P.J. Fleck will lead his unbeaten Minnesota Golden Gophers into East Lansing on Saturday to face Mel Tucker's Michigan State Spartans in a key Big Ten matchup.
This will be the conference opener for both teams, and neither can afford a loss in this crossover game. Both Big Ten divisions figure to be highly competitive right up to the final weeks of the season, and a loss in the conference opener would be less than ideal for a pair of teams that hope to be contenders in their respective divisions.
It'll be the first-ever meeting between these two head coaches and the first between the two programs since 2017. Michigan State has dominated this series recently with five straight wins over Minnesota, a stretch that goes back to 2010.
Minnesota at Michigan State
When Minnesota Has the Ball
Running back Mohamed Ibrahim comes into the game ranked No. 2 in the nation with 464 rushing yards. He's averaging close to seven yards (6.9) per carry and is tied with Michigan's Blake Corum for the most rushing touchdowns in FBS (seven). This offense will generally go as Ibrahim goes.
Ideally, however, Fleck would like fifth-year senior quarterback Tanner Morgan to be efficient and effective running the passing attack. Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell is normally a big part of that, but a leg injury suffered last week will cause him to miss the remainder of this season. Look for Dylan Wright's (4 rec., 58 yds., TD) role to increase in Autman-Bell's absence. Tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford (8, 127, 1) is another key target.
Minnesota may want to look to the air to gain an advantage over the Michigan State defense. The Spartans are one of the stingier run defenses in the country, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry. But against the pass, however, it's been a different story. They gave up 397 yards and four touchdowns to Washington's Michael Penix Jr. last week and the unit has yet to log an interception.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
The Spartans have been good-not-great so far this year, both on the ground and through the air. Wide receiver Keon Coleman is the only true game-breaking threat the offense has at this point. Quarterback Payton Thorne has struggled to take care of the football, tossing four interceptions with his seven touchdowns through three games. Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger has shown flashes out of the backfield, averaging 5.5 yards per carry with four touchdowns. Look for Tucker and his offensive staff to lean on Berger to try and control the tempo and minimize Minnesota's possessions. There's a chance Michigan State could lull the Golden Gophers' secondary to sleep with an effective running game, and then strike through the air with Coleman and the rest of the receiving corps.
Patience will be key for the Spartans when they have the ball, as Minnesota currently ranks in the top 10 nationally in all four major defensive categories. The Gophers have given up just two touchdowns thus far and only 3.6 yards per play. It has been extremely difficult to run against Minnesota (2.8 ypc allowed, 0 TDs) in the early going.
While Minnesota will likely feel the impact of Autman-Bell's absence early on, it feels like the Golden Gophers will, by and large, be able to operate normally on offense. The same can't be said for Michigan State's attack, however. Minnesota appears to have a clear advantage in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and the statistics back it up. The Spartans also are coming off of a bad loss on the road to Washington where they got exposed in a number of areas. Barring a significant turnaround, especially on defense, look for the visiting Gophers to stay undefeated with a fairly comfortable win in their Big Ten opener.
Prediction: Minnesota 30, Michigan State 16
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— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
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