The concept of “balance” that P.J. Fleck talked about at Big Ten Media Days will be key as Minnesota visits Michigan State on Saturday. Fleck talked about how balance isn’t just keeping your run/pass ratio close to 50-50, it’s about being able to do what you need to do to win any particular game. Sometimes running 75% of the time, with the occasional pass thrown in, is fine. But in other games, you may need to be passing on well over half of your offensive snaps. Good teams can do either.
The Key to Visiting Michigan State is Balance
So far, Minnesota has played a Group of 5 team, an FCS team, and a very weak Power 5 team, and the Gophers have had their way with all three. That probably won’t be the case in East Lansing. Michigan State currently ranks 61st nationally in total defense, but 26th against the run. The Spartans held a good Washington team to 106 yards on the ground last week in Seattle. Granted, the Huskies don’t have a back like Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, who’s probably good for another 100-yard game. Michael Penix Jr., the Indiana transfer, threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns in Washington’s win.
This is likely to be the first game where the Gophers really do need to mix in more passing- both to keep Michigan State off balance, and to take advantage of the weaker aspect of the Spartans’ defense. Of course, the absence of Chris Autman-Bell will be keenly felt, on Saturday and for the rest of the season. Look for Dylan Wright and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford to step up in the passing game. Spann-Ford does more blocking than pass-catching, but at six-foot-seven-inches and 250 pounds, he’s a match-up nightmare for college defensive backs. Daniel Jackson, who missed the first two games due to a training camp injury, should be more involved this week too.
Minnesota’s Defense vs the Michigan State Offense
The Spartans’ ground game was anemic against Washington’s front, forcing them to rely more on the pass. And, like Washington, they racked up some yardage and points through the air. Payton Thorne threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns but was picked off once. Stopping Sparty’s run game and forcing Thorne to throw should still be a big part of the game plan. Why? For starters, the MSU quarterback has actually thrown four picks already this season, including one to Western Michigan and two to Akron. In addition, the Gophers have arguably the best safety duo in the Big Ten in Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin. Justin Walley and Terell Smith can cause havoc in the backfield as well.
The Gophers Garner Praise
Minnesota earned a lot of praise on the Big Ten Network this week. Former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt pointed out that the defense is more complicated than most college defenses, but that the staff prioritizes bringing in smart guys who are willing to put in the study time. Former Florida and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said the game will be won at the line of scrimmage. He expects Ibrahim to see a lot of carries and likes the Gophers to win. He also called Minnesota the team to beat in the Big Ten West.
Speaking of the Big Ten West, Minnesota is the lone team in the division without a loss. In the East, Michigan State is the only team with a loss.
How the Gophers Stack Up
Minnesota visits Michigan State with the only unbeaten record in the Big Ten West on the line. This will be the Gopher’s most challenging game of the season to date, and their first full game without their leading receiver. A lot will come down to whether the Spartans have a solution for Ibrahim, and whether they can avoid turnovers. The home field could be enough of an edge to give Sparty the win.