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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Michigan State - Opponent Preview

The Spartans present a tough road test for the Gophers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Akron at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a dominant run through their non-conference schedule, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-0) head to East Lansing for their first matchup against the Michigan State Spartans (2-1) since 2017.

Can Michigan State score on offense?

If Minnesota’s secondary is indeed the strength of their defense, we’ll find out for certain over the next two weeks against perhaps the two best passing attacks they’ll face all season.

Even with top wide receiver Jayden Reed sidelined against Washington, Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne threw for 323 passing yards and three touchdowns against a Huskies defense that was allowing 121.5 passing yards per game (albeit after games against Kent State and Portland State). Trailing 22-0 in the second quarter, the Spartans essentially abandoned the run at that point and put the game on Thorne’s throwing shoulder. To his credit, he did his best to keep Michigan State in the game, but the one-dimensional offense also allowed Washington defenders to pin their ears back and take their best shots at Thorne.

The Gophers’ secondary will have their hands full against the Spartans, with or without Reed. Wide receivers Tre Mosley and Keon Coleman have each caught three touchdown passes this season, and 6’4”, 250-lb. tight end Daniel Barker emerged as a go-to target for Thorne against the Huskies, recording seven receptions for 69 yards. When you factor in Reed, who is an All-American at wide receiver, this group presents quite a test for the Minnesota defensive backs.

The secondary can’t do it alone, either. The Gophers’ pass rush needs to show up against Michigan State and consistently apply pressure to Thorne in the pocket. The Spartans’ offensive line did not look good against the Huskies’ defensive front. Washington only registered two sacks, but Thorne took a lot of hits that don’t show up in the box score.

On the ground, Michigan State no longer has the luxury of handing the ball off to former Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III. Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger and Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard are their top running backs now and both have been solid for the most part, though the pair combined for 30 yards on 17 carries against the Huskies.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Last year, in Mel Tucker’s second year at the helm, the Spartans won 11 games and finished the season ranked in the Top 10 in both polls, earning Tucker a 10-year, $95 million contract extension. Hidden — perhaps in plain sight, if you were to ask a Michigan State fan — amid that 11-win campaign was the fact that the Spartans fielded the worst pass defense in the country.

Dead last (130th), surrendering an average of 324.8 passing yards per game.

In the offseason, Tucker himself took over as cornerbacks coach, taking a hands-on approach to improving a secondary that returns all five starters from a season ago.

But in Michigan State’s first loss of the season, Washington effectively buried any hope that Tucker had orchestrated a turnaround, torching the Spartans’ secondary to the tune of 397 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air. Of course, the defensive backs don’t shoulder all of the blame. Michigan State’s pass rush was non-existent, failing to register a sack or even a quarterback hurry as Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. picked them apart.

However, I don’t know how much of Washington’s blueprint Minnesota can follow. The Gophers are going to want to run the ball, and Michigan State is tough against the run, allowing an average of 89.7 rushing yards per game. As vulnerable as the Spartans’ secondary is, I don’t see Tanner Morgan dropping back for 40 pass attempts and slinging the football around the field. He will also be without top target Chris Autman-Bell, who has been the Gophers’ best vertical threat.

Then again, this is a P.J. Fleck offense, and the first stat he looks at after each game is the time of possession. He wants sustained scoring drives that eat up the clock, limiting the Spartans’ opportunities on offense. To do that, all Minnesota really needs Morgan to do is keep the Michigan State defense honest and make sure the Gophers have a numbers advantage of up front. If Minnesota’s offensive line can consistently win at the line of scrimmage and create lanes for Mohamed Ibrahim to run, I like their chances of winning this game.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

My heart is telling me Minnesota. My head is telling me Michigan State. Screw it. This is a Gophers site, after all. Minnesota 24, Michigan State 21.