Saturday the Badgers travel to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans. To help get to know the opponent we asked our friends over at The Only Colors to give us some insight on the Spartans so far this season!
Michigan State came into the season with high expectations but the Spartans have not met those expectations yet this season. How is the fan base feeling about the direction of the program under Mel Tucker?
Coming off of an 11-2 season and a Peach Bowl victory, it seemed that Michigan was a program on the rise under Mel Tucker’s leadership. While perhaps fans thought the Spartans would take a small step back this year, many still believed MSU would finish the regular season with nine or 10 wins. Instead, Michigan State has just two wins in the first six games (against a pair of Mid-American Conference foes) and has lost four games in a row all by double-digits. It’s been very disappointing.
So, The Only Colors recently ran an SB Nation Reacts survey asking the exact question you have asked: “How confident are Michigan State fans in Tucker’s ability to lead this program in the future?” The results were surprising. While 41 percent of respondents said they were either “confident” or “very confident,” 29 percent were “unsure,” 19 percent were “somewhat unconfident” and 11 percent already said they were “ready to move on.”
I think there are some short-sighted views in those opinions due to how disappointing the 2022 season has been thus far, but frankly, if Michigan State doesn’t make a bowl game that would be inexcusable for how much money Tucker is being paid. However, the future is still bright for MSU under Tucker. His high school recruiting is strong, his ability to get players out if the transfer portal is among the best in the nation and, despite the losing streak, the culture remains solid. I also believe Tucker will make the necessary changes to the coaching staff and personnel in the offseason to right the ship.
The truth is that Michigan State is very much still in a rebuild. Mark Dantonio took Michigan State to incredible heights and should be remembered fondly, but the talent left on the roster from Dantonio’s exit was not very strong after a couple of lackluster recruiting classes in a row. Of course, a lot of it is also the failed development of these players from Tucker and the current staff, but perhaps the ceiling wasn’t very high to begin with and they were obviously not players who the staff members recruited themselves.
MSU fans thought that Tucker had expedited that rebuilding process, but the truth is that the Spartans struck gold in the transfer portal with running back Kenneth Walker III. Walker was a generational talent who was able to mask a lot of the deficiencies last year’s Michigan State team had, and MSU lost some other key players from last year’s team as well.
My advice to Michigan State fans would be to trust the process moving forward.
It seems like the biggest issue has been on defense, specifically against the pass, as the Spartans rank 122nd in the nation in passing yards allowed per game. They had similar struggles last year. What seems to be the issue there?
Scheme/coaching. Personnel. Player development. Injuries/lack of depth. All of the above.
All of those factors have played a role, and while it’s easy to point at the coaching and lack of player development under Tucker and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, I believe some blame should be on the players themselves.
Hazelton runs a 4-2-5 base defense, but often plays his cornerbacks several yards off of the wide receivers pre-snap, allowing the receivers to easily take advantage of the cushion and soft zone coverage. Over the last couple of games, Hazelton has appeared to switch things up with things like press-man coverage, disguised looks before the snap, nickel blitzes and more, but nothing has worked…which makes you wonder how much of it is on the players.
Due to injuries, a lot of young and/or inexperienced players, including true freshmen, have been forced onto the field for the defense. When Michigan State is trying to disguise coverages and confuse the offense, these young players have sometimes confused themselves, leading to blown coverages. But, the veterans are struggling, too.
I believe there is some individual talent in the secondary, but they have to play as a unit. Ohio State recently showed how far away MSU is from being a threat in the Big Ten. Perhaps the players in the defensive backfield are just not up to playing at this level of competition. Oftentimes, the players – both upperclassmen and underclassmen – have been out of position. How much of that is the coaching staff and how much is it the players? While I do think the scheme and coaching are more to blame, some responsibility is on the players as well.
As mentioned, injuries have really hit hard on the defensive side of the ball as well. Safety (and team leader) Xavier Henderson, versatile linebacker (and former safety/nickel back) Darius Snow, cornerback Marqui Lowery Jr., defensive tackle Jacob Slade, defensive end Khris Bogle, defensive end Jeff Pietrowski Jr. and many others have missed time this season. Snow suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener against Western Michigan, and Henderson has been out since the first game against WMU as well. Due to a lack of depth, the players behind those guys have not performed too well.
Slade and Henderson did dress last week, but didn’t play. Their statuses for Saturday, along with others, remains uncertain.
So, I believe it is a mix of all of those things. But defending the pass has been the Spartans’ biggest problem for the past two years, and the coaches and players don’t seem to have an answer for it. It is concerning.
On offense, the Spartans have a familiar name to Badger fans in Jalen Berger. He got off to a good start but has struggled since. How do you feel this rushing attack is faring?
Michigan State currently ranks 114th in the FBS in rushing yards at 107.3 yards per contest. The Spartans are also only averaging 3.9 yards per carry. So, not well, at least not against Power Five competition.
The backfield duo of former Wisconsin running back Jalen Berger and fellow transfer tailback Jarek Broussard (Colorado) looked strong and promising through two games against inferior competition. But, since the opponents have gotten tougher, the rushing game has almost completely diminished.
Some of it is on poor run blocking from the offensive line, and some of it has been poor vision/ability to hit open holes by the running backs when they are actually there. I mean, Michigan State had a total of seven net rushing yards against Ohio State. Of course, that counts yardage lost on quarterback sacks, but still, that is awful.
As of late, veteran running back Elijah Collins seems to be the best running back on the roster and the one who will fight for tough yardage. I would like to see Collins lead the backfield in touches this week, although this game will be important to Berger and he should also be involved, with Broussard lightly mixing in as well.
The running game needs to be much stronger if the Spartans plan to beat Wisconsin.
Last season Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed had a great connection with one another. That duo is back this year. I know Reed has been banged up, but how has that duo fared this season?
Thorne has been pretty lousy overall, to be honest. He had a strong game against Washington and a nice first half against Maryland, but outside of that, his play has been inconsistent, and at times, downright bad. He was expected to build upon his record-setting performance in 2021 (most single-season touchdown throws in Michigan State program history), but hasn’t done that yet.
Thorne did come out this week and say he hasn’t been 100 percent since the opening game against Western Michigan. That adds up, as he has sailed throws high, turned the ball over at a high rate and just has missed throws you would expect him to hit.
With that said, I am still a believer in Thorne. He is a great leader for the team, is tough and holds himself and his teammates accountable during this losing streak. He is still highly-skilled, and I think he can figure it out. But simply put, it hasn’t been good enough thus far in 2022.
As you mentioned, Reed has been banged up and in out of the lineup this season. Like Thorne, he hasn’t quite lived up to the potential he showed last year either. However, he seems to be getting close to form.
Despite the ugly loss to Ohio State last week, Reed was a bright spot for MSU and looked like his old self. Against the Buckeyes, Reed recorded four catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. On the season, he has 23 receptions for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
Thorne and Reed have great chemistry and have played together since middle school. The Thorne to Reed connection will be important for the Spartans’ chances to win on Saturday.
What matchup concerns you the most in this contest? On the flip side, what matchup do you feel good about?
The most concerning area for me is always going to be Michigan State’s passing defense until proven otherwise. I don’t think that Graham Mertz is particularly a quarterback who strikes fear into opposing defenses, but I don’t think that matters against MSU’s passing defense that ranks 122nd in the FBS and allows 292 passing yards per game. Plus, Mertz just shredded the Northwestern Wildcats for 299 yards and five touchdowns. I expect him to come into East Lansing with renewed confidence against a porous secondary.
However, where I really think this game will be won and lost is in the trenches with the ground game. Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen is averaging 6.1 yards per carry and 105.7 yards per game, while the Badgers average 173.7 rushing yards per game as a team (52nd in the country). While that may not be quite up there with previous Wisconsin teams’ rushing attacks, I think it is quite respectable. Meanwhile, MSU has struggled a bit to stop the run, allowing 153.5 yards per game (87th in the nation).
On the other side of the coin, and as mentioned, Michigan State’s rushing attack has struggled. Wisconsin is fairly stout against the run, giving up just 117 yards per contest (33rd in the FBS). So I could see MSU struggling to get its ground game going. In order to win though, the Spartans have to establish the run on offense and limit Allen and company’s success on the other side of the ball.
I don’t know if I would necessarily say I feel good about this or not, but one thing I would like to see is Michigan State getting after Mertz. Wisconsin has allowed 12 sacks this season, which is tied for the fourth-most allowed in the Big Ten. Michigan State ranks fourth in the conference in sacks with 14, but has only recorded two in the past four games. If the Spartans can pressure Mertz, take him down and make his day miserable, I like MSU’s chances.
Give us your prediction for Saturday?
Both of these teams are reeling, although Wisconsin is coming off of a huge win over Northwestern, and perhaps that will be a spark for the Badgers in the second half of the 2022 season. However, I see this as a must-win for Michigan State to keep bowl hopes alive this season.
It is also Michigan State’s homecoming game, so I expect the Spartans to come out energized and focused. I predict a close game throughout. Michigan State has not really shown any evidence that is capable of winning against Big Ten opponents this year, but I simply have a gut feeling that the Spartans will pull this one out.
Michigan State wins with a final score of around 28-24.