As I often like to do, I have contacted one of my SBN sister blogs to provide a little color on our upcoming opponent. The Only Colors was kind enough to answer a few questions for me regarding the MSU Spartans and what we can expect this week.
TDG - Michigan State gave Iowa all they could handle but obviously came up short in the end. Any chance of a hangover this week after dropping what would have been a huge win for the program? Or do you think this will be the second week in a row the Gophers get to face an angry team looking for someone to punish for the injustice of the previous week?
TOC - The possibility is always there, I suppose, particularly because the loss to Iowa was such a devastating one; it ended in an agonizing fashion, and it effectively killed our hopes of contending for the conference championship-a nasty combination. But I do think that this team is less likely to fold up than previous MSU teams. Our worst performance of the season was the Wisconsin game, and we came back the next week and played very well against Michigan. Of the two scenarios you detail, I think the latter is more likely. This is a team that has played far better than its record indicates, and I think our guys will realize how important this game is to their chances of making any bowl game, let alone a good one. Then again, the last time we had a very difficult loss (Notre Dame) we went out the next week and played very poorly at Wisconsin (though I think the Badgers are clearly better than the Gophers are).
TDG - This game is pretty big for both teams. For Minnesota it likely means the difference between 7-5 and 6-6. For Michigan State it is the difference between 5-3 in conference and 4-4. And with head to head implications it may be huge for final bowl selection. Is this game being met with the same sort of "bigness" for Michigan State or this just a conference game against a bottom half team that should be a Spartan win?
TOC -It's hard to say. As you mention, this is a very important game for our team's bowl hopes; I think our team is more talented than the Gophers are-particularly with Eric Decker finished for the season-and when you're trying to dig yourself out of a hole, as we our team is, it's absolutely necessary to lock up the games you should win. Nonetheless, among MSU fans, the buzz around this game is close to nonexistent. That's partially because everyone is still dazed from last Saturday night, but I think it's also just like you said: Minnesota is perceived as a lower-tier conference team, and one which we don't have any particular animosity toward. Add in the fact that we haven't played since 2006 (so there's no "revenge" factor for either team), and you get a game which is largely getting a shrug of the shoulders from the fanbase. I just hope that the team isn't quite so complacent.
TDG - One area that has really crippled the Gopher's this year is penalties. Surprisingly the Spartans actually have more penalties on the season. Has this been a problem on the season or have many been overcome and haven't been a huge factor?
TOC -A little of both? The penalties have hurt at times, and there have been far too many indiscipline penalties-15 yarders which simply shouldn't have happened. One penalty in particular, a controversial personal foul call on Jeremy Ware in the fourth quarter against Iowa, had an appreciable effect on the game's result. But, ultimately, I don't think they're responsible for our struggles, and they don't concern me overwhelmingly.
TDG - The Spartan offense scored more points against Iowa (which was their lowest point total of the season) than the Gopher offense has scored in 9+ quarters. What is the secret to their success?
TOC -A highly effective passing game. Kirk Cousins, our first-year starting quarterback, is a very efficient passer, and he has a large array of capable receivers to throw to. Blair White is the best of the bunch: he's extremely reliable, has an amazing knack for converting third downs, and has become a legitimate deep threat this year. Additionally, he's really ripped up mediocre defenses this year, including a phenomenal 12-186-2 performance against Northwestern. Our other receivers include B.J. Cunningham, who is very effective operating near the sidelines; Mark Dell, who, unfortunately, has been nearly MIA the past few weeks, but is capable of blowing up at a moment's notice; Keshawn Martin, who is actually more of a threat to run end-arounds rather than to catch passes (though when he does, it's usually for big yardage: he's averaging nearly 22 yards per catch); and two tight ends-Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum-who are very capable receivers. It's a lot for any defense to keep track of.
What hasn't worked is the run game, which has struggled throughout the season and has seemed to regress even further the past two weeks against a poor Northwestern defense and an Iowa defense which has been, at times, vulnerable to the run.
TDG - Only two common opponents thus far between our two mediocre to above mediocre teams (sorry, but I think it's true). The Gophers beat Northwestern by 11 and lost to Wisconsin by 3, the Spartans beat Northwestern by 10 and lost to Wisconsin by 8 (and it wasn't that close). Seems like a slam dunk that Minnesota wins this one, right
TOC -Yep, just like how Ole Miss won the national championship last year, right? Hooray for the transitive property! Ha.
TDG - In all seriousness, is there anything that worries you about this game. Any particular match-up that the Gophers may be able to exploit all the way to a win?
TOC -Sure. Our inability to win close games has put us in such a big hole that every game from here on out is crucial, particularly the very winnable ones-a loss in any of them, and we essentially have to play for our bowl lives against Penn State in the last week of the season. So, the baseline of nervousness is very high, and combined with the unfamiliarity factor-that we're playing in a place we've obviously never played before, against a team we haven't played in two years-yeah, I'm a bit anxious.
In terms of match-ups, if I was Minnesota, I would completely disrespect our running game, and focus solely on the pass-both through getting pressure on Cousins, and trying to lock down our receivers. If you can do that, you've got a decent shot at winning, because quite honestly, we haven't proven the ability to win through rushing the ball.\
Nonetheless, I like our chances here. I think we'll be able to score a fair number of points against Minnesota, and your offense, which hasn't played well the past few weeks, obviously, should be enormously hobbled by the loss of Decker. Furthermore, our defense has played very, very well in non-two-minute-offense situations since the early season debacles against Notre Dame, et. al., and I don't think you'll be close enough near the end of the fourth quarter for the end-of-game touchdown we'll inevitably give up to really be an issue. But, if the Gophers can hang around enough to have a chance to win it at the end of the game . . . well, our track record isn't very good in those situations.
Thanks a ton to Ben for taking the time to answer my lame questions. He is obviously delusional about Saturday's game, but he's entitled to his bias opinion. Be sure to check out The Only Colors to get all the info you can handle on the Spartans.