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Minnesota versus Michigan State: 5 narratives to watch out for

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Minnesota v Michigan State Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans and Minnesota Golden Gophers will tango on Saturday night for the first time since 2013. The Spartans have a four-game winning streak against the Gophers, and will look to earn their third straight win and fifth overall in 2017.

What should we be watching out for leading up to and during the game this weekend? Here are five narratives to pay attention to for Minnesota versus Michigan State.

1. Can Minnesota figure out its quarterback situation?

Conor Rhoda is the current starter, and he is listed as the starter on the depth chart for this week’s game. However, Rhoda has struggled mightily and though unlikely, backup Denny Croft could be the starter on Saturday night if Rhoda doesn’t impress throughout the practice week.

Per Randy Johnson of the Minneapolis StarTribune, it appears Rhoda is who head coach P.J. Fleck considers to be the team’s “best option” right now, but he doesn’t seem supremely confident and it wouldn’t be surprising if he changes his mind. Rhoda, a senior, is completing just 55.7 percent of his passes and has thrown only five touchdowns to four interceptions. He’s also fumbled twice, losing one. Croft has thrown 12 passes this year. Rhoda is most likely going to start. But Michigan State ranks 13th nationally in passing yards allowed and fourth in the country in total defense. Will Fleck really want to trot his struggling quarterback out against that defense? It’s probably his best bet, but good luck with that.

2. Can Brian Lewerke test the injury-riddled Minnesota secondary vertically?

Lewerke has not yet really shown the ability to throw the deep ball. His longest pass on the season was 40 yards in Week 1 and he hasn’t had one north of 31 yards since. Minnesota has a talented defense, but it appears its secondary is going to be quite thin against Sparty. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr., son of former Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr., is expected to miss the contest. Cornerback Kiondre Thomas is also out, along with fellow cornerback Zo Creighton who was lost for the season after getting injured in the Middle Tennessee State game.

The Gophers currently rank No. 36 in the NCAA against the pass, and No. 22 in total defense. This unit is good, but with the derailing injuries in the defensive backfield, I see no reason why Dave Warner (other than the fact that he’s Dave Warner) shouldn’t test this secondary deep and early. Feel it out and stretch the field with Felton Davis or the speedster Darrell Stewart Jr. If it is successful, continue to attack, if it doesn’t work out, go back to the short and intermediate routes. But this is an opportunity for Lewerke to show off.

3. Will the weather play a factor?

This seems like deja vu, but it appears that Michigan State will once again be playing in a prime-time game in the rain against a Big Ten foe. Hmm, where have we seen that before? Per AccuWeather the forecast is currently showing a high of 56 degrees with cloudy skies and a 72 percent of chance rain. Thunderstorms don’t seem all that likely, though, and I don’t think we’re looking at monsoon-like conditions like we had in Ann Arbor, but surely something to monitor throughout the week. The Weather Channel predicts a 90 percent chance of rain at night with winds at 10 to 15 miles per hour.

The Spartans — despite struggling to move the ball — showed they can win in those conditions. Michigan State came out firing against Michigan, and took a lead to the locker room at halftime, and I knew right then and there that MSU had a great chance to win because of the elements in the second half. I am not quite sure yet if it will be raining at kickoff or later in the game, but an early lead may once again prove to be crucial.

4. Will Michigan State’s running backs finally break out?

Last week was promising for the struggling Michigan State running back stable, as the Spartans ran for 158 yards on the top-ranked Wolverines’ defense. Madre London led the way, averaging an impressive 5.9 yards per carry. However, no running back was able to crack the 60-yard mark in that game (Lewerke did have 61 rushing yards, though) and no running back has rushed for 90 yards so far this season. Heading into the season, this was supposed to be Michigan State’s deepest and most reliable position group, but that hasn’t been the case.

L.J. Scott has not looked himself this year and he is banged up. He was dressed for the Michigan game, but didn’t play a down. Gerald Holmes has also struggled averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, and is dealing with an ankle injury. My best guess is all three should be good to go. But Minnesota ranks as the 25th-best rushing defense in the country. MSU showed it won’t back down from tough competition, but can one of the Michigan State tailbacks, or the group as a whole, finally have a break-out game?

5. How will the Spartans respond after the emotional win last week?

This is perhaps the most interesting narrative to watch, and I touch on this in more detail in this article published yesterday. One of the youngest Michigan State teams that I can remember went into Ann Arbor to defeat a top-10 Michigan team. That is clearly a strong emotion that will stick with these kids for a while. What’s next, though? How will they respond now that the rest of the Big Ten is on notice? Nobody expected this team to be 4-1 right now. That chip on the shoulder that Michigan State plays so well with is slowly diminishing, but it’s still there.

Michigan State needs to take care of business. Minnesota is 0-2 in Big Ten play and is possibly in desperation mode. It has a tough defense and will make the Spartans earn it. In fact, the fans are not taking this team lightly. In yesterday’s aforementioned article, the attached pool shows that 63 percent of fans are worried about a potential upset. Michigan State should win this game, but just like every game, focus, attitude and execution are vital. The Spartans can’t go into Minneapolis thinking they’ve won something already.

What storylines are you watching out for? Carry on the conversation in the comments section below.