Last Saturday, Michigan State revealed itself to the nation as a serious contender for the Big Ten East and beyond that. The Spartans will have to put that to the test on the road this Saturday against Purdue, which has already upset a top-five team this season.
Michigan State showed its fighting spirit with four minutes remaining in the third quarter last week when the Spartans (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) were trailing archrival Michigan 30-14. They responded with two touchdown drives of more than 70 yards that ended with a two-point conversion. After recovering a fumble in enemy territory, they drove to the end zone to grab the lead. Michigan State's defense stopped the Wolverines on downs then picked off Cade McNamara's pass in consecutive possessions to secure the come-from-behind, 37-33 victory.
Earlier this week, the Spartans landed third in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, meaning they are well-positioned for a shot at a possible national title. There is still plenty of football to be played, however, with Maryland, Ohio State, and Penn State scheduled after Saturday's matchup at Purdue.
Last week, the Boilermakers (5-3, 3-2) were locked in a tightly contested game at Nebraska. Purdue's offense consistently moved the ball but could only score seven points in the first half. After the intermission, the offense reached the end zone at the end of two consecutive possessions. The Boilermakers' defense also did its part, picking off Adrian Martinez three times in the second half and limiting the Cornhuskers to just a touchdown. The combined effort resulted in a 28-23 win and has Purdue just one more victory from becoming bowl eligible.
Michigan State leads the series, 37-27-3, including eight straight wins over Purdue. Of the two head coaches in Saturday's game, only Jeff Brohm has faced the other program, in Michigan State's 23-13 win in 2018.
No. 3 Michigan State at Purdue
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Spartans -3
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Kenneth Walker III has gone from Wake Forest transfer to a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy. His signature performance thus far came last week when he gashed Michigan for 197 yards and five touchdowns on 23 carries. Prior to that, the Wolverines had given up an average of 120 rushing yards per game (on 32.3 carries) to their previous four Big Ten opponents. They also had surrendered just three rushing touchdowns all season before Walker lit them up for five, including a 58-yard run (followed by a two-point conversion) that tied the game at 30 early in the fourth quarter. His final score, a 23-yard scamper with 5:08 left, proved to be the game-clincher.
The nation's top rusher in terms of yards per game (149.3), Walker has done even more damage (167.8 ypg) against Big Ten teams. He also has 10 rushing touchdowns in five conference games and is averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
It's been a little bit of a mixed bag when it comes to Purdue's performance against the run. Overall, the Boilermakers are ninth in the Big Ten, giving up 138.5 rushing yards per game, and are holding opponents to four yards per carry. However, both Wisconsin (290 yds.) and Illinois (175) had success on the ground against Purdue while Iowa (76 yds. on 30 att.) struggled mightily. The Boilermakers are 4-1 when holding teams to 130 rushing yards or fewer, which would be under Walker's season average.
Even though quarterback Payton Thorne struggled against Michigan (19-for-30, 196 yds., 2 INTs), he's been pretty solid this season with a respectable 15:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. With Walker carrying the load, Thorne hasn't needed to air it out often, but Purdue can't just load up to the stop the run either. Wideouts Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are both capable of coming up with the big play through the air, as they are averaging a collective 19.2 yards per catch with 11 touchdowns.
Walker's effectiveness could open up things for the passing game, but Thorne needs to be willing to take what the defense gives him. The Boilermakers are second in the Big Ten against the pass (174 ypg) and have twice as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (five) allowed.
When Purdue Has the Ball
Four different quarterbacks have seen action for the Boilermakers this season with Aidan O'Connell and Jack Plummer getting the bulk of the snaps. O'Connell is expected to get the start on Saturday after leading Purdue to last week's victory at Nebraska, where he went 34-for-45 for 233 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He was phenomenal (30-for-40, 375-2-0) in the upset of Iowa earlier this season, but he also has three games with two or more interceptions. Contrast that to Plummer, who has been in and out of the lineup because of injury but has seven touchdowns and no picks in six games.
Regardless of who has been at quarterback for the Boilermakers this season, they all have targeted David Bell. The Big Ten's leading receiver (786 yards) despite missing a game, Bell is one of 12 players in the nation who is averaging 100 receiving yards per game. He's recorded six catches in every game he's played and posted 11 (for 240 yards) in the upset of the Hawkeyes. He has just one touchdown catch in four Big Ten games thus far, but that's probably due to the increased defensive attention he attracts, and it hasn't stopped him from making an impact overall.
Bell could definitely pose problems for a Michigan State defense whose Achilles heel has been stopping the pass. The Spartans are last in the Big Ten at 300.5 passing yards allowed per game and were simply overmatched last week. Michigan threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns (with an interception) while completing 31 passes on 48 attempts.
To be fair, that was Michigan State's worst performance to this point, as none of the previous four Big Ten opponents finished with more than 283 yards through the air and those teams combined for just four touchdowns (three by Northwestern in the season opener) and three interceptions. But Purdue's passing attack, spearheaded by Bell, also presents a different challenge compared to the Spartans' previous conference matchups. The Boilermakers enter this game ranked third in the Big Ten in passing offense while Nebraska (fifth) is the highest among the teams Michigan State has played, with the other four (Michigan, Indiana, Rutgers, Northwestern) ranked seventh (Wolverines) or lower.
If this game comes down to kicking, Purdue will need Mitchell Fineran to come through after experiencing a couple of rough patches. Against Minnesota back on Oct. 2, he missed a 37-yard field goal that would have made it a one-point game in the third quarter. The Boilermakers would go on to lose 20-13. Fineran also missed a 32-yard attempt at Iowa and an extra point try against Wisconsin. And last week, he was 0-for-2 on a pair of field goals from inside 40 yards. Simply put, Purdue cannot waste any scoring opportunities if it wants to knock off the Spartans.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker should take note of what happened in 1999, the year after he, then a graduate assistant, left the Spartans for Miami (Ohio) in the MAC. Michigan and Michigan State squared off in East Lansing in October. Both were undefeated. Following the Spartans' victory, they rose to No. 5 in the Associated Press' Top 25. The following week, MSU traveled to face Purdue. The same circumstances currently exist.
Tucker can learn from that situation even though he was coaching elsewhere at that time and most of his players were not born yet. Drew Brees and the Boilermakers jumped on Michigan State early, leading 21-6 after the first quarter and expanded the advantage to 35-14 at halftime. In total, Brees threw five touchdowns and ran for one in a 52-28 rout. Could a similar outcome occur again with the Spartans still celebrating last weekend's victory over their archrivals?
Purdue has already shown its capacity for embarrassing a foe ranked in the top five this season (see, Iowa). However, no one would confuse Aidan O'Connell with Drew Brees.
Prediction: Michigan State 30, Purdue 20
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— 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.