Ahead of Saturday’s matchup between the Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-0) and the Michigan State Spartans (2-1) in East Lansing, we were able to connect with Ryan O’Bleness, managing editor of The Only Colors, and he was kind enough to field our questions.
The Daily Gopher: With one loss, Michigan State went from a No. 11 ranking to tumbling out of the AP Top 25. What did that loss to Washington tell you about this Spartans team and has it led you to reset your expectations the rest of the way?
Ryan O’Bleness: The road game against Washington was always going to be the first real test for Michigan State and show where the Spartans truly stand in 2022. Unfortunately, MSU did not pass that test and left Seattle with more question marks moving forward than anything else. Although Michigan State — and the Big Ten in general — has historically struggled on the West Coast in regular season games, MSU fans were hoping for a better showing.
The three biggest questions coming into the 2022 season for Michigan State arguably were:
- “Can Michigan State improve its dead-last-ranked secondary from last season?”
- “Can Michigan State’s offensive line hold up after losing several key players?”
- “Can Michigan State replace Kenneth Walker III’s production?”
Through the first two games against Mid-American Conference opponents (Western Michigan and Akron), some of those concerns seemed to be quelled. The defense was allowing just 198 passing yards per game, the rushing game looked strong with the running back duo of Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard (more on that below), and the offensive line, though not spectacular, was holding up just fine. But again, the competition level was weak. Washington was going to be the barometer for how good Michigan State actually is this season.
Then came last Saturday’s game against Washington and it was disastrous from the start. The Huskies scored on the first possession of the game and never looked back, jumping out to a 22-0 lead and taking a 29-8 lead into the locker rooms at halftime. Michigan State ran just six plays in the first quarter. On third down of MSU’s first possession, there was a miscommunication between quarterback Payton Thorne and Broussard on a handoff that caused a six-yard loss. On Michigan State’s next drive, Broussard slipped in the end zone and gave up a safety.
Michigan State was dominated in the trenches on both sides of the ball. MSU’s offensive line was bullied all game long, allowing a negative-half-yard (-0.5) per rush before contact, while pass protection had Thorne pressured often throughout the night, and the defense could not generate pressure or sacks. The Spartans’ passing defense was decimated by Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. — who threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns with ease — and looked just as bad or worse than the 2021 secondary that allowed about 325 yards per game.
To the team’s credit, the Spartans never quit and continued to fight in the 39-28 loss, and Thorne and wide receiver Keon Coleman had standout performances. But the three questions above are still just as concerning, if not more so, for Michigan State compared to the preseason. The passing defense is still the largest concern moving forward, followed by the offensive line. I truly don’t think Michigan State is as bad as it played against Washington (and Washington deserves a lot of credit for its performance), and I expect the Spartans to improve moving forward, but the team I saw last Saturday showed me that it was not nearly as good as most fans were hoping/expecting.
I would say after the performance on the road against Washington, expectations should be lowered for this team. My preseason prediction was 9-3 with an appearance in a good bowl game, but there was a lot of chatter that Michigan State could compete for a Big Ten title in 2022 (although I didn’t buy that personally). I still think this could be an eight-win, or nine-win team still, but it doesn’t look like a team that will be competing for a Big Ten East Division title, let alone a conference championship, so fans need to temper expectations moving forward.
TDG: I read on your site that there were questions about quarterback Payton Thorne’s performance through the first two week games of the season. Did he put any of those concerns to rest with his three touchdown performance against the Huskies?
RO: Despite the loss, Thorne had a nice bounce-back performance against Washington following two subpar games against the lower-level MAC opponents. For whatever reason — early season jitters perhaps — Thorne did not look sharp in the games against the Broncos and Zips. He completed just 57.7 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and three interceptions through the first two games, often sailing balls high or missing throws you would expect him to hit.
Thorne was well aware of his struggles, though, calling his interceptions “unacceptable,” and vowing to figure things out. To his credit, he appeared to do that against Washington. However, the defense put him in a huge hole early, his offensive line did him little favors, and his running backs were ineffective. Still, you saw how much of a competitor Thorne is against the Huskies.
He completed 30 of 42 passes (71.4 percent) for 323 yards and three touchdowns. He completed his first 10 passes of the night, and 14 of his first 15. It was even more impressive that he did this without his top receiver and lifelong friend, Jayden Reed, and faced a good amount of pressure from the UW defense. Thorne formed a nice connection with Coleman, as the sophomore receiver caught nine passes for 116 yard and two touchdowns. Thorne did throw an interception, but he was under duress, backed up into his own end zone, and was just trying to make a play in a desperate situation.
Michigan State's Payton Thorne played well in the loss to Washington.— Ryan O'Bleness (@ryanobleness) September 18, 2022
Despite facing pressure for much of the night, he completed 71.4 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and one interception. He also completed his first 10 passes of the game, and 14 of his first 15. pic.twitter.com/8byif8vpAM
Unfortunately, by the time the offense actually got going, it was too little too late, With that said, Thorne’s demeanor and attitude was to “keep chopping” as head coach Mel Tucker likes to say, and Thorne and his teammates never gave up or folded during the game.
Although there will still likely be some inconsistencies, I believe Thorne’s play will continue to ascend as the season moves forward.
TDG: How much does Michigan State miss Kenneth Walker III? The ground game just does not seem the same with transfer running backs Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard.
RO: As mentioned, how Michigan State would fare without Kenenth Walker III was a big question mark entering the season. Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) both transferred in during the offseason and looked like a strong rushing duo through the first two games — the pair combined for 362 yards and six touchdowns, while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Berger has drawn the start in each of the first three games, but Broussard has been working right behind him, as the two have formed a solid one-two punch outside of the Washington game.
However, the Washington game showed that this running game might have a long way to go. Against the Huskies, Berger carried the ball 13 times for 27 yards (2.07 yards per carry), while Broussard had four attempts for three yards (0.75 yards per carry). Broussard also had the aforementioned miscommunication with Thorne, the blunder where he slipped in the end zone to give up a safety, and he took a couple of big shots on kick returns. Fellow running back Elijah Collins scored a one-yard touchdown for MSU.
It was a rough day for the running backs against Washington, especially for Broussard. Still, I am not sure how much is on the backs versus the offensive line. Again, the offensive line was dominated by Washington’s defensive front and didn’t even allow the running backs to get a half-yard of positive yardage before facing contact. I am not sure what they are expected to do in that case.
The truth is that the Washington game truly illustrated how much Walker carried this team last year. Walker hid a lot of deficiencies on this team in 2021, including average-to-below-average offensive line play and the secondary’s horrendous campaign — it’s why MSU went 11-2 last year despite those issues. His ability to pick up the bulk of his yardage after contact, make something out of nothing and simply take over any game played a huge role in why the Spartans won so many games. So, yeah, saying Walker is missed would be an understatement, but he made the right decision going to the NFL.
The thing is, on an individual level, neither Berger nor Broussard were ever going to match Walker’s production. That would be unfair to expect as Walker was a generational talent. The hope is that together they will match and exceed it. I think the Washington game might be an anomaly, but we’ll see how the running game fares against Minnesota this week.
TDG: The Spartans’ defense ranked dead last in the country in pass defense last year. Head coach Mel Tucker even took over as cornerbacks coach in the offseason. Yet the Washington game had to have the feel of a recurring nightmare for Michigan State fans. What are the root causes of their defensive woes against the pass?
WASHINGTON 39, MICHIGAN STATE 28— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) September 19, 2022
* This isn't Michael Penix Jr. returning to pre-injury form -- he was NEVER this good pre-injury. New level.
* MSU averaging negative yards before contact is a very foreboding sign. pic.twitter.com/VI52d3uSQC
That is the question. Is it the scheme itself under defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton? Michigan State plays a 4-2-5 base defense, but often plays its cornerbacks several yards off of the wide receivers pre-snap. According to Bill Connelly’s tweet above, the Spartans played zone coverage on 55 percent of Penix’s dropbacks (22 plays) and got absolutely toasted. Penix threw for 281 yards, had a completion rate of 68.2 percent, averaged 18.7 yards per completion, had a success rate of 63.6 percent and an explosive play rate of 31.8 percent. Those stats are telling. It obviously wasn’t working.
Is it the personnel? I mean some of it has to do with the players making bad reads, having bad technique, not lining up properly, not being disciplined, or maybe just being athletically overmatched. However, I struggle to believe that Michigan State doesn’t have the talent in the defensive backfield to play against top-level competition with guys like Ameer Speed, Charles Brantley, Ronald William II, Kendell Brooks, and others. Even Chester Kimbrough — who was picked on by Washington and had an awful game — played quite well through the first two games. Angelo Grose has struggled in coverage at safety, but has made big plays in the past. But head coach Mel Tucker said there would be some personnel changes this week, and those changes likely start with the secondary.
Is it the preparation throughout the week? I highly doubt that, as Tucker leads a detailed-oriented program and has intense practices. But it’s hard to emulate playing games on the West Coast before arriving there, and once the players arrive there, their bodies need to adjust to the jet lag, fatigue, and time zone changes.
Is it injuries? Team leader and safety Xavier Henderson has been out since the Western Michigan game, and versatile linebacker Darius Snow (who is a former safety/nickel back) was lost for the season in the WMU game, so having them against Washngton would have been helpful, but I doubt they would have made a huge difference. Defensive tackle Jacob Slade also missed the Washington game, and while he doesn’t have much to do with pass coverage, his presence would have likely meant more wins in the trenches, and thus a better pass rush, but again, would not have moved the needle much.
I am honestly not sure what the main cause is. Probably some combination of all of the above, but the bottom line is that both the players and coaches need to make serious adjustments in the way they are doing things as soon as possible.
TDG: Michigan State bet big on Mel Tucker last year, signing him to a 10-year, $95 million contract extension. Did Spartans fans have any reservations about an extension of that size after only one good season with the program?
RO: I think the fan base was generally really positive about the extension. Mel Tucker quickly won over Michigan State fans by building a culture of accountability and expediting the rebuilding process through quick results on the field. At the time, there was a lot of chatter that schools like LSU would go after Tucker, so the Michigan State athletics department quickly sprung into action and got a deal done, much to the joy of the fans. Tucker has also made a huge impact in the transfer portal and in high school recruiting, and has made Michigan State a national brand once again.
Of course, you look at that price tag and say “Wow, that’s a lot of money. There better be results.” Obviously, if you’re a coach making an average of $9.5 million per year, the expectation is going to be to compete for conference and eventually national championships. I think it is important to note that Tucker’s extension was at least in part (if not the majority) funded by very wealthy private donors like Mat Ishbia and Steve St. Andre. While I don’t know how much they donated specifically, Michigan State’s athletics department itself is not footing the entire bill here.
After the performance against Washington, though, it is time for Tucker to earn that paycheck and make the adjustments necessary to compete against the top-level schools. It’s still too early in his tenure to expect actual championships at this point, in my opinion, but that needs to be the expectation sooner rather than later for Tucker with that kind of contract.
TDG: What is your final score prediction?
RO: I see this as a tough game that will be close throughout, but Michigan State plays really well at home (MSU has won eight games in a row at Spartan Stadium, dating back to 2021) and matches up much better with a run-heavy team like Minnesota compared to a pass-heavy team like Washington. This will also be Minnesota’s first real test of the season after playing a rather weak level of competition. Still, I think the Gophers are a good team and will make the Spartans work for it, but ultimately I see MSU winning here.
Prediction: Michigan State 31, Minnesota 27