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Michigan State Football: Coming back to Earth, getting hopes up during bye week

What does MSU have going for it? What are the challenges heading into rivalry week?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Nearly every exclamation I heard around East Lansing Saturday went something to the tune of “Get to the bye week. Regain some momentum and get healthy before heading to Ann Arbor to play the Michigan Wolverines.”

The Michigan State Spartans seemingly accomplished all of these with a double overtime win over Wisconsin. MSU got key defensive pieces back, redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne got in sync with his targets for 265 yards and two touchdowns, and it felt like the locker room regained the morale it ceded during a four-game skid.

Tangible Advantages

Rivalry week has started — much earlier than usual.

Michigan and Michigan State will meet in two weeks as each comes off of a bye for the first time in the series’ history.

Debates of 2021 Kenneth Walker or 2022 Blake Corum’s superiority have sprung up. Iconic moments of the rivalry are being resurfaced. Buddies from the opposing school have already become a temporary enemy. The vitriol is in full effect, yet we still have to wait until Oct. 29.

But the bye week might be the only tangible advantage MSU has heading into Ann Arbor.

Fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson and redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade returned from injury last Saturday and made obvious how sorely they were missed. Henderson resumed his on-field captaincy and orchestrated constant adjustments in the defensive backfield. The resulting 131 passing yards ceded were the lowest a Mel Tucker-coached Michigan State team has allowed. Slade’s presence in the middle complemented redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Simeon Barrow en route to a sack and helped to keep a solid Wisconsin rush attack at bay (152 total yards).

Perhaps most notably, senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon returned to his natural linebacker position and his Week-One self, recording 11 tackles, intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble in double overtime that set MSU up for the win.

The Spartans still missed a myriad of contributors on defense against Wisconsin, though. Senior safety Kendell Brooks, whose contributions anchored the defense in Henderson’s absence, did not dress. Senior defensive end Khris Bogle failed to play once again after exiting against Minnesota with an injury. Freshman safety Jaden Mangham missed the contest after sustaining a head/neck injury against Ohio State. Junior defensive end Jeff Pietrowski Jr. also did not appear. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Marqui Lowery Jr. has been out for a few weeks. There are more injuries the team is dealing with as well.

Point being, for MSU, and specifically its defense, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time.

Other than that, while competent pass coverage has been hard to come by, sophomore cornerback Charles Brantley has been a bright spot for the defense, continuing to work against the opponent’s toughest assignment. The Florida native recorded a crucial sack as he came flying in on Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz in the second half.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Brantley headlines a group of underclassmen defensive players attempting to plug the many holes of this Michigan State defense. Freshman safety Dillon Tatum nearly had a pick, and freshman defensive end Zion Young manned a still shorthanded line throughout the contest against the Badgers.

A defense as young as MSU’s has become due to the injuries could realize more upside with continued reps and a much-needed week off.

Obvious Obstacles

Michigan holds advantages seemingly everywhere else, including the nation’s No. 7 scoring offense (42.7 points per game) and the No. 9 rush offense (241.7 yards per game). Michigan State does hold a slight advantage in the passing game at 242.9 yards per game over Michigan’s 231.9.

While strength of schedule might have cautioned some to take Michigan’s offensive numbers with a grain of salt, the Wolverines made a statement Saturday, as Donovan Edwards and Blake Corum each eclipsed 150 yards in a top-10 victory over Penn State, which posted the nation’s fifth-best rush defense heading into the contest. Michigan finished with 418 yards rushing. The Wolverines’ ground game is for real.

The latest installment of the rivalry will take place under the lights, and of course, in Michigan’s home stadium. All signs point to this matchup being in favor of the Wolverines by at least three scores, perhaps by even more than they were favored in a loss to MSU in 2020. While Michigan evidently came unprepared that day, it seems UM’s coaches and players alike have honed in on the importance of the rivalry — that is usually Michigan State’s calling card in this game.

Bye Week Conjecture

Michigan State has won the last two meetings, both times as the underdog, to complete a stretch of 10 victories in 14 games for the Spartans. In the last matchup, MSU used tempo against Michigan to garner penalty yardage and propel Kenneth Walker III to five scores. The year prior, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson exploited Michigan’s secondary to produce a career day for wide receiver Ricky White.

Tucker will have to be sharper than he was at the end of regulation against Wisconsin to take down a national title hopeful. His team showed resilience and pulled out a victory, though.

“Obviously things have been tough this year...we never lost confidence in each other,” redshirt senior receiver Jayden Reed said following the win.

That’s all we asked heading into Ann Arbor.