What better way to learn about an upcoming opponent than by talking to the people who cover them on a daily basis? This week, we’ve teamed up with SB Nation’s Michigan State blog, The Only Colors, to discuss the Spartans and what they will bring to Columbus. We are joined by the site’s managing editor, Ryan O’Bleness, who was kind enough to answer a few question’s about this year’s Michigan State team.
Without further ado, let’s get right into the questions!
Gene: Did Michigan State fans have any idea that type of season was possible? I know many in the media picked this team to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, and now here they are with a chance at a conference title!
Ryan: Honestly, very few, if any, fans predicted a 9-1 start to the 2021 season. While the majority of fans were a little bit more optimistic than the national media, most were just hoping for bowl eligibility.
The Spartans brought in around 20 transfer players in the offseason, with 15 of those being scholarship players. Michigan State also brought in 18 or so scholarship true freshmen, plus a few other walk-ons. On the other side of the coin, MSU had around 27 players transfer out of the program and a few other players graduate or pursue the NFL. So, the roster was almost unrecognizable compared to 2020, and it was a mystery what this team would look like in 2021... let’s just say it’s been a pleasant surprise in East Lansing.
Gene: What, in your opinion, has been the biggest key for Mel Tucker in helping to turn this program around so quickly?
Ryan: There are a few reasons for the quick turnaround. First and foremost, as mentioned, Tucker and his staff recruited the transfer portal hard and went after several difference-makers who now start or play major roles for the Spartans, most notably running back Kenneth Walker III. Tucker and his assistant coaches took advantage of the new transfer rules, and were arguably the most aggressive program nationally in that regard. Tucker rebuilt the roster in his vision, and not only brought in talented players on the field, but also good culture fits for the program.
Speaking of culture, that is another reason for the quick turnaround. After Michigan State reached incredible heights under Mark Dantonio from 2010-2015, Dantonio’s final four seasons were very mediocre (or downright bad in 2016’s case). Dantonio accomplished great things in East Lansing, and he will always be remembered fondly by me and most Michigan State fans, but things were clearly trending downward toward the end of his tenure.
Once Tucker got in, even though 2020 was a struggle record-wise and incredibly complicated due to a global pandemic, Tucker started to lay the foundation to turn Michigan State back into a winning program and culture. By the time the 2021 season hit, Tucker had his players fully bought into what he was selling. The players believe in each other and in their coaches. They take on Tucker’s mantras of “Relentless,” and “Keep Chopping,” meaning they fight through adversity. Another thing Tucker preaches is neutral thinking, and he’s trained his team to not get too high or too low in any situation, and that the next play is always most important.
Tucker is intense and demands excellence from his players. He does a great job of keeping his players focused on the opponent each week. Michigan State has gotten the job done this season with balanced offense, “bend-don’t-break” defense and doing the little things it takes to win close games.
Gene: From someone who watches this team closely each week, what exactly is the problem with the pass defense? Are the numbers a bit deceiving, or has it actually looked like the worst passing defense in the country as the metrics indicate?
Ryan: At first, I thought the numbers were deceiving because of the scheme, but looking at the last three weeks, it’s safe to say the passing defense has a lot of issues. While Michigan State doesn’t like this term, the Spartans have been a “bend-but-don’t-break” defense all season long. The defensive backs would often give wide receivers cushion (sometimes a little bit too much) and allow completions, but keep everything in front of them. Teams have been able to move the ball between the 20-yard lines on the Spartans all season long, but Michigan State has been really strong at red zone defense, often keeping opponents out of the end zones and forcing field goals or turnovers. Because of the scheme, I don’t truly feel like it’s the worst passing defense in the nation, but is pretty bad.
Three weeks ago, Michigan’s Cade McNamara threw for 383 yards, which was easily a career high for him and a number he hasn’t come close to replicating in any other game. Luckily, Michigan State was still able to beat Michigan, but wasn’t so lucky the next week when Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell absolutely shredded the Spartans for 536 passing yards and three touchdowns as the Boilermakers pulled off the upset. Last week against Maryland was a little bit better, as Michigan State seemed to bring more pressure against Taulia Tagovailoa compared to previous quarterbacks, but he still threw for 350 yards.
Michigan State is also dealing with injuries in the secondary now, as true freshman Charles Brantley is likely to be out again this week (and maybe for the rest of the season), while other cornerbacks such as Ronald Williams and Marqui Lowery have been playing banged up. The Michigan State defense has also struggled to get off of the field on third down. So, yeah, I expect C.J. Stroud to throw for a lot of yards on Saturday. The key will be if the Spartans can keep the Buckeyes out of the end zone.
Gene: Kenneth Walker III has clearly been this team’s best player this season (and for what it’s worth, I think he should be the Heisman frontrunner), but outside of him and the talented duo of Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, who else should Ohio State fans know heading into this game on either side of the ball?
Ryan: I would still expect the offense to run through Walker, with Reed and quarterback Payton Thorne looking to connect early and often, but in terms of other players, Tre Mosley and Montorie Foster have been the wide receivers to step up with Nailor out due to a hand injury. Tight end Maliq Carr is a guy who has seen his playing time increase as well, while veteran Connor Heyward has been solid playing an H-back role this season.
Defensively, Cal Haladay has been a surprise star at linebacker, while Drew Beesley, Jacub Panasiuk, Jeff Pietrowski and Drew Jordan will try to generate pressure off of the edge. Jacob Slade has had a really nice season in the interior defensive line. While the secondary has struggled overall, safety Xavier Henderson is the leader of the defense and will make plays all over the field, while Darius Snow took over a starting spot at nickelback a few weeks ago and has been playing well.
Gene: Speaking of Nailor, I know he and a few other guys missed last week’s game against Maryland with injuries. Any update on him or any other important players that were out against the Terps?
Ryan: Unfortunately, Tucker doesn’t give many updates regarding injuries, as he doesn’t want to give the opponent a competitive advantage prior to the game. So, we have to wait until Saturday to know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nailor miss another game — he had a cast on his hand in the second half of the Michigan game and hasn’t played since.
On the offensive line, rotational guard Matt Carrick recently revealed that he was out for the season with a leg injury, while left tackle Jarrett Horst has missed the past couple of games for undisclosed reasons. Haladay has been playing with a club on his hand, while fellow linebacker Quavaris Crouch missed last week’s game against Maryland. Defensive tackle Simeon Barrow was supposed to miss the first half of the Maryland game due to a targeting penalty the week before, but didn’t dress for the game at all.
In the secondary, I mentioned that Brantley is out. Kicker Matt Coghlin has also been dealing with an injury, and didn’t kick against Purdue, and then was in and out of the lineup last week against Maryland. So, the Spartans are pretty short-handed right now, and it will be interesting to see who is available this week.
Gene: Finally, what are your expectations for this game? Does Michigan State take advantage of some of this Ohio State team’s flaws and pull off another upset in Columbus, or does a struggling secondary fail to contain the Buckeyes’ passing attack and lead to a Spartan loss?
Ryan: Historically, Michigan State has been one of the few Big Ten teams that has proven to be able to beat Ohio State from time to time, but still, those victories have been few and far between. I think the Spartans are going to keep this one closer than a lot of people are predicting, but at the end of the day, the talent gap is too wide. I do think Michigan State can move the ball offensively, but I fully anticipate Stroud and company being able to torch the MSU secondary all game long.
The keys for Michigan State will be limiting Treveyon Henderson and the run game, forcing Ohio State to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, winning the turnover battle and having an efficient game from Thorne, while leaning on Walker to control the clock and play keep away from the OSU offense. It will take MSU’s A+ game to beat OSU’s B- game. Basically, a lot of things have to go right for the Spartans to win, and I’m not convinced all of that will happen. I think it will be high-scoring and the Spartans hang tough, but the final score will be something around 49-38 in Ohio State’s favor.