Big Ten East rivals renew acquaintances with roles reversed compared to last year when Michigan State goes up against Indiana in Bloomington on Saturday.
The Spartans (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) enter this game in the top 10 of the polls and very much in the hunt for a spot in the conference championship game. Last week's 31-13 win at Rutgers produced a program first — a 300-yard passer, a 200-yard rusher, and a 200-yard receiver in the same game. It was just the fifth time that had been accomplished in FBS history and the first since 2008.
For Indiana, it's been a precipitous decline from the remarkable climb of the 2020 season. A year after going 6-1 in conference play and giving eventual Big Ten champion Ohio State all it could handle in Columbus, the Hoosiers enter this game with a losing record overall (2-3) and winless in conference games (0-2). Injuries have played a big part, as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is sidelined once again. Indiana is coming off of its bye after getting shut out by Penn State (24-0) on Oct. 2.
Michigan State leads the all-time series, 49-16-2. For games played in Bloomington, the Spartans hold the advantage 22-10-1. Even though Indiana won last season's matchup, 24-0 in East Lansing, Michigan State has claimed eight of the last 10 meetings overall.
No. 10 Michigan State at Indiana
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan State -4.5
When Michigan State Has the Ball
The Spartans' history-making offensive performance last week against Rutgers featured some familiar faces but also a new one. Kenneth Walker III's 233 rushing yards helped him pad his FBS-leading total to 913. It also was his second 200-yard performance of the season. He went for 264 yards on the ground in the season opener against Northwestern.
Payton Thorne's 339 passing yards (on just 16 completions) represented a new career high for him and also gave him back-to-back 300-yard efforts. Thorne tossed three touchdowns as well, giving him 14 on the year, tied for second in the Big Ten. More importantly, he has just two interceptions on the season.
But while Jayden Reed had been Thorne's top target through the first five games, it was Jailen Nailor who erupted against the Scarlet Knights. Nailor had 221 receiving yards on just five catches (44.2 ypr) and was responsible for all three of Thorne's TD passes. This came after Nailor grabbed eight balls for 128 yards in the previous game against WKU. Nailor has had big games against Indiana before, posting 79 rushing yards and a score (on three carries) as well as catching a 16-yard touchdown pass in a 35-21 Michigan State win in Bloomington back in 2018.
Nailor's reemergence adds to the challenge facing Indiana's beleaguered defense. The Hoosiers are 13th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up 28.2 points per game, and know that they will have to stop both the run and the pass against the Spartans. IU ranks ninth in both categories among conference teams and has given up nine touchdown passes compared to six scores on the ground.
The Hoosiers have done a decent job of making teams earn their gains through the air. They are holding teams to a 58 percent completion rate, and pass-happy WKU is the only team that has completed more than 59 percent of its pass attempts thus far. But the Hilltoppers also were able to stay in that game because of the aerial damage they did (31-of-44, 365 yds, 3 TDs). A year after finishing second nationally with 17 interceptions in eight games, Indiana has just two in five contests thus far.
The Hoosiers also should be on guard for the flea-flicker. Michigan State has used that play three times so far this season. It has resulted in touchdown receptions of 75, 35, and 63 yards in length.
When Indiana Has the Ball
The Hoosiers have struggled to score against Big Ten opponents. They only managed two field goals at Iowa. They failed to score any points two weeks ago at Penn State, as kicker Charles Campbell's only field goal attempt, from 30 yards out, was blocked.
Part of the struggles stems from the difficulty in running the ball. Against the Hawkeyes, the Hoosiers managed 77 rushing yards on 31 attempts. At Penn State, they gained 69 yards on 24 carries. In the three non-conference games, Indiana averaged 155 yards on the ground per contest with seven total touchdowns.
Overall, Michigan State has done a pretty good job against the run. The Spartans are fifth in the Big Ten in this department at 116.8 rushing yards allowed per game, but they also have given up some big numbers on the ground. Nebraska gashed them for 188 yards and two touchdowns (on 48 carries) on Sept. 25 and FCS Youngstown State also had success (167 yds., 2 TDs on 45 att.) with its running game. But Michigan State's 3.2 yards allowed per carry for the season is still pretty solid, especially considering the Hoosiers' consistent struggles with their ground attack.
Penix is considered "week-to-week" with a separated AC joint in his left (throwing) shoulder, so the expectation is that backup Jack Tuttle will get the call. Tuttle replaced Penix when he got hurt against Penn State two weeks ago, completing six of his 12 pass attempts for 77 yards against the Nittany Lions' stout defense. Because of Penix's injury history, Tuttle has seen a fair amount of playing time. In three seasons with the Hoosiers, he has gone 58-of-101 for 564 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. However, he's not the same type of running threat (28 att., 65 yds.) that Penix is and Tuttle has yet to see any game action against the Spartans.
If there's one area Michigan State has been vulnerable against this season, it's the pass. The Spartans are last in the Big Ten at 301.7 passing yards per game allowed. Michigan State played WKU the week after Indiana and gave up even more damage (488 yds. 3 TDs) through the air than the Hoosiers did, although their game wasn't near as close a contest, as the Spartans led by 29 points entering the fourth quarter before the Hilltoppers put a few late touchdowns on the board to shrink the deficit (final score was 48-31).
Indiana has had two weeks to recover from the pounding that it received at Penn State. However, Penix will need more than that amount of time to recover. Without their starting quarterback and a rushing attack that has achieved little against Big Ten teams, the Hoosiers' offense seems like it will decline even more.
Michigan State will head into its bye week following this game. The Spartans cannot afford to sleepwalk through this one and look too far forward to a meeting with archrival Michigan in Ann Arbor in two weeks. They need only to keep doing what they have done all season: feed the ball to Walker often while mixing in some deep passes to keep the Indiana defense from crowding the line of scrimmage.
Prediction: Michigan State 38, Indiana 13
Podcast: Week 7 Preview & Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.