Minnesota's games against Michigan State have been very similar to the games against Northwestern in that they've pretty much all been fairly close regardless of talent disparity. That disparity was fairly evident last year as the Spartans outgained the Gophers 421 to 96 yet the score was 16-10 headed into the fourth quarter. While the Gophers will again face a stout Spartan defense, the Spartan offense has some major questions to answer though that didn't stop them from gaining 421 yards against the Gophers last year.
The Spartan Offense:
The Spartans only have to deal with the loss of one key guy on offense, but it's a big one. Leveon Bell is gone after running for 266 yards against the Gophers last year. Bell was drafted in the second round and was an early season favorite to win the Heisman. The Spartans do return two QB's who saw the field last year and there was a bit of a question as to who would start the year, but senior Andrew Maxwell was named the starter for the opener after starting every game last year. Maxwell did not have a great year and had just 13 TD passes to 9 INT's. Maxwell was also pulled at times in favor of Conor Cook who led MSU's final drive in their bowl game that resulted in a game winning field goal. While it seems fairly likely both will play at times, big numbers are not expected out of the Spartan quarterbacks. One reason why it will be tough for the Spartan QB's to put up big numbers is the lack of an established running back. Leveon Bell ran for 1800 yards last year, the second leading back had 108 yards and also graduated. The leading returning rusher for the Spartans is projected starter, Nick Hill who had just 61 yards on 21 carries last year. MSU will likely see a massive drop off in yards by their leading rusher but should still get decent yardage as a unit though there will still be a decent drop off. One reason why QB Andrew Maxwell struggled so much last year was because his receivers just couldn't hold onto the ball. As the season progressed the Spartans got better and they lose only one key WR (who was drafted in the 4th round) so they should see improvement but this is still not a unit that will strike fear into opposing defenses. One reason for hope on the Spartan offense is the offensive line which returns 97 starts. Much like the Gophers, the Spartans were hit hard with injuries along the offensive line last year which has helped build depth and give some of the younger guys experience. They do lose an Honorable Mention All Big Ten RG in Chris McDonald and a backup, but this unit should be better than last year's.
The Spartan Defense:
The Gophers were not the only team to struggle to move the ball against Michigan State last year as the Spartans finished 8th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game. The defensive line was a key part of that, but they lose two starters (one of them being William Gholston who was drafted in the 4th round) so they will have a tough time coming close to ranking 8th in the nation once again. The strength of the Spartan defense over the past few years has been the front seven and the linebacking unit will likely keep that going again this year as they return both Denicos Allen, who had 11 sacks last year, and Max Bullough who led the team in tackles. While they do lose one starter, this unit is once again one of the best in the conference and the country. Not only was Michigan State stout against the run last year, they also shut down opponents passing attacks. The Spartans finished 9th in the country in passing yards surrendered per game. They do lose a 1st Team All Big Ten corner, but they should be quite good yet again as that's their only major loss.
3 Keys to the Game:
1. Do something on offense. The Gophers were absolutely horrible on offense against the Spartans last year. The lone TD the Gophers scored was on an interception that Aaron Hill took in for a TD. If the Gophers are able to put some points on the board, the Spartans offense is weak enough that it would be a game.
2. Stop the run. The Spartans are not a great passing team. While they will likely make some strides there the bread and butter of this team will likely be pounding the rock. If the Gophers can shut that down or at least limit it, then this could be a tight game.
3. Time of Possession. The Spartans controlled the ball for nearly twice as long as the Gophers last year. While the Gophers do finally have some depth, if the defense is on the field for that long, they're going to get tired.
While the Spartan offense doesn't frighten me and the Gophers offense should be improved, I still think the Spartan's D will still be too much for the Gophers and Michigan State wins a close, low scoring game. Michigan State 24 Minnesota 14
Brice Marich also contributed to this report