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Behind Enemy Lines: Inside information on Michigan State before today’s game

Our friends from The Only Colors pull the curtain back to give us the unbiased truth about the Spartans.

Michigan State v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In preparation for the Buckeyes taking on o welcome the In preparation for the Buckeyes taking on Michigan State at Spartan Stadium today, we chatted with Ryan O’Bleness, the managing editor of The Only Colors, our SB Nation sibling site that covers Michigan State University athletics.

It has been a rough start to the season for Sparty having lost their last three games to Washington, Minnesota, and Maryland after opening up with wins over Western Michigan and Akron. The team has been uncharacteristically bad on defense, allowing 33.3 points per game during the current three-game losing streak.

If you want more of the Spartans’ perspective on the game, make sure that you check out all of TOC’s coverage on their website or on Twitter @theonlycolors.

LGHL: Last year’s Spartan offense was defined by the presence of Kenneth Walker III in the backfield. This year, it seems like Michigan State is still struggling to find an offensive identity. On its best day, what is the unit’s calling card and who are its best weapons?

TOC: I actually wrote about this very topic recently. The truth is, right now, there is not much for the offense (or the defense for that matter) to hang its hat on. The team does indeed seem to be lacking an identity because there aren’t many areas in which the Spartans are performing well in.

Losing Kenneth Walker III was always going to be a huge blow to the team, and nobody was expected to replace his production individually, but the thought was that transfers Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) could match it as a tandem. After a strong start to the running game in the first two games, versus Western Michigan and Akron, it looked promising. But since the competition level went up to Power Five schools, the offensive line has struggled to open holes and the running backs have been non-factors.

The passing game with quarterback Payton Thorne has had its ups and downs, and probably more downs than ups. Thorne looked really good in the loss at Washington and sharp in the first half against Maryland. But the second half against Maryland left a lot to be desired, and in the other three games against Western Michigan, Akron, and Minnesota, he certainly did not play up to his ability.

Still, there are several playmakers on the offense who can be difference-makers, but they have to do so on a more consistent basis. Wide receivers Jayden Reed and Keon Coleman are the guys you would probably look at as the two biggest threats to opposing defenses. Reed is a veteran, and when healthy, one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, if not the country. He has been banged up, though. Coleman is a superb athlete who can win jump balls at 6-foot-4, and he also plays on the basketball team. Tre Mosley is a reliable third receiver.

Berger and Broussard are very talented, but have been hit or miss thus far, while veteran running back Elijah Collins looked like the best runner on the team against Maryland. There is an intriguing tight-end trio with Daniel Barker, Tyler Hunt, and Maliq Carr, but consistency has also escaped that group.

LGHL: As Ohio State fans know, Mel Tucker is known as a really good defensive mind. However, MSU’s defense has struggled this season. What has been the problem on that side of the ball for Michigan State this year?

TOC: Much like last season, the issues are more so with the passing defense (275 yards allowed per game, 115th in FBS), although the rushing defense has not been as good as I expected (136.8 yards allowed per game, tied for 63rd in FBS) either. Last year, MSU ranked dead-last in the country at about 325 passing yards per game allowed.

This year, the secondary was expected to improve as Mel Tucker — a former defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator himself — took over the coaching of the cornerbacks. The Spartans also brought in Georgia transfer Ameer Speed at cornerback and all of the returning players were another year older, stronger, and wiser in the program. But, the passing defense has looked just as bad, if not worse than last season.

It is curious, and hard to pinpoint the biggest single issue plaguing the defense because I think it is multiple things. I mentioned that MSU is allowing 275 passing yards per game, which is already poor. But when you consider the Spartans have allowed an average of 326.3 yards per contest over the last three games against Power Five teams, things look even more dire.

The scheme itself under defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has been questioned a lot. In the 4-2-5 base, the cornerbacks often play several yards off of the wide receiver pre-snap and allow a big cushion for opposing wide receivers to take advantage of the soft zone coverage. With that said, Michigan State did throw some different looks at Maryland, and there was some press-man coverage and pre-snap disguises, and it worked to some degree, holding the Terrapins to six points in the second half. But, MSU still gave up 314 passing yards to Taulia Tagovailoa, so it was still not a great solution, which leads to questions about the personnel.

So, if MSU is changing up what it is doing, and still giving up explosive plays in the passing game, is it not as much an issue of scheme/coaching as everybody has said and actually more about the players in the defensive backfield being overmatched? I am not sure how much of this falls on the players’ shoulders versus the coaches’ shoulders, but the players have definitely failed to hold up their end of the bargain on multiple occasions.

There is talent in the secondary with Speed, Charles Brantley, Roanld Williams Jr., Kendell Brooks, and others, but something is not clicking for them as a unit and their play has to be better, especially against C.J. Stroud and Ohio State.

Is it injuries? Team leader and safety Xavier Henderson has been out since the opener against Western Michigan. Versatile linebacker Darius Snow — who previously played at safety and nickel back and would easily be MSU’s best linebacker in pass coverage — is done for the season, also getting hurt in the first game against WMU.

Several other players on the defense, especially along the defensive line (which, of course, a good pass rush takes pressure off of the secondary), have been out of the lineup as well. I am not sure how much better the defense would be at full strength, but I am willing to bet the performances would not have been quite as bad with guys like Henderson, Snow, and defensive tackle Jacob Slade in the lineup for these past few games.

So, really, it’s a combination of issues, but something that Tucker, Hazelton, the rest of the staff and the players need to figure out quickly before Michigan State is out of bowl game contention.

LGHL: Jacoby Windmon has made an early case for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, leading the conference in sacks and tackles for loss. Is there anything specific that opposing offenses can do to slow him down beyond double or triple-teaming him?

TOC: Windmon transferred in from UNLV in January and made an instant impact. In the first two games against Mid-American Conference foes, Western Michigan and Akron, he recorded 5.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.

Since then, though, Windmon has not been much of a factor against Power Five opponents. He did record 1.5 tackles for loss and another forced fumble against Minnesota, but didn’t have any sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, or big plays against Washington or Maryland. So his numbers on the season are a bit inflated after feasting on weaker competition.

Windmon originally transferred in as a linebacker and was later moved to the edge position, which is where he has played all season thus far. So, he probably isn’t playing his most natural position (although he did start his career at UNLV as a defensive end before moving to inside linebacker).

The move was most likely due to Michigan State not having a lot of bodies and depth at the defensive end position. Windmon will generally rush standing up from the edge, but could also put his hand in the dirt like a regular defensive lineman, or could also drop into pass coverage.

Windmon is definitely a special player, and one of the best defenders for the Spartans (he is the highest-graded defender for Michigan State so far this season, with a grade of 90.4, according to Pro Football Focus). However, he has not really made his presence felt in the big games this year. Defensive coordinators seem to be game-planning against him and are neutralizing his effectiveness. If I was Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, I would simply try to replicate what Washington and Maryland did to take Windmon out of the game.

LGHL: If this game is within one score late in the fourth quarter, what do you think the biggest storyline will be for how it got there?

TOC: Other than pure shock? I jest, but the odds of that happening feel very slim. With that said, if this scenario did play out, I think the likely reasons would be turnovers and pressure/sacks from the defense. Somehow, Michigan State is yet to record a single interception this season. The defense has also only recorded one sack in the past three games.

However, MSU is tied for third in the country with seven fumble recoveries. If the Spartans stand any chance in Saturday’s game, then the defense has to generate takeaways. MSU has to disguise coverages and pressure Stroud, causing erratic throws and eventually getting interceptions. If Stroud is just able to stand in the pocket and surgically pick apart the defense, Michigan State will be in for a long day.

Offensively, I also think Michigan State will need to find lanes in the running game against the tough Ohio State defensive front. If the Spartans can control the clock, keep the ball out of Stroud’s hands and keep OSU’s offense on the sideline as much as possible, that will go a long way in keeping the game close. Thorne will need to take care of the football and have zero giveaways while hitting his throws and testing an Ohio State secondary that hasn’t really been challenged yet.

I actually think punter Bryce Baringer could be really important in this game to flip field position — although, if MSU’s secondary performs as poorly as it has throughout the season, OSU’s field position doesn’t matter too much.

If the Spartans are to pull a major upset over the Buckeyes here, it will take some luck as well.

LGHL: I won’t ask you to pick a score (although you are welcome to if you would like), but how do you think this game plays out?

TOC: I’ll be honest, I don’t see this one going well for Michigan State. MSU is really struggling right now, while Ohio State is a true national title contender. The Buckeyes have also won six-straight games in the series by an average score of 38.8-9 (not to mention a 35.6-point average win margin in the past five meetings). I think this one will follow suit.

I do think Michigan State comes out energized at home with everybody doubting the Spartans, and keeps it relatively close in the first quarter. Eventually, though, the wide talent gap between the two programs shows itself and Ohio State takes a two-or-three-touchdown lead into the locker rooms at halftime.

The Buckeyes continue to pour it on in the third and early fourth quarters before the backups come in. MSU gets a late score or two, but ultimately, OSU wins by 30 or more points and covers the spread.