting a few more looks in the passing game. Tyler Hunt is the other tight end to watch. The running back trio of Jalen Berger, Jarek Broussard and Elijah Collins has been coming on a bit recently. Expect Berger to lead the way here.

On the defensive side of the ball, as I have mentioned multiple times now, there are many players hurt and suspended. So, a lot of players who may be lesser known nationally, particularly freshmen, will get a lot of playing time for MSU this weekend (Malik Spencer is a freshman defensive back who has gotten some extended looks lately). Outside of that, obviously Henderson and Slade are the big names, but Kendell Brooks is another safety who has played really well this year for the most part. Linebacker Cal Haladay is coming off of back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week nods and will likely be all over the field on Saturday. Simeon Barrow is another player to keep an eye out for along the defensive line.

What’s your score prediction for this game?

Indiana has lost seven in a row, while Michigan State has finally seemed to find its footing. I think MSU keeps the momentum rolling at home on senior day and covers the spread against the struggling Hoosiers to become bowl eligible.

Michigan State 30, Indiana 13

I can’t make the trip this weekend, but I know others who will. Where in East Lansing should they go for breakfast and dinner?

Oh, it’s actually been a while since I’ve enjoyed breakfast in East Lansing. I have heard good things about the Soup Spoon Cafe, however. Conrad’s is also an option for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

As for dinner, there are so many great options. The Peanut Barrel, Crunchy’s, HopCat, Pizza House, Harper’s, Jolly Pumpkin and Barrio are all popular spots.