Gophers First Of MSU's Tough Stretch

While the Gophers are trying to rebound from a tough loss, the Spartans are preparing for their series of challenging contests, starting with Minnesota.

The Spartans are about to go through the Big Ten's version of the gauntlet.

In successive games, John L. Smith's team will play Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Spartans are 2-1 in the Big Ten, but staying near the top is going to be an arduous task.

But they might be catching Minnesota at the right time.

The Gophers had been pointing all year toward Michigan and getting a giant monkey off their backs. Minnesota played solidly at Ann Arbor and had a 24-20 lead late in the fourth quarter and appeared to be on their way to their first victory in the series since 1986. However, Michigan scored with 1:57 remaining and heartbreak enveloped the Minnesota locker room.

A year ago, Minnesota was equally devastated after another loss to Michigan and they followed that with an upset loss to ... Michigan State. Could the Spartans pull of another upset?

Last year's win came at the Metrodome and they get the Gophers at Spartan Stadium this week. However, if Michigan State has any chance to come up with the win, they must do a much better job defending the run. Minnesota has one of the best running attacks in the country with Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber, and the Spartans give up 174.3 rushing yards per game, which is ninth in the Big Ten.

If the Gophers are focused, they can't do anything but run all over the Spartans. But if they are still feeling sorry for themselves after the late loss to the Wolverines, Michigan State just may be able to take advantage.


SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Michigan State is beginning to find the semblance of a solid running game. They rank second in the Big Ten with 194.3 rushing yards per game. QB Drew Stanton is a very capable runner, while RBs DeAndra Cobb and Jaren Hayes are also threats. Stanton is also showing development as a passer, completing 74-of-120 passes for 735 yards. If the Spartan receivers can hold on to the ball — they had eight drops in a loss to Iowa Oct. 2 — they have a chance to cause problems for the Minnesota defense.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The basics of the game are blocking and tackling. According to head coach John L. Smith, the Spartans are struggling badly in the latter category. They gave up 188 rushing yards to Illinois backup RB Pierre Thomas. "Our tackling was horrendous," Smith said. "We have to get better soon."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it's going to be a real deciding factor in where this program is headed, to tell you the truth. Because we know we're going to face adversity at times, it's just a matter of how we deal with it. I feel real good about the way this team is playing right now and how we feel." — Spartan QB Drew Stanton on the upcoming four games against Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin.


THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Michigan State, Oct. 16 — The Gophers are loaded on offense and lead the Big Ten in rushing with an average of 309 rushing yards per game. The Spartans have tackled very poorly, so Minnesota could have a huge game. On the other hand, Minnesota is coming off yet another heartbreaking loss to Michigan and they may not be ready from an emotional standpoint.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: WR Agim Shabaj — He has been troubled by a sprained ankle and the flu this season, but he had five catches for 56 yards and a touchdown vs. Illinois. When healthy, Shabaj is a dangerous receiver who moves very quickly into and out of his cuts.

LB Ronald Stanley — After a very impressive performance against Illinois — 12 tackles (8 solo), a sack and a forced fumble — Stanley will have to be at his best against Minnesota's outstanding running attack. If Stanley can't make a couple of big hits early, Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber could have a great game.

ROSTER REPORT: Offensive lineman Stefon Wheeler (ankle) and defensive lineman Clifton Ryan (leg) are questionable for Saturday's game against Minnesota. Linebacker Seth Mitchell (knee) is expected to miss the remainder of the season. Defensive lineman Daryl Melvin (personal) has left the team.

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