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Preview -- Michigan State vs. Minnesota






Ah, the rebound game.  Like last year, Michigan State is coming off a definitive loss on the road back to East Lansing to play Minnesota.  Unlike last year, this Golden Gopher team has a bit of fight in it at this point, coming off a 22-21 win over Iowa last week in Minneapolis, whereupon they held onto Floyd of Rosedale.  You have questions about how Minnesota won, and what their team is like.  I'm here to tell you.

So, like, how did Minnesota beat Iowa last Saturday?

The box score doth deceive -- Iowa running back Marcus Coker had 252 yards on 32 attempts. Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg was 16 of 24 for 177 yards and a touchdown.  Iowa only punted once on the day.  So what went wrong?  Flaw the first -- missed field goals.  Mike Meyer missed field goals from 24 (!!!) and 43 yards.  Flaw the second -- Iowa failed to convert a 4th and 6 on their first drive and a 4th and 15 (on a Vandenberg scramble???) on their final drive.  Flaw the third -- allow Minnesota a few good drives for scores.

Because even though the Hawkeye defense caused six of Minnesota drives to go four plays or less, the other five drives of five plays or greater either ended in scores or ended the game.  MarQueis Gray (not that Marquise Gray)  had a very nice game combining efficiency through the air (11-17. 193 yards, 1 TD) with productivity on the ground (62 yards on 11 carries, one score).  The Gopher defense obviously got stops when they were needed.  I hate hate HATE to resort to cliches, but alas -- Minnesota was the team that made the plays at the key times, thus a statue of a pig stays in the Twin Cities.

MarQueis Gray spurred a Gopher win over Iowa.  But how good has he been this year?

Let me put it this way -- his passer rating is below Taylor Martinez's.  Gray is the 91st ranked passer in FBS.  His completion percentage of 50.8% doesn't rank in the top 100 FBS quarterbacks.  The one area where he does rank on par with other FBS quarterbacks is in yards per attempt; at 7.1 YPA he ranks 66th, slightly below Kirk Cousins actually (7.3 yards per attempt, 60th in D-1).  When Gray does throw his favorite receiver by far is DaJon McKnight.  His 32 receptions are 19 more than any receiver on the Gophers, and his 455 receiving yards more than double the nearest Minnesota pass-catcher.

In contrast to his arm, Gray's feet are quite effective.  He leads Minnesota in rushing attempts (105), yards (582), and yards per attempt (4.8).  The game plan is going to be the same here as it was in the past couple games -- contain the quarterback runs, and make him throw.

You said that about the Nebraska game.  You didn't imply how good Rex Burkhead would be.  Can anyone on Minnesota hurt Michigan State like that?

First, my *wanking motion* apologies.  Second, no. Redshirt senior Duane Bennett (5'9", 205) gets the majority of carries at running back, and averaging 4.1 yards a carry on 100 rushes this season, he's been a serviceable back.  Redshirt freshman Donnell Kirkwood (5'10", 215) spells Bennett, and he averages 3.7 yards a carry.  On the whole, the Gophers have only been able to average 4.01 yards per carry this season, 75th in the FBS -- not nearly up to the caliber of teams Michigan State faced in October.

So that's the offense.  Do you think the Spartans will have a tough time running the ball?

I think Marcus Coker answered your question definitively six days ago.  The question is rather how yielding the Golden Gopher run defense will be, and the answer so far is very yielding, by a metric asston.  Minnesota's allowing 5.26 yards per carry.  That's 113th in the conference formerly known as Division 1, and if I may say, pretty darn yielding.  As you'd also expect, they don't get many tackles for a loss.  They average 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage per game, 103rd in the BCS.  Linebacker Gary Tinsley leads the Gophers with four tackles for a loss on the season, and he will be a player to watch, but if MSU isn't running the ball easily in this game, worry.

And the pass defense?

Not much better.  Minnesota ranks 107th in passing efficiency defense.  Opponents complete 66.8% of their passes, that's tied for 114th.  Their three interceptions on the season are only better than three teams and tied with eight others.  The gist is this -- the Minnesota secondary is not on the same level as Nebraska's.  Even if Roushar decides the game plan is to throw deep and move away from the run game, that should still be successful.

How special are the special teams?

Somewhat?  Chris Hawthorne is a decent kicker.  He's 6-9 on his field goals for the year, and has a long of 47.  Punter Dan Orseske is just about average, with a mean of 40.1 yards per punt.  The returners do need a bit of care.  Marcus Jones does have a kick return for a touchdown, and in one of the strangest stats I've seen all season, not only does Minnesota only have three (3!) punt returners on the season, Duane Bennett returned one for 30 yards.  For a touchdown.  I'm as confused as you are.

EDIT!  GoAUpher educates me on the current state of Minnesota's special teams: 

Hawthorne was injured last week and the walk-on backup Jordan Wettstein did an exceptional job filling in. Hawthorne isn’t listed as out on the injury reports but no one is totally sure if he’ll play or not.

Jones is out for the season with an ACL tear.

Bennett blocked the punt, caught the block, and ran it in for a touchdown against Miami (OH).

So how goes tomorrow's game?

I think it goes well.  Although the MSU offense looked like crud last Saturday, that was against a Nebraska defense in a must-win situation at home coming off a bye and a win against Minnesota in successive weeks.  While Minnesota does have the ingredients to cause trouble if left in the game, I think they're still a bit too inconsistent, especially on the road, to give MSU too much trouble.  The Spartans get back on track, and set themselves up for a huge game against Iowa.