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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Indiana

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Austin examines whether MSU can improve to 8-0 against the Hoosiers

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Have you caught your breath yet? I haven't.

After last week's insane finish against Michigan (I'm calling it the Harbotch), it's hard to blame fans for forgetting there is, in fact, another game to be played this weekend and it just so happens to be against MSU's #RealRival: Indiana.

In case you weren't paying attention (you weren't), last week wasn't a great one for the Hoosiers. In fact, it was disastrous. Here's an exercise that might help you understand: Take all those warm and fuzzy feelings of shock and disbelief you had after watching Jalen Watts-Jackson rumble his way into the history books and put them in an imaginary suitcase. Now soak that suitcase in kerosene, light it on fire and throw it from a helicopter into an active volcano. That's about how the IU faithful feel.

In other words, half as bad as Michigan fans.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. I digress...

Short of the best play in College Football history, what could cause a fanbase to be so downtrodden, you ask? Well, after entering the fourth quarter with a 19-point lead on Rutgers behind what appeared to be an unstoppable offense, the Hoosiers collapsed. Kevin Wilson's team was outscored 22-0 in the final stanza and lost the game, 55-52, dropping them to 0-3 in Big Ten play. Yeah, that'll do it.

On the bright side scoring does not appear to be a problem; the Hoosiers tally the third-most points in the Big Ten at 34.1 per game. But, as I'm sure you can gather, keeping opponents off the scoreboard is kinda not going great; they have given up an average of 39.3 points per game so far this Big Ten season. Points are dandy, but if you can't slow the opponent down they don't matter a whole lot.

IU is fighting for their Bowl lives and would love nothing more than knocking off the understandably-jubilant Spartans this weekend. Michigan State will look to keep its improbable momentum and not get caught looking ahead to the well-deserved bye week. Let's go to the tape.

When Indiana Has The Ball

Rushing Offense

Through the first four games of the season, the Hoosiers running attack closely resembled the Tevin Coleman-led group from a year ago. But since UAB transfer Jordan Howard went down with an ankle injury against Ohio State, the unit has once again looked mortal.

Howard was having a fantastic season running the ball pre-injury. Despite not playing in either of the last two games, he still trails only Ohio State star Ezekiel Elliott in the Big Ten rushing race, with over 700 yards to his name. His replacement, sophomore Devine Redding, had his best game of the season last week, notching 99 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers, but that did include a total-inflating 66-yard scamper. Add that to his struggles the two previous weeks against Ohio State and Penn State, where he went for only 77 yards on 43 carries (1.79 ypc) combined and you can see just how important Howard was to this attack.

With Howard questionable again this week, it will likely be Redding seeing most of the carries, which would be a big advantage for MSU. It's no secret IU loves to throw the ball. It's also no secret MSU's pass defense is in shambles. While they held up admirably a week ago, it was against a run-first Michigan team that allowed MSU's front seven to play downhill essentially the entire game. They will have no such luxury Saturday.

The pass-happy Hoosiers will make it tough for the Spartans front seven to play that attacking downhill style which will in turn create room for the backs to grab a couple chunk plays, which MSU has surrendered several times already this season. If Howard was playing, this could turn into a bit of a nightmare, but MSU may be catching an under-ratedly big break there. Redding is capable but make no mistake the Hoosiers will miss Howard's explosiveness should he be unable to play.

Passing Offense

Since Kevin Wilson came over from Oklahoma, this has been the strength of Indiana's teams. This year is no different, but the his team has had some major injury issues under center, where they are going through quarterbacks like MSU is going through defensive backs.

Like Howard, Senior Quarterback Nate Sudfeld is among the Big Ten statistical leaders with 1,741 yards passing and, like Howard, he went down against Ohio State and missed the Penn State game, as well -- making IU's near-victory over the Buckeyes all the more impressive. Sudfeld was replaced by Zander Diamont who you may remember as last year's starter against MSU. He played like you would expect an Indiana backup quarterback to play before getting knocked out of the Penn State game. Luckily for IU, Sudfeld was able to return for last week's game against Rutgers, in which he promptly threw for 400+ yards and four touchdowns.

Sudfeld leads a wide-open passing attack. Junior wideout Ricky Jones leads the receiving corps with 624 yards, which is good for second in the Big Ten behind only Aaron Burbridge. Two other receivers, Simmie Cobbs Jr. and Mitchell Paige, have 29 and 23 catches, respectively.

IU's passing attack poses a major threat to a depleted (but resilient) Michigan State secondary, where redshirts continue to burn with the fire of a thousand suns. Last week, it was true freshman Grayson Miller and Khari Willis getting their first career starts at safety, this week it looks like Tyson Smith and, possibly, Josh Butler could both make their debuts, with Darian Hicks not listed on the depth chart after sustaining an apparent head injury against Rutgers. Miller and Willis both impressed with their open field tackling, but that came against the notoriously pass-averse Wolverines. This weeks test will be much more difficult, but certainly not impossible to pass.

Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell and Lawrence Thomas will have to get pressure to help out their secondary. Otherwise we could be in for a shootout in East Lansing.

When Michigan State Has The Ball

Rushing Offense

Regular Michigan held MSU to easily its lowest output of the season a week ago - a measly 58 yards. MSU's offensive line, while healthier than it has been all season, was unable to get any push, forcing Connor Cook and Burbridge to carry the MSU offense. Safe to say it can only get better, no?

Indiana has given up at least 176 yards on the ground in each of their Big Ten games, including huge individual performances from Elliott (23-274-3) and Rutgers' Robert Martin (17-124-3). The hog mollies will be itching to open up similar holes for their guys this week against the Hoosiers 3-4 look.

Speaking of the big fellas, it was nice to see fewer "OR"s on this week's depth chart. Jack Conklin and Kodi Kieler are finally healthy enough to be declared unchallenged starters at the tackle spots, allowing Donovan Clark to settle in at right guard. Brian Allen is listed as a co-starter at center and left guard, with his brother Jack and Benny McGowan, respectively. If I were a betting man, I'd pencil Brian in at center, with McGowan at guard this week. With the bye week coming up and the chance to get the line (more or less) fully healthy for the stretch run of the season, it would be a surprise to see Jack on the field Saturday.

The same logic goes for running back Madre London, who was also listed on the depth chart but is still fighting an ankle injury. With LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams all available, London will likely be given another week to rest.

This brings me to one concern from a week ago -- the usage of Williams. Delton has had some standout performances in the past and is a good pass protector, but he was ineffective last week, managing only 15 yards on eight carries. Scott and Holmes didn't exactly set the world on fire with 16 combined carries for 49 yards, but Williams looked like he was running in quicksand. It's hard to hold it against a guy who missed so much of summer and fall camp, but it would be nice to see more carries go to the other two until he can get his legs back.

The best defense against a potent passing attack like Indiana's is a ball-control offense that keeps them (and MSU's secondary) on the sidelines. While Cook's troops can win a shootout with Indiana if need be, look for Dave Warner to shorten the game by running the ball and controlling the clock. With the offensive line near full health, the Spartans should be able to move the ball on the ground effectively, no matter who is getting the carries.

Passing Offense

For as lackluster as the rush defense has been for IU, the pass defense has been an even bigger issue. In Big Ten play, it has been downright ugly and only gotten worse each week.

First, it was Cardale Jones with a smooth 245 yards (only 29 fewer than Elliott had on the ground that day) and 1 touchdown. The next week, Christian Hackenberg put up 262 yards and 2 scores. Finally, Chris Laviano dropped 386 yards and 3 TD's just a week ago. To IU's credit they did notch an interception in each of those games but somewhere Connor Cook is salivating.

Like I said, and those numbers show, MSU can win a shootout with Indiana if they have to. The main reasons: Cook and Burbridge.

Cook played a very "Connor Cook" game last week. His completion percentage was low, and he had several ugly short-to-intermediate throws that got away from him. Yet, there he was at the end of the game with 328 yards and a Sunday touchdown throw to Macgarrett Kings Jr to his name. He was only a crippling interception and a last minute touchdown drive away from turning in perhaps his most vintage performance. Ok, that's a stretch, but you get the picture. Not coincidentally, Cook targeted Burbridge a whopping 19 times, nine of which he was able to reel in despite great coverage all day from Jourdan Lewis.

Burbridge has played like a full-fledged superstar and now leads the conference in receptions (44) and receiving yards (702 - also good for 10th nationally). For a secondary that just allowed Leontee Caroo go off for 7 catches, 157 yards and 3 TD's, and whose elder statesmen are two redshirt sophomores, #16 is far from a welcome sight.

Eventually, teams are going to start double teaming Burbridge, but until then expect Kings and R.J. Shelton to continue to get single coverage. They were able to get open against Michigan, although Kings did have two crucial drops, and they should be able to find success again.

As for the tight ends, I would follow the London/Allen health guidelines for Josiah Price as well. If he isn't near 100%, don't expect MSU to rush him back for this game. Paul Lang and Jamal Lyles have been capable fill-ins.

One Hoosier to keep an eye on defensively is end Nick Mangieri, who has seven sacks on the year; tying him with Calhoun for third-most in the Big Ten. The return of MSU's tackles to full health should help keep him at bay, but Mangieri has been the most impressive of any IU defender thus far this year, statistically.

I'm not sure you'll see MSU go to the air more than 20-25 times tops in this one. Warner has shown he prefers ball control all season -- although things could change behind a healthier offensive line -- and Dantonio will no doubt try and protect his young secondary as much as he can.

Special Teams

I mean...I don't know, maybe we should just let the Rangers play all the time? Before we get too depressing...

THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED!!!!!!!! Ok sorry, let me pull myself together.

You had to expect the Special Teams issues to reach a critical mass eventually and aside from the final play (!) in Ann Arbor, they did. The punting and coverage units struggled mightily and Kevin Cronin couldn't put a kickoff out of the back of the endzone. Michael Geiger didn't attempt a field goal, but Dantonio did choose to go for it on fourth down four times. Indiana, on the other hand, has a solid kicking game. Their man foot-man, Griffin Oakes, has connected on 10 of 11, with his only miss coming from 40+.

Clearly confidence is not at an all time high with these units but I'd hope to see Hartbarger back punting this week. Apparently, Tyler O'Conner got the call against Michigan because Dantonio feared the true freshman might get spooked by the big stage. While that seems like flimsy logic to me, especially when there are more true freshman than ever playing this season, after watching how that game ended that decision seems just fine.

(I apologize for questioning Coach D. I am not worthy.)

The MSU coverage units are getting (rightfully) dragged through the mud this season, but only having 2.5 seconds to get off blocks and fill their lanes is really on the punters. Whoever is punting is going to need to work on their hang time because Indiana's main punt returner, Mitchell Paige, has taken one back to the house this season. I'm sure this will be fine!

MSU can't lose the field position game as drastically as they did last week, or they will probably find themselves in yet another close game. Mark Snyder is going to have to get things cleared up soon if this team wants to achieve their goals.

Bottom Line and Prediction

If he was so inclined, Warner could let Cook throw the ball 40 times and probably roll up half a hundred points, but that attack would play right into Indiana's hands. IU wants this to be a shootout. I do not expect Michigan State to play to those desires. Look for the Spartans to control the pace of this game and minimize the amount of possessions for Indiana by running the ball early and often (and hopefully a little less predictably).

With the inexperience in the secondary and the strength of Indiana's passing game this one won't be a blowout, but what else is new? What matters is Dantonio's team gets into the bye week 8-0 with all their goals still within reach.

MSU 35 - Indiana 21