Six Questions about Michigan State

Before every game, GopherHole will ask a reporter who covers their opponent to give us a view from the opponent’s perspective. 

I asked Emmett Matasovsky of Spartan Avenue on the FanSided network six questions about the Michigan State Spartans. Minnesota travels to East Lansing to take on the Spartans on September 24th

Huge thanks to Emmett for giving us his thoughts!

Follow Emmett  on Twitter: @E_Matasovsky57

–> Follow Noel on Twitter: @n0elthompson

  1. In his second year as head coach, Mel Tucker took the country by surprise last year by leading the Spartans to an 11-2 record, which included a victory over in-state rival Michigan. What were the expectations for Michigan State heading into this year? Have they met those expectations so far three games into the season?

Headed into this year, the expectation was for the Spartans to be in the 8-to-10 win bracket. They lost a generational talent in Kenneth Walker III and multiple starters on both the offensive and defensive line to graduation. The main expectations were to see an improved defensive play and for quarterback Payton Thorne to take the next step after having a year to lean on the talent in the running game.

Through three games, the Spartans have not met most expectations. Despite a 22-point victory, there were glaring concerns in the opener against the Western Michigan Broncos. Against the Akron Zips, the Spartans looked better, but Akron is one of the worst teams in the FBS. When the Spartans played Washington last week, it was obvious the expectations were not being met with lapses on every side of the ball.

2. Michigan State traveled to Washington last week and was handed its first loss of the season. What went wrong for the Spartans in a 39-28 defeat to the Huskies? 

Honestly, almost everything. The offensive line could not block the Huskies’ front, with our rushing game (averaging 230 yds/game before) being stuffed to a paltry 42 yards. Our running backs could not hit any holes, mostly because there was no hole to run to. Payton Thorne was under duress the entire game. Thorne also threw a bad interception on our own 11-yard line. Both Spartan goal line stands resulted in turnovers.

The defense, particularly against the pass, was atrocious. Michael Penix Jr. picked on every weak spot on our defense and passed for nearly 400 yards with ease. The pass rush was non-existent, with one of the few hits on Penix that we had been called for roughing the passer.

3. What do you consider the strengths and weaknesses of the Spartans? 

Our biggest strength is the receiver room. Between Jayden Reed (if he is healthy to play Saturday) and the emerging Keon Coleman, the Spartans have some of the best receivers in the conference. I honestly believe Michigan State should be the second-best receiver room in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. Tre Mosley is criminally underrated in the room as well. Mosley had over 500 yards and three touchdowns last year, and he has already equaled his touchdown total of last year through three games, also tacking on 141 yards. Montorie Foster, Germie Bernard, and tight end Daniel Barker round out the receiver rotation. Foster and Bernard are each threats, with both having receiving touchdowns of over 40 yards in their careers despite limited playing time. Barker, a transfer, has the Illinois tight end touchdown record.

Payton Thorne also must be considered a strength, especially after he was one of the bright spots in last week’s loss. If this version of Thorne is present on Saturday, he could be one of the best players on the field.

The weaknesses of this team are glaringly obvious when watching film. The Spartans’ pass defense and offensive line play are inconsistent, ranging from shaky to downright unwatchable throughout each game and the season. Mel Tucker promised personnel changes headed into this game, so it should be something to watch out for. Michael Penix Jr. consistently picked on corners Chester Kimbrough and Ameer Speed last Saturday, with each giving up a ton of yardage. In fact, one source I read lists both Speed and Kimbrough in the top 5 for most yards surrendered in pass coverage through three games this year. Our pass rush could not get home against a Washington team missing their best tackle, and I view Minnesota’s offensive line higher than that of the Huskies, posing a real threat to Michigan State’s chances Saturday.

As for offensive line play, the Spartans lost their center and one guard and tackle to graduation last year and are struggling so far to replace them. Against Washington, Thorne was seemingly always under duress, being sacked twice as well as another pressure forcing Thorne’s interception from that game. Jarek Broussard was also dropped in our own end zone for a safety.

4. Junior Payton Thorne returns as the starting quarterback and was named to quite a few preseason watch lists. How would you evaluate his play three games into the season?

The best way to describe his play this year would be inconsistent. Against Western Michigan and Akron, two lesser opponents, Thorne appeared to be a shell of his school record-breaking 2021 self. He was consistently throwing off off his back foot and did not take what the defense gave him. Instead, he forced plays, with the best example being his interception against the WMU Broncos. Against Akron, he looked even worse, with two bad interceptions and sailing ball after ball. For both games, Thorne had to exit with injuries following hard shots, so even his durability took a step back.

Then, against Washington, Thorne responded to a three-touchdown deficit by throwing the team on his and Keon Coleman’s backs. Against a Washington defense that was expecting the pass, Thorne was able to throw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns. Thorne started the game 10-of-11 and appeared to have turned the page. He was dodging pressure, and moving around in the pocket, occasionally tucking the ball for more yards. When he had to move, he seemed to be even better on the broken play. He still overthrew and underthrew a few times, but was much better and had stepped up. He took his hardest hits of the season and still remained in and delivered strikes. If the Washington edition of Thorne shows up Saturday, the Golden Gophers better be prepared to face a great receiver room with a great quarterback!

5. Could you give us a few impact players on offense and defense that Minnesota fans should know about?

On the offensive side of the ball, a few names stand out. Thorne, as mentioned in the question above, is capable of stepping it up and could drive the team to victory. If the Thorne from Saturday night shows up, he should be the guy Minnesota should look to make uncomfortable and hope to force into mistakes.

The other two players on offense I would highlight are two of our receivers, Jayden Reed (no. 1) and Keon Coleman (no. 0). Reed is a long-time teammate of Thorne, dating back to his middle-school years. Those two have unmatched chemistry, and some of the biggest plays in dire situations from the 2021 Michigan State season came from Reed. If Reed is healthy for this game, he should see double coverage. On special teams, Reed turned two punts into house calls last season, and had one whistled back for a penalty this year already. Coleman is coming off of his best game after Reed was unable to go last week. He is a dual sport athlete, splitting time with basketball, and it shows in his ability to box out and out physical corners. Coleman finished with 116 yards and two touchdowns last game.

On defense, we have three players to watch. Our two big threats are on the defensive line, Jacob Slade (defensive tackle, no. 64) and Jacoby Windmon (edge, no. 4). Windmon received multiple accolades and awards for his first two weeks’ performances, with 5.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles between the two games. Washington held him in check, so he will be looking to get back on track this week. Slade is a space-eating defensive tackle with an underrated pass rush ability. He missed last week’s game with an injury, so if he is on the field, he will be trying to make Mohammed Ibrahim’s path to 13 games with 100+ yards hard.

The final player to highlight on defense is safety Kendell Brooks (no. 33). He will be making his third career start this Saturday, filling in for an injured Xavier Henderson. Brooks is inexperienced but makes up for this by his ability to lower the shoulder. Last week, Brooks made some of the hardest hits for the Spartans, and he will be looking to pry the ball free on Saturday.

Punter Bryce Baringer (no. 99) is also a threat on the roster, as he comes into the game averaging 54 yards per punt and can flip the field.

  1. Michigan State has won the last five contests over Minnesota, but this will be the first time the teams have played since 2017.
    What does Michigan State need to do if they’re going to beat the Gophers, and what’s your prediction for the game between the Gophers and Spartans, and why?

What Michigan State needs to do is win the battle of the trenches on each side of the ball. If our offensive line can give Thorne enough time to throw the ball, or for Jalen Berger or Jarek Broussard to find a running lane, the Spartans have a good chance of winning. In the defensive trenches, the Spartans have to force through the line to both stop Ibrahim before he can get going and make Tanner Morgan uncomfortable in the pocket.

As for my score prediction, I do believe the Gophers will win against my Spartans. I have the Gophers winning by 3 as the questions around our offensive line and the defensive scheme will be too much to overcome. Any rare time the Spartans can stop Ibrahim and force a long yardage situation, the pass defense is likely to give up a first down. The inability to get off the field will drown the Spartans and Minnesota will emerge victorious, 31-28.

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