SITE: H.H.H. Metrodome (64,172/artificial turf) KICKOFF: 12:02 p.m. EDT
LAST WEEK: No. 21 Michigan State won at Illinois, 49-14; No. 17 Minnesota lost to No. 20 Michigan, 38-35.
ALL TIME: Spartans lead the all-time series 23-14
LAST MEETING: Terry Jackson II and Thomas Tapeh combined for 385 rushing yards in the Golden Gophers' 28-7 victory over Michigan State.
(EAST LANSING) - The stakes get a little bit higher for the Michigan State Spartans each week. This week MSU (6-1 ranked #15) heads into Minneapolis to take on a Golden Gophers squad (6-1) that is attempting to recover from a last minute loss to the Michigan Wolverines.
The Gophers held a commanding 35-14 lead before Michigan stormed back in the fourth quarter scoring 24 unanswered points to pull off a 38-35 upset over the heartbroken Minnesota team. Still the Gophers have vowed not to let the setback ruin their season. "It was an important game, but it was one game," Minnesota offensive guard Joe Quinn said. "There's five left and we feel we have a good chance if we take each game one at a time and just win out."
The Spartans feel the same way. MSU would be undefeated if not for a last second collapse against Louisiana Tech led by Heisman candidate Luke McCown. With Jeff Smoker knocked out of the game with an injury, MSU was unable to move the football and Tech scored with less than a minute remaining to upset the Spartans 19-17. The Spartans rebounded with a pounding of then top-20 ranked Notre Dame.
Defending the Gophers
This game could be a case of the movable object vs. the resistible force. While MSU at one time ranked second in the nation is rushing defense, it saw that ranking plummet to seventh after Indiana out rushed MSU 155 to 131.
This week MSU will get the acid test against the Gophers (rank #2 in the nation in rushing offense) who rushed for an astounding 424 yards led by Marion Barber, III with 197 and quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq with 106 yards on just nine carries. Talented freshman Lawrence Maroney added 81 on 9 carries while fullback Thomas Tapeh, a native of Monrovia, Liberia, chipped in with 31 more on 12 carries.
"This is a team that's going to run the ball 50 times maybe," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "And we haven't seen that kind of attack all year." While MSU's national rank may be lofty, they haven't faced a team that really knows how to run the ball they way the Gopher know how to run the ball.
The key to winning for MSU will be to slow the Minnesota rushing game and force Abdul Kahliq to throw the football. Although he ranks first in the conference and seventh nationally in passing efficiency, Abdul-Khaliq has shown a propensity to turn the football over in pressure situations.
MSU would love nothing more than to contain Minnesota's potent run game and put the ballgame on Abdul-Khaliq's arm. Last year, MSU was unable to stop Minnesota's rushing attack as the Gophers gashed the green and white for 390 total yards rushing.
Minnesota loves to block the opposing front four using a zone blocking scheme that allows their sophomore center, Greg Eslinger, to get into the secondary and take on the opposing team's middle linebacker. Michigan State can't allow Eslinger to get to linebacker Mike Labinjo. Defensive end Greg Taplin and defensive tackle Matthias Askew (both with six sacks) need to be a disruptive factor up front to keep the Gophers run game from rolling.
Taplin is questionable for this one. "He'll get a couple more treatments today and they'll look at him again tomorrow, but I still think (Taplin is) questionable at best," head coach John L. Smith said. "If it's loose at all, he can't play - if it's tight and sore, then he can play." Spartans head coach John L. Smith has told the defensive line they will need to be a factor upfront against the huge Gopher front.
We tried to put a lot of pressure on our (defensive) line," Smith said. "We told them, 'You guys have got to carry the load. We've got a little depth up front and we're going to rely on you guys to carry us until we can pick it up in the secondary.' I think that has taken place now."
The Spartans will need to spy on Abdul-Khaliq to prevent him from running wild from passing formations. Senior "bandit" Monquiz Wedlow could get that task or it could fall to linebacker Ronald Stanley to get spy duty on the speedy Gophers quarterback. "He's got too much athleticism in one person," said MSU linebacker Ronald Stanley. "He's a gifted quarterback."
On the few occasions that Abdul-Khaliq actually does pass the football, he loves to look for 6' 6" tight end Ben Utecht, one of the nation's top tight end prospects. Fortunately for Michigan State safety Eric Smith is one of their top defensive players and free safety Jason Harmon was last week's Big Ten defensive player of the month with ten tackles and a forced fumble which he returned for a touchdown.
MSU is going to need points, and plenty of them to hold off the Gophers. Fortunately for the Spartans, passing defense isn't a strong suit of Minnesota as Michigan proved last week. Minnesota ranks 23rd nationally against the pass despite playing the murderer's row of Tulsa, Troy State, Ohio and Louisiana-Lafayette in its first four games. When Minnesota finally faced a team that was proficient in the passing game, it fell apart when it mattered.
The Spartans want to do what Michigan did in the fourth quarter for the entire game and the play keep away from the Gophers who will attempt to run the ball down the Spartans throat.
With three receivers (Agim Shabaj, Kyle Brown and Zeihl Kavanaught) slowed by some sort of injury, MSU will likely look to emerging big play receiver Matt Trannon to make an impact. Trannon had his best game of the season against the Indiana Hoosiers (6 catches for 82 yards). Jaren Hayes got six catches and a touchdown, while tight end Jason Randall chipped in with four catches and a TD. Randall has moved ahead of all-America candidate Eric Knott who had 3 catches for 26 yards.
MSU hopes to hit Minnesota for big plays using the sprint draw and flares out of the backfield to running back Hayes. Hayes got just 10 carries for 58 yards while freshman DeAndra Cobb added 47 yards. The Spartans rushed for 131 total yards. MSU hopes to better that against the Gophers but primarily will go for broke through the air.
One area MSU clearly has the advantage is on special teams. MSU's Brandon Fields (top ranked punter in the Big Ten) should have a field day kicking inside the Metrodome along with Dave Rayner (seventh in the NCAA in field goals per game).
This figures to be a high scoring game with lots of big plays and a few turnovers. While both teams have committed eight turnovers, MSU has forced 20 and if that trend continues on Saturday it will put the Spartans in the winner's circle.
MSU has the momentum and confidence of winning both at home and on the road, while Minnesota failed its only test to date. If the Spartans hang around they win it late which would give them their best start (7-1) since 1966.
Michigan State 42 - Minnesota 37