Week 8 Primer - Battling the Spartans

Written by: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)

What: Indiana Hoosiers (4-3, 0-3) at Michigan State Spartans (7-0, 3-0)

When: Saturday, October 24 at 3:30

Where: Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan

How to Watch: The game will be broadcast on either ABC or ESPN2. You can also listen to the game on the IU Radio Network.

What’s at Stake: These two teams annually play for the “Old Brass Spittoon”, a traveling trophy that was first presented in 1950. The head-to-head rivalry goes back to 1922 and Michigan State leads the all-time series, 44 to 15 (there are two ties). IU has only beaten the Spartans twice since 1995 and the Hoosiers have never knocked off current MSU coach Mark Dantonio.

Besides being a “rivalry” game, both teams have quite a bit to play for. Michigan State is undefeated and very much in the hunt for a B1G East title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. IU has lost three straight games and needs to show they are still locked in after the devastating collapse against Rutgers last Saturday.

A Few Things to Look For

1.      IU’s Defense vs. Connor Cook

Connor Cook is one of the more successful quarterbacks in college football. He’s extremely experienced, poised and talented. His numbers certainly aren’t mind-blowing but Cook is taking care of the ball and has done enough to keep MSU undefeated. In addition, his past two games have been (statistically) his best of the season. Two weeks ago, Cook threw for 367 yards and two scores. He put up 328 yards against one of the top defenses (Michigan) in the country last week. On the season, Cook has only thrown two interceptions compared to 13 touchdowns. He’ll be going against an IU secondary that looked good for a few parts of last week’s game against Rutgers before melting into a helpless puddle in the fourth quarter. IU surrendered 386 passing yards to Chris Laviano. On the season, the Hoosiers have given up more than 300 passing yards in three of their seven games.

The secondary struggles are due to a number of factors. One of those factors is a lack of pressure on the quarterback. If the Hoosiers can’t get any pressure on Cook and allow him to get into a rhythm, it will be a very long day for IU fans. In my opinion, the Hoosiers need to place Rashard Fant in coverage against Aaron Burbridge. Fant is the best cover corner for IU and he actually did a decent job when given a chance to cover Leonte Carroo. Aaron Burbridge is no Leonte Carroo but he is very good and he’s definitely MSU’s top target. Burbridge has 73 targets (Kings Jr. is second on the team with 35 targets) and 44 receptions on the season. Seeing IU’s defense rebound (or not) after the horrific 4th quarter against Rutgers is going to be one of the subplots of this game.

2.      Can the Hoosiers Offense Keep on Clicking?

IU’s offense struggled mightily without Nate Sudfeld. Granted, it was only for one week and Penn State has a very, very good defense but still, the Hoosiers only scored seven points against the Nittany Lions and it was good to see the senior QB back on the field for IU. He torched Rutgers for a career-high 464 yards with four touchdowns and the IU offense racked up 627 yards and 52 points. That was done without Jordan Howard (who may or may not play against the Spartans). IU had three costly turnovers but overall, the offense had a tremendous day. Michigan State doesn’t have an elite defense but it’s a significantly better unit than Rutgers. The Spartans are giving up 21.6 points per game (36th in the country) and appear to be a bit more vulnerable against the pass than the run. Western Michigan, Oregon and Central Michigan all threw for 285 yards or more. The Hoosiers will be looking to spread the ball around to Ricky Jones, Simmie Cobbs and Mitchell Paige (all had more than 100 yards last week) and stay balanced with a running game that looked better last week than it had since Howard’s injury. I doubt the Hoosiers will be able to hold MSU below 35 points so the IU offense will need to bring their “A” game to keep up.    

3.      Mike Majette: Emerging Playmaker

Mike Majette is a true freshman from Woodbridge, Virginia. He came to IU as an “athlete” and no one was sure what position he would end up playing in Bloomington. He was initially tried out as a wide receiver and there was some talk of working the defensive backfield but when Jordan Howard and Ricky Brookins both went down with injury against Ohio State, the coaching staff elected to move Majette to running back. He received one carry against Penn State and no one thought he would be a factor heading into the Rutgers game. However, Majette exploded onto the scene with multiple big plays and he flashed some real “burst” nearly every time he touched the ball. On the day, Majette ran the ball 11 times for 83 yards (an average of 7.5 yards per carry) and caught three passes for 33 yards and a touchdown. Even if Jordan Howard is able to return on Saturday, I hope Majette remains a part of the game plan. He brings a different element to the field than either Howard or Redding and I think he has a unique “gear” when he is able to get into space. More importantly, he accelerates very quickly and showed some good vision and quick decision making with the ball. I certainly don’t think Saturday was a complete fluke and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mike Majette during his time at IU.

4.      Third Down Woes

Against Rutgers, the Hoosiers were only 2-10 on third down (1-4 on fourth downs). They allowed Rutgers to go 12-20 on third down (1-2 on fourth down) including multiple third down conversions in the fourth quarter that would ultimately cost IU the game. The Hoosiers were only 3-16 on third down against Penn State and 7-22 against Ohio State. S&P+ ranks the Hoosiers as the 76th best offense on third down and the 121st ranked defense on fourth down. Neither of those numbers is even remotely good enough. The Michigan State Spartans are 8th in the country on third down offense and 32nd on 3rd down defense. On paper, Michigan State has a very big advantage in this key area and the Hoosiers will need to greatly improve on third down on both sides of the ball to keep things tight in East Lansing.

On offense, improvement could come with the return of Jordan Howard. He’s a supremely good short yardage runner and a healthy Howard should be able to do a much better job picking up those 3rd and short situations IU struggled with against Rutgers. Having some more innovative play-calling would certainly help as well. Maybe throw in some play-action with short passes to the tight end or utilize the size of Nate Sudfeld with a QB sneak (I know you don’t want to get him hurt but things need to be tried because the current third down play-calling isn’t working). On defense, the Hoosiers must do a better job of forcing opponents into more third and long situations than they have thus far. That requires sacking the quarterback or halting a run for negative yards or getting a penalty on an opponent (which IU has very little control of but it would help!). I don’t expect the third down defense to be significantly better at any point this season but I think the offense should be much better on third down than it has been in the past three weeks.

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