Can Indiana keep Javon Ringer under wraps? – P.J. Hill and Mike Hart might be the most recognizable names among Big Ten tailbacks, but Ringer might be the tailback that concerns opposing defensive coordinators the most.
Why? Because no tailback has proven to be more capable of producing big plays than Ringer. The 5-9, 200-pounder was averaging 7.1 yards/carry a year ago before suffering a season-ending knee injury, and he's equaled that average this season while ranking fourth in the Big Ten with 121.5 yards/game. Ringer is the Spartans' second-leading receiver as well (20 receptions), and nearly one out of every 10 of his touches this season has resulted in a gain of 20 yards or more (eight rushes, four receptions).
That was never more apparent than last week, when he broke free for touchdown runs of 47 and 80 yards against Northwestern to highlight his 12-carry, 185-yard effort. It was also his third straight game of at least 140 yards rushing.
"Ringer is really good," said IU Coach Bill Lynch. "I think he is along the lines of (Illinois running back Rashard) Mendenhall, a really good Big Ten back. He has quickness, breaks tackles and is a physical kid."
For Indiana to win in East Lansing, it's going to need to keep Ringer from hitting home runs in the ground game. He'll get his yards, but he can't be ripping off huge chunks of yardage at a time like he did a week ago against Northwestern.
How will the Hoosier corners match-up with Michigan State's physical wideouts? - Ringer might be the Spartans' best at producing big plays, but Coach Mark Dantonio's team has some wide receivers that can do the same.
Headlining that list is Devin Thomas, a 6-2, 215-pounder who leads the team in receptions (25) and ranks third in the Big Ten in receiving yards (542). Nine of his 25 receptions have been for at least 20 yards, and his 21.7 yards/reception leads the Big Ten as well. He's capable of out-running corners or breaking a tackle, so he'll be a load for Tracy Porter to handle.
But Thomas isn't the only MSU wideout with good size and strength. Freshman Mark Dell (6-2, 185) and junior Deon Curry (6-1, 208) will also be targets of quarterback Brian Hoyer, as will tight end Kellen Davis (6-6, 246).
"They have physical receivers," Lynch said. "They have had big strong receivers in the past. Sometimes they have had big games throwing the ball and sometimes they have big games running the ball."
The Spartans' focus figures to be on the establishing Ringer and the run, but will likely set up some opportunities in the passing game as well. It will be imperative that Porter and Leslie Majors do a good job of wrapping up Michigan State's wideouts to keep positive passing plays from becoming touchdowns due to a blown assignment or missed tackle.
Can Indiana win the special teams battle? – The last time Indiana played in East Lansing, the Spartans were dealing with the fallout of a three-game losing streak in the Big Ten. A 4-0 start had given way to an unforeseen skid, capped by a 49-14 blowout loss at home to Northwestern and quarterback Brett Basanez who threw for 331 yards and accounted for four touchdowns.
Sound familiar? Many of the players' and coaches' names have changed, but the 2005 season was eerily similar to where the Spartans find themselves now. As was the case in 2005, the Spartans started the season 4-0, highlighted by a win over Notre Dame. That quick start gave way to Big Ten struggles, with back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern. This time around it was a Northwestern quarterback named C.J. Bacher who picked the Spartan secondary apart, and he did it to the tune of 520 yards and five touchdowns in Saturday's 48-41 Wildcat win.
But Michigan State enjoyed a momentarily reprieve during its '05 season against IU, whipping the Hoosiers 46-15 in East Lansing. The biggest play of that game was most likely the very first one, when Demond Williams fielded Austin Starr's game-opening kickoff and returned it 98 yards for a score. That play breathed some life into Coach John L. Smith's team, which quickly opened a 23-2 lead by the start of the second quarter and cruised to its final win of the regular season.
That's the kind of play that Michigan State could use again to erase some of the memories of a couple of recent heartbreaking losses during the last two weeks. And much to the Hoosiers' chagrin MSU has a player more than capable of breaking a big return. Devin Thomas is among the national leaders with 31.5 average on kickoffs, and he's recently added punt returns to his duties as well.
Indiana can't allow Thomas to break a big return, and in fact needs to win the special teams battle Saturday. In a game that figures to be closely contested throughout, a big return or a blocked kick could give one of the teams the lift it needs to come away with a win.
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What's coming up:
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday - Four Players to Know
On Wednesday – Three Big Concerns
On Thursday – Two Key Match-Ups
On Friday – One Bold Prediction
MICHIGAN STATE: Three Days and Counting
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