When: Sat. Oct. 1, 2016; 8:00 pm ET
Where: Bloomington, IN; Memorial Stadium (52,929)
All-Time Series: Michigan State leads 45-15-2
Last Meeting: MSU 52-26 win in 2015
Line: Michigan State (-7)
Call this the “redemption bowl” after both these teams took on surprising home losses and their first losses of the season in Week 4. The Spartans suffered an arguably more important conference loss in a game against Wisconsin that snowballed against them in a 30-6 decision. Meanwhile, Indiana put up plenty of offense but also plenty of turnovers in a 33-28 loss to a surprising 4-0 Wake Forest squad.
For the Hoosiers, that means the reach another bowl game, 4 wins will need to be found in the newly expanded 9-game conference slate. Indiana has not won more than 3 games in conference play for well over a decade, so that loss to the Demon Deacons could have a lasting impact on this season and Kevin Wilson’s program. However, a bounce back win against the defending conference champion would quickly put Indiana in a higher tier of the East Division. Obviously tons on the line for IU.
For Michigan State, the loss to Wisconsin was the type of loss it is difficult to recover from, if a second-consecutive playoff berth is to be achieved. However, the Spartans did not lose a division game and thus hold their Big Ten championship destiny in their own hands still. It has been four years since the Spartans lost back-to-back games, and that’s certainly a streak that needs to stay alive if MSU is to keep up with Michigan and Ohio State at the top of this division.
1 Burning Question: Which quarterback recovers better and removes the turnovers?
Michigan State QB Tyler O’Connor finally had a poor start in his fourth overall outing as the leader of this team, throwing 3 interceptions against the Badgers. Ironically, O’Connor has had his best moments on the road against tough opponents, so perhaps getting back on the road will be just what he needs to focus and remove the mistakes. Indiana certainly does not generate pass rush and tight coverage to the same extent as the Wisconsin defense, so opportunities should be there for O’Connor to improve on a 46% day passing last week.
O’Connor’s counterpart is another new starter, junior QB Richard Lagow of the Hoosiers. Despite leading the conference with 334 yards passing per game so far this season, Lagow is also coming off a disappointing 5-interception day. Indeed, the turnovers are exactly what kept Indiana from winning that game in a close battle against Wake Forest, so that needs to be cleaned up to take the pressure off Indiana’s defense.
The team that gets a better recovery from their quarterback and fewer unforced errors and turnovers will likely come out of this game with the first conference victory of the 2016 season. Despite O’Connor and Lagow being new names to most casual viewers, both have the potential to have a huge season if the mistakes are minimized. Expect a good duel this weekend between these two quarterbacks.
2 Key Stats:
— 226.0. Passing yards Michigan State’s defense is giving up in 2016. The Spartans have been one of the better teams in the country against opposing running games, but the defense has continued the trend of the last two seasons by giving up well over 200 yards per game passing. With significant youth still figuring things out on the defensive line and a completely decimated linebacker crew due to injuries, it is difficult to see where MSU will generate a consistent pass rush against Richard Lagow. Lagow has better proven weapons at receiver (Ricky Jones, Mitchell Paige, and conference-leading receiver Nick Westbrook) than Wisconsin had, which means this could be a long day with even worse numbers for the Spartan “no fly zone” defense.
— 100%. That’s the red zone scoring percentage for MSU opponents in 10 tries against the Spartan defense in 2016. It’s still very early in the season, but one of the strengths for Michigan State under Mark Dantonio has been the ability to make clutch plays in the most important moments, such as when the defense is in the red zone. However, the Spartans have given up 8 touchdowns and 2 field goals in 10 red zone attempts by opponents so far this season, which obviously is not ideal. Indiana is surprisingly one of the worst teams on executing offense in the red zone in the conference (despite being a high-octane offense otherwise), scoring on only 60% of their own 10 trips this season. Indiana will likely move the ball a lot on Saturday night, but making big plays and turnovers when IU has the ball in the red zone will be key to achieving a conference road victory.
3 Key Players:
Nick Westbrook, Indiana WR: As mentioned throughout this preview, Richard Lagow and the IU passing offense will present a stiff test for a Michigan State defense that has struggled at times in the past two games. Despite coming into the season with junior and senior starters at receiver, Westbrook has broken out as a sophomore star thanks in part to leading receiver Simmie Cobbs losing his season to a broken ankle a couple weeks ago. Westbrook has 4 touchdowns in 3 games and averages 110.7 yards per game as well. MSU cannot afford to lose track of this big play threat (which could happen if they focus too much on stopping another key IU weapon not yet discussed, RB Devine Redding).
Malik McDowell, Michigan State DT: McDowell has garnered a lot of focus from opposing offensive lines this season, and with good reason. He is a disruptive force that can both block up interior running games and also generate great pass rush if he is left unchecked or in one-on-one match ups. With all the injuries at linebacker (Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are out this week), McDowell is the only veteran with significant experience left in the Spartan front seven on defense. He will need to lead by example and open opportunities for the unknown new starters and backups to make big plays against the Hoosier offense. If he has an off day, Michigan State will be at serious risk of getting upset for a second-straight week.
L.J. Scott, Michigan State RB: As much discussion as there has been in this preview about the passing games and opposing defenses, one critical aspect for getting back on track after a loss may be as simple as this: run the ball effectively. Despite being shut down by Wisconsin, Scott still has decent numbers with an 88 yard rushing average per game so far as the leader of the MSU running backs. In order to take the pressure off O’Connor, Scott and his fellow running back mates Gerald Holmes and Madre London need to be effective. Keeping up his own 4.7 yard per carry average would be a good start, and a nice counterpunch to Indiana’s Devine Redding.
4 Staff Predictions:
Andy: Michigan State 24-21
Dave: Michigan State 34-13
Phil H.: Michigan State 31-17
Philip R.: Michigan State 34-21
Zach: Michigan State 31-21