Written By: Nick Holmes (@HoosierHolmes)
WEEK 8: MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Going on the road and winning in the Big Ten is no easy task. Coming home with a victory after a trip to East Lansing? Nearly impossible. The last time the Hoosiers accomplished this feat was back in 2001. The 2001 season is statistically significant for another reason that will come up again later in our preview. Michigan State finished with an 11-2 record in 2014 and have their eyes set on a greater prize this fall, an opportunity to represent the Big Ten in this year’s College Football Playoff. Aside from an Oregon squad who will be playing in just their second contest post the Marcus Mariota era, the Spartans have a pretty easy schedule leading up to the Old Brass Spittoon game with the Hoosiers during week eight.
Spartans at a Glance:
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (9nd Season, 75-31 at MSU, 18-17 at Cincinnati )
Last Season:: 11-2 (7-1 in Big Ten)
Bowl Game: Cotton Bowl (42-41 Win over Baylor)
Spartans' Returning Leaders
Passing: Connor Cook (212-365, 58.1%, 3,214 yards, 24 TDs, 8 INTs)
Rushing: Delton Williams (54 carries, 316 yards, 5 TDs)
Receiving: MacGarrett Kings (29 catches, 404 yards, 1 TDs)
Why the Spartans could win:
When compiling a list of the top coaches in college football, it’s hard not to include Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio. Since arriving at East Lansing in 2007, the team has went 75-31 and has made it to the postseason every year. Additionally, he’s led the Spartans to two Big Ten Championships (2010, ‘13), a Rose Bowl victory in 2013, and has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year twice (2010, ’13). For a school that is commonly referred to as “little brother” by their instate rival, the Spartans have been anything but over the last few seasons. In fact, Dantonio has beaten the Wolverines six out of a possible eight times. And it's not as if the team has been littered with blue chip prospects during his tenure. From 2007 until 2013, the Spartans have only had one recruiting class that was top 25 according Rivals. So it's clear that Dantonio does an amazing job of coaching up his players and maximizing the talent he has on his roster.
In addition to outstanding coaching, the Spartans can rely on the talented and experienced Connor Cook at quarterback. Had Cook entered the NFL Draft this past May, many believed he was a surefire first round talent. Now entering his third season as the Spartans’ starting quarterback, hopes are high that he can build on an outstanding showing in 2014, where he threw for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns on 212-365 passing. He will have to do it without some of his top targets that he’s relied on so heavily on since being inserted as the team’s quarterback in 2013. Nonetheless, Cook’s experience and talent alone should be enough to carry this offense through moments of stagnation.
While Cook will be relying on wide receivers that are relatively unproven, this is far from the case with the guys upfront who will be tasked with protecting the quarterback. The Spartans’ offensive line, that gave up just 11 sacks in 13 games, returns four starters, including All-American Center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin, who is being projected by many to be a potential first round draft pick next spring, along with Cook and defensive end Shalique Calhoun.
Speaking of the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year, Calhoun leads a Spartan front seven that will leave many Big Ten offensive coordinators scratching their heads and begging for mercy at the end of match up against Michigan State. The team averaged 3.23 sacks per contest last season, which was 8th best in the nation. Even with the Hoosiers returning a talented and experienced group of offensive lineman this fall, they will certainly have their hands full on the 24 of October.
The Spartans defense is also one of the most opportunistic, forcing a Big Ten leading 34 turnovers, which was tied for third best in the nation. Also, their offense did a great job of taking care of the ball, only relinquishing position via turnover just 15 times, which tied for 16th best in the nation. Combined, the team was second overall in the country with a turnover margin of 19-plus. Winning the turnover battle against the Spartans will be a tall task, but if the Hoosiers stand even a remote chance of pulling off the upset, it would help to win this game inside the game.
Outside of what Spartans are capable of doing, you have to take into account the Hoosiers success away from Memorial Stadium. Taking the show on the road in the Big Ten has not been so easy for Indiana, putting it nicely. In the last 15 seasons the Hoosiers have only achieved a record of .500 or better on the road in the Big Ten once, which was during Antwaan Randle El’s final season in 2001. In that same time frame Indiana has went winless on the road in-conference ten times. I’m sure you can do the math, but I’ll save you some time, the Hoosiers have went a combined 6-54 on the road in conference the last 15 seasons. Of the Hoosiers six road victories, only one of their opponents achieved an in-conference record of .500 or better by the end of the season, which was Iowa. who went 4-4 during the 2007 season.
Why They Won't Pull it Off:
As much as I hate to admit it, there are not a lot reasons, on paper at least, why this game should not end in the Spartans favor. However, as in all rivalry games, teams tend to have a little more juice flowing than normal and possibly playing in front of the Spartan fans could get the adrenaline pumping as the Hoosiers take the, "us against the world" mentality.
Additionally, despite not having a lot of success away from Memorial Stadium recently, the Hoosiers did play two of their best games this past season on the road against ranked opponents. First by upsetting Missouri 31-27 during their week four clash and then giving the eventual National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes all they could handle in late November. Hopefully this means the Hoosiers have now set a precedent of going into hostile environments and leaving it all on the line, regardless of how much of an underdog they are.
While the Spartans do return a lot of talent along the trenches, at quarterback and linebacker, the team has plenty of question marks in the secondary, at wide receiver, and at running back. Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes, who was selected in the first round of this year's NFL draft, will both need to be replaced. The team could possibly be relying on some less experienced options at both corner and safety, much like the Hoosiers will be this season.
On offense the team saw the graduation of its two leading rushers, Jeremy Langford (276 cars., 1522 yds., 22 tds. ) and Nick Hill (107 cars., 622 yds., 9 tds. ), while their third option Delton Williams (54 cars, 316 yds, and 5 tds.) was suspended for a good portion of the spring and summer after an off the field incident. He has since returned, but there are still questions about what his role will be on the team this fall. Additionally, Cook will need some new weapons at wide receiver, as the team's two leading receivers also graduated, Tony Lippett (65 recs., 1198 yds., 11 tds.) and Keith Mumphery (26 recs, 495 yds., 3 tds.). If the team fails to adequately replace these playmakers, the Spartans and Cook, could have a difficult time of replicating the success they've had on the offensive side of the ball in recent seasons.
All things considered, there are not a lot of positives that tip the scales in favor of the Hoosiers in their matchup against the Spartans. Winning away from Memorial Stadium for the Hoosiers has been hard enough, but taking their act on the road against the Spartans is a gargantuan undertaking. Is it possible, sure, anything is possible. Is it probable? Certainly not. Not that the Hoosiers don’t have a lot riding on this matchup, but the Spartans’ season hinges on every game as the team hopes to enter their showdown against the Defending National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes at an undefeated 10-0. However, I've been wrong before and I will gladly dine on crow on that Saturday evening in late October if the Hoosiers return home with the Old Brass Spittoon.
Hoosiers Win Probability: 10%