The Spartans have had a very disappointing 2016 campaign. After losing to Indiana 24-21 in overtime last weekend, Michigan State is virtually eliminated from the 2017 College Football Playoff contention as they sit in the bottom pack of the Big Ten with a winless conference record. MSU is unranked for the first time since October 2013.
The 2-2 Michigan State Spartans will be taking a much needed break from conference play as they square off with the 2-3 BYU Cougars in East Lansing this Saturday.
You may look at BYU’s 2-3 mark and the title of this article and think I’m crazy. That may be true, but I’m going to make a convincing argument for this dangerous trap game.
First and foremost, the Cougars are much better than their record indicates. They lost three games by a combined seven points against three quality opponents in No. 22 West Virginia (4-0), Utah (4-1) and UCLA (3-2). Their two wins, on the other hand, came off of game-winning field goals, most recently against Toledo.
BYU’s stacked offense revolves around the dynamic duo of fifth-year seniors quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams. They are both coming off of season-ending injuries in 2015 and are making quite the comebacks.
Hill has completed 60 percent of this throws for 1,117 yards and five touchdowns with six interceptions, along with 228 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the year. The dual-threat sensation poses a major threat to a shaky Spartan defense, as he has hurt defenses with both his arm and his legs.
The BYU offensive line will be double teaming Malik McDowell, who will only play the second half of this game after being ejected last week because of targeting, forcing the MSU linebackers to dial up some pressure. The blitzing will open up more space and present downfield opportunities for Hill, who should make the Spartans pay for sending heat, especially if the pressure doesn’t get there in time because of poor penetration.
Williams is stuffing the stat sheet as the second-leading rusher in the nation, tallying 703 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound bruiser is a physical tailback who excels at breaking to daylight while racking up yards after contact.
Be on the lookout for Williams to productively carry the load against a reeling Spartan front seven, suffering from an unstable run defense and the significant injuries of Riley Bullough (day-to-day) and Jon Reschke (season) at linebacker.
The Cougars don’t have a standout wide receiver; rather, they have a plethora of options. Hill effectively distributes the wealth among five wideouts who have each recorded 14 or more receptions for over 100 yards and have one touchdown reception.
Nick Kurtz and Moroni Laulu-Pututau are the top two targets and are both 6-foot-4 or taller. Their intimidating speed and size should cause fits for an undersized MSU secondary, especially against a pair of 5-foot-11 defensive backs in Darian Hicks and Tyson Smith.
The receiving corps as a whole consist of excellent route runners who are able to gain separation, which is bad news for a Spartan defensive backfield which has struggled in man coverage and at getting off of the field on third down. Speaking of third down, BYU has converted 45 percent on third down situations, with MSU allowing an average of 50 percent on third down in their last two contests.
On the other side of the ball, the Cougars feature a loaded defense that has 13 takeaways in 2016. The heart and soul of the defense is the lockdown secondary that has collected a total of nine interceptions this year. The ballhawking senior safety Kai Nacua is the head honcho of this group. He leads the nation by gathering four of the team’s nine interceptions just five games into the season.
Spartan quarterback Tyler O’Connor will try to locate his talented receivers remaining poised and delivering into a crowded defensive backfield with Nacua and Micah Hannemann lurking in coverage. Unlike MSU, the Cougars play impressive man coverage and should present a challenge for R.J. Shelton and Donnie Corley.
The stout BYU front seven is anchored by linebacker Francis Bernard and defensive end Harvey Langi (24 tackles). This group specializes in getting to the opposing quarterback in a hurry, as they have generated eight sacks this season. Spartan Kodi Kieler, who has been announced the new starting center, along with Brian Allen will try to maintain their ground.
They should have a decisive advantage over Michigan State’s inexperienced and discombobulated offensive line that is shuffling around some pieces in order to find an adequate combination. Not to mention the fact that the Spartans have been plagued with serious penalty issues that have haunted them since the beginning of the year.
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe Michigan State will display a good performance with an abundance of playmakers on both sides of the ball. They will showcase plenty of resiliency and determination, but they don’t stack up well with BYU on paper. The Cougars have the edge in all three facets of play and have a ton of home run potential for big plays on offense and defense.
BYU has a multi-dimensional offense, finding success with their balanced philosophy as Hill and Williams equally contributing while grinding it out. They should have their way with the Spartan defense by spreading out the field, which should favor them on the perimeter. A major key for the Cougars is to use their hurry-up tempo approach. The Spartans will have low stamina if extra rushers cannot get to Hill on time and are unable to get off the field on third down.
Meanwhile, the loaded defenses are pretty even in terms of talent and depth. BYU’s front seven is the difference maker with more veterans and less injuries. They should be busy in the backfield facing a sloppy offensive line currently experimenting by shifting guys around.
The biggest key for Michigan State is for the line to step up big time by protecting O’Connor and moving the ball methodically downfield while controlling the clock. Easier said than done, of course.
MSU is currently on a 11-game winning streak over non-conference foes at Spartan Stadium. For BYU, they claim a 1-1 record against Big Ten teams last year, beating Nebraska on a Hail Mary 33-28 and getting shut out by Michigan, 31-0.
The Cougars hope that their return to the state of Michigan is a more pleasant experience this time around. Kickoff is at 3:30 ET on ABC.