Hello again, Canes fam! We’re back for another opponent Q&A as the Canes head deeper into the 2021 season.
Joining us today to talk about his beloved Michigan State Spartans is Ryan O’Bleness. He’s one of the writers over at our SB Nation sister-site The Only Colors.
I returned the favor and answered some of Ryan’s questions about Miami. You an check that out right here:
Why has Miami struggled to start season? What should the Hurricanes be most worried about from the Spartans? @UnderwoodSports of @TheStateOfTheU answers these questions and more ahead of Saturday’s Michigan State versus Miami matchup. https://t.co/ksa4WDGYAL— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) September 17, 2021
Now, it’s time to talk about Sparty with Ryan. Let’s get into it:
Q1. So yeah. New year, new you, right? What has led to the resurgence for the Spartans in 2021?
The Only Colors (TOC): Mel Tucker has reinvented the roster in his vision, with several players from the 2020 roster transferring out or leaving for other reasons, and several new players transferring in. Between transfers and true freshmen there are around 35 or so new scholarship players, plus new walk-ons as well. Tucker has begun to lay the foundation of the sort of culture and program he wants to have, and the players have bought into it 100 percent. They believe in his plan and they believe in themselves.
Wake Forest transfer junior running back Kenneth Walker III, redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne and redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed have led an offensive resurgence for Michigan State — a team that has struggled offensively for the previous three seasons or so — while senior safety Xavier Henderson has led the defense (which has some things to clean up as a unit, but has generally kept teams off of the scoreboard for the most part).
Q2. What is the ceiling for Michigan State this year, and in the intermediate term with Mel Tucker as the Head Coach?
TOC: I would say the ceiling for the 2021 season is probably nine or 10 wins, including a victory in a bowl game — especially if Michigan State defeats Miami this weekend. I think seven or eight wins is more likely, though. After a porous 2020 season (obviously having a brand new coaching staff come in during a global pandemic year was tough to navigate), Michigan State came into this season with low expectations from the national media, and some wondered if this team would even qualify for a bowl game. Two games in, the Spartans have played much better than expected, with a 2-0 start. The Big Ten East is highly competitive, though, with games against Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, so it’s a difficult road. This weekend’s game against Miami is the toughest test yet, and will show us what the Spartans are truly made out of.
As for the near future and long term, it’s hard to predict whether or not Tucker will take the program back to Mark Dantonio levels of success — multiple Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl victory and a College Football Playoff appearance — but he is doing all of the right things. Tucker has used the transfer portal to his advantage, gained a lot of recent momentum on the high school recruiting trail, put an emphasis on strength, conditioning and nutrition plans for the players and is continuing to build the culture. Michigan State fans are excited about the future.
Q3. Kenneth Walker has been a revelation for you guys since he transferred over from Wake Forest. What has he brought to the field that has been effective for the offense?
TOC: The Michigan State running game was horrid last season, and really, for each of the past three seasons or so. MSU averaged just 91.4 rushing yards per game, and just 2.7 yards per attempt, ranking toward the bottom of the FBS in both categories. Kenneth Walker III — along with sophomore running back Jordon Simmons and improved offensive line play — has helped the Spartans average 299 rushing yards per game through two contests, which currently ranks sixth in the country.
Walker was a highly-touted player coming out of Wake Forest in the transfer portal, and expectations were high for him this season. But I don’t think anybody expected him to explode onto the scene the way he did against Northwestern, taking his first ever touch as a Spartan for a 75-yard score and finishing the game with 264 rushing yards and four touchdowns. MSU kept Walker mostly on the sidelines in an easy win against Youngstown State last week, only giving him seven carries, but Walker still turned those limited opportunities into 57 yards and a touchdown. Despite only getting a few carries last weekend, Walker currently ranks fourth in the FBS with 321 rushing yards, is second in the country with five rushing touchdowns and leads the nation with a ridiculous 10.7 yards per carry average.
So, really, Walker brings it all — speed, power, vision, football IQ, etc. — you name it, he probably possesses that trait. He is what this offense was missing and desperately needed last season. His success on Saturday will go a long way toward a victory for the Spartans.
Q4. What should we expect to see from State on offense?
TOC: Expect a lot of 11 personnel with three wide receivers. We talked about Walker, and I think you’ll see a heavy dose of him in the ground game, with Simmons getting some reps as well. Michigan State will want to use its rushing attack to set up the play-action passing game for short and intermediate passes. You may also see some read options, with Payton Thorne mobile enough to pick up a few yards on the ground on keepers.
I don’t expect the Spartans to take as many deep shots as the offense did against Youngstown State, unless Miami gets shredded in the ground game and has to bring more players into the box. So, if Walker and company are having success on the ground, expect Michigan State to set up some deeper passes, but for the most part, expect Thorne to take what the defense gives him and make good decisions with the football, similarly to how he played against Northwestern in the opener. Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are both speedy wide receivers who can take the top off of the defense, though, while Tre Mosley is a solid third wide receiver. Connor Heyward, a former running back, is now playing a tight end/H-back role, and watch out for the little things he does in the game to make a difference with his blocking, solid hands and versatile skill set.
Q5. What’s the best way for Miami to attack the MSU defense?
TOC: Michigan State runs a 4-2-5 base defense, so there are often a lot of defensive backs on the field. With that said, the Spartans have been somewhat susceptible to giving up big plays through the air this season. The unit has played more like a “bend don’t break” style, whether that is intentional or not, giving up some yardage and explosive plays, but not a lot of points.
For Miami, having D’Eriq King make plays with his feet and letting him test out a few deep balls if he gets single coverage looks might not be a bad plan, as MSU gave up a few bombs against Northwestern. Michigan State has a few defensive ends/pass rushers who are banged up, so if King is able to extend plays and create with his feet, MSU may not be able to contain him for very long. Michigan State has sent a few safety blitzes with Xavier Henderson (who is having an outstanding start to the season), so having a few quick passes/blitz beaters ready for if Henderson or another player gets pressure on the quarterback is smart. The defense is going to be aggressive and spill and attack the ball carrier.
Against the run, Michigan State has been respectable so far, allowing 3.4 yards per attempt and 142 yards yards per game. But Miami will need to get Cam’Ron Harris going and not allow the MSU defense to make the Hurricanes one-dimensional. Miami probably has more team speed overall, and as I mentioned, MSU is a bit banged up at the defensive end position. So, if Miami can get to the edges, the Hurricane players will probably win most foot races (but the Spartans have some good athletes on defense as well).
Q6. Call your shot: how’s the game play out on Saturday, and include a score (unless you’re CHICKEN)?
TOC: Oh, Cameron, I am never afraid to call my shot. Miami has shown its vulnerabilities, but this game certainly worries me. The heat and humidity in Miami Gardens for a noon kickoff makes for a tough place to play in September, and I think Manny Diaz will have his team more focused and prepared to play against Michigan State than it appeared to be in the first two games. The Hurricanes feel like a team looking to make a statement after a couple of less than stellar performances in a row.
I actually think it’s going to be a fun, close game throughout with a decent amount of scoring. However, Michigan State is still gelling together and figuring out what kind of team it will be this season. I fear that this showdown on a national stage on ABC may be too big of a moment for Michigan State at this early part of the season. The Spartans are going to push the Hurricanes every step of the way, and won’t back down from the challenge, but I have a feeling MSU is going to lose a heartbreaker and come up just short.
Score prediction: Miami 31, Michigan State 28
Thanks to Ryn for joining us for the Q&A this week. You can check out his work, and the work of other talented writers covering Michigan State athletics, over at The Only Colors.