Each week, a reporter covering the Gophers’ opponent will be my guest to break down his or her team. This week, it’s Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal, who breaks down the Spartans.
Q: What has been the biggest reason for Michigan State’s turnaround this year, and do you think the Spartans have a shot to win the Big Ten East?
A: Michigan State's young players are further along than I think anyone realized. I think there were high hopes for sophomore QB Brian Lewerke and he's lived up to them, but it goes beyond that. This group of wideouts, which had 14 career catches between them entering the season, has shown it's ready to make plays. Felton Davis, a junior, is the only upperclassman in a group of six or seven playing regularly. Defensively, sophomore middle linebacker Joe Bachie is off to an incredible start. The secondary, extremely young on the corners, has held up well (albeit without facing a great passing offense). And, amazingly, the Spartans are getting to the quarterback after losing several key young players in the offseason. They have 13 sacks after just 11 all of last season. The defense has been much better than expected - second-best in the Big Ten in yards allowed.
As for whether MSU is a legitimate contender, I'm not sure yet. We'll see how these guys handle the next three weeks -- all winnable games -- before playing Penn State and Ohio State back to back. If MSU enters November at 7-1 and 5-0, it'll have a shot. Because if it upsets either the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions, it would be in play in the division, depending on tiebreakers.
What gives the Spartans a shot is that they're so young, you can see the improvement week to week. Right now they might not be able to beat Penn State. By November, maybe.
Q: What should Minnesota fans expect to see out of quarterback Brian Lewerke and Michigan State’s offense?
A: He's a real dual-threat guy, not just a guy who can run so he gets that label. He has a live arm. He's a pocket passer first. But he'll run out of trouble. He's very quick on those first few steps. They'll do some designed run-options with him, too. MSU hasn't been able to run the ball consistently with its backs yet. It's a young offensive line, so I don't know if that's coming this year. But MSU will try. It'll force balance. In the passing game, so far Darrell Stewart and Felton Davis are the two wideouts to watch.
Q: How important is Joe Bachie to Michigan State’s defense?
A: Incredibly important. He's not just the QB of the defense, he's shown he's a playmaker, a better athlete than his predecessors. The Spartans a good depth at linebacker, but he's a difference-maker.
Q: Will L.J. Scott play on Saturday, and how much of an impact do you expect him to make?
A: I don't know. MSU isn't saying. Scott is MSU's most gifted and complete running back, but the other two guys, Gerald Holmes and Madre London, would be starters a lot of places.
Q: What is your prediction for the final score, and how did you arrive at it?
A: I have MSU 24, Minnesota 16. The Gophers' offensive strength, their running backs, plays right into the strength of MSU's defense, which has been sound against the run. To beat MSU, unless you've got a great line, I think you've got to be able to throw over the top a bit and have a QB who can lead a drive with his arm. I'm not sure Minnesota has that.