After a sloppy couple of weeks, including a narrow win over Utah State and a loss to Arizona State, Michigan State hasn’t gotten off to the best start in its 2018 campaign.
With an early Week 3 bye, it meant some talking heads already counted the Spartans out in the Big Ten East race. The week off before this weekend’s matchup with Indiana might actually help this team to reflect and dial into the task at hand as they get ready to start their 66th season of conference play.
“I think when you come off a game like that, first of all, you have an opportunity to really look at what happened in the game and step back and deal with it,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think our players have had an opportunity to sit on this and dwell on this a little bit and they have also had time to step away from football for a day or so. I’m looking forward to watching our players play on Saturday night. That’s all I can tell you.”
The Spartans will hit the road again in Bloomington, taking on a 3-0 Indiana team and playing with a whole lot of newfound confidence under second-year head coach Tom Allen.
“To be able to conclude our non-conference slate at 3-0 is what your goal is,” Allen said of his team’s fast start, which is the 17th time the team has started as such in program history. “We took care of business with that. Now we have to move forward into conference play.”
Saturday’s contest will mark the 65th time these two programs have met in this rivalry, with the victor taking home the Old Brass Spittoon Trophy, which is said to be almost 200 years old. Dantonio is 8-1 in his 12-year tenure in East Lansing against the Hoosiers, needing a furious fourth-quarter rally last year to hold them off in Spartan Stadium.
The Hoosiers, which finished 5-7 last year, are looking to start their season 4-0 for just the seventh time in school history. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Peyton Ramsey has been a huge factor in the Hoosiers’ impressive start.
Starting in all three games this season, Ramsey has completed a league-leading 74 percent of his passes, which ranks seventh nationally. He’s also racked up 479 yards through the air, with five touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
In the backfield, the Hoosiers are without Morgan Ellison, who was suspended indefinitely prior to the season opener and Cole Gest, who went down with a season-ending ACL in the season opener. There’s been no drop off at the position with true freshman Stevie Scott stepping in as the starter and not looking back. Scott has put the league on notice by rushing for 388 yards and three touchdowns through three games.
Scott’s 388 yards rank second in the conference in yardage and eighth in the country. Amongst true-freshman running backs, Scott ranks second in the country in yardage and first in carries.
“Been very impressed with their young players, their tailbacks,” Dantonio said of their impressive youth. “(Stevie) Scott, No. 21, a guy they can hand the ball to and he’s been productive.”
Nick Westbrook, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2016, returns this season as part of a very talented receiving unit after missing all of 2017 with an ACL injury suffered in the season opener. Westbrook, a Biletnikoff Award candidate, is second on the team with nine catches for 84 yards and one touchdown. Collectively, Westbrook, Luke Timian, Whop Philyor and Donovan Hale have accounted for 238 catches, 3,036 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Under Allen, the Hoosiers’ defense has gone to heights not previously reached with former groups. Since Allen’s arrival in Bloomington 28 games ago, Indiana has allowed just three 300-yard passers, which is a remarkable number considering MSU has already allowed two 300-yard passers in back-to-back games this season.
With all-conference linebackers Chris Covington and Tegray Scales gone, the Hoosiers are still trying to find solid production in the middle and have greatly felt his absence, ranking No. 13 in the conference in rush defense, surrendering 187 yards on the ground per game.
On the flip side, the Hoosier pass defense has been fantastic through three games, sitting atop the conference with just 135 yards given up through the air. Senior safety Jonathan Crawford is one of the better safeties in the league and anchors a swarming defense which ranks fourth in the conference in takeaways.
Saturday’s matchup is intriguing. The Spartans’ strength is clearly in the passing game, while the Hoosiers don’t give up a whole lot through the air. IU has a porous run defense, but that may not matter a whole lot if MSU continues to struggle at generating any sort of push up front.
Allen is starting to build something in Bloomington and a win Saturday against the Spartans would be a huge step in creating the culture he’s looking for at IU. Maybe MSU isn’t the team many people thought, but even so, a win over the Spartans, a team which has had six 10-win seasons in the last nine, would speak volumes to the direction Allen has his team headed.
If Michigan State wants to remain relevant in the division race, it can’t afford a slip-up on Saturday.
Don’t expect an offensive explosion or a blowout from either team in a game that should have all the makings of a defensive slugfest. If the Spartans show up to Bloomington looking like the team of the past two weeks, Indiana will be in good shape to notch its first signature win of the season. Maybe this will be the game which gets the Spartans on track and keeps them in the driver’s seat for now in the division.
Michigan State will play its third straight night game, with kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m. on BTN.