Michigan State (2-2) dropped out of the national rankings for the first time this season following a 24-21 overtime loss at Indiana last Saturday. That’s two losses in a row for the Spartans, something that hasn’t happened in four years. Mark Dantonio said Tuesday that “Our goals are still in our own hands in terms of what we can accomplish here,” but the expectation bar has been adjusted.
Brigham Young (2-3) comes to East Lansing this Saturday for the first-ever game between the schools in the final nonconference game of the regular season for Michigan State. The Cougars play as an independent, just as Notre Dame does only without the TV money from NBC. So far they’ve played three games against teams from the Pac-12, one against a Big 12 team and one against a Mid-American Conference team, so on Saturday you can add the Big Ten to the list of leagues faced, a list that will eventually reach eight different conferences plus one independent.
Kickoff is scheduled for at 3:30 p.m. at Spartan Stadium. The early forecast calls for a high temperature in the low 60s but with plenty of sunshine.
Here are five story lines to watch:
1. Don’t leave your seat
All five of BYU’s games this season have been decided by three points or less. That includes a 55-53 shootout win against Toledo last Friday in Utah. BYU beat Arizona by 2 points in its opener, then lost at Utah by 1, at home against UCLA by 3 and then against West Virginia by 3 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
This game may not be played in the 50s but there could be plenty of scoring and it could be tight throughout.
2. Can the offensive line find its rhythm?
The unit came into the season with plenty of question marks but seemed to have answered many of those with the win at Notre Dame. Since rushing for 260 yards and averaging 5 yards per carry against the Fighting Irish, the Spartans are averaging 3.7 yards per carry in the last two games. There has been a lot of shuffling in the starting five, and that’s caused confusion and a lack of cohesion.
Kodi Kieler, last year’s starter at right tackle, began this season at center but was again at right tackle last week at Indiana. He’s now been moved over to left tackle ahead of David Beedle, while left guard Brian Allen has been switched to center. The search for the right combination of five has had mixed results – at best – this season.
3. How does Michigan State fare with Malik McDowell out for the first half?
The junior defensive lineman has to sit the first 30 minutes after being called for targeting in the fourth quarter at Indiana. The penalty was called for what appeared to be a textbook hit on IU quarterback Richard Lagow but the call on the field that McDowell led with the crown of his helmet down was upheld by replay officials.
McDowell leads the Michigan State defensive line with 13 tackles. He has 6 career sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss but he has yet to get a sack this season as opponents have focused their attention on making sure McDowell is blocked with however many players it takes. The Spartans haven’t gotten consistent pressure on the quarterback even when McDowell is double- or triple-teamed. It’ll be harder with the news that Raequan Williams, who is the only Michigan State player with more than 1 sack, will miss the next couple of games with an undisclosed injury suffered against Indiana.
That makes the next story line more important …
4. BYU running back Jamaal Williams could reach a school record
If he does, odds are that it will be a disappointing afternoon for the Spartans. Williams (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) set a school single-game record with 286 yards rushing against Toledo and equaled another with 5 touchdowns. Williams is No. 2 in the nation with 703 yards this season and he is just 226 yards shy becoming the top rusher in BYU history, a spot currently held by grad assistant coach Harvey Unga with 3,454 yards.
Michigan State’s defense is allowing just 3.1 yards per rush but in the last two games Wisconsin and Indiana have combined to convert 16 of 32 third-down attempts, which has helped lead to 80 rushes against the Spartans. Williams is the kind of back who would fit in perfectly in the Michigan State offensive scheme. He has 13 career 100-yard games. BYU is 10-3 in those games.
5. Michigan State’s freshmen wide receivers need to grow up fast
Trishton Jackson and Justin Layne joined Donnie Corley as freshmen receivers seeing action against Indiana. That’s good news for those wanting to see the future now. It’s bad news when the first-year players drop passes that could be big plays, run the wrong routes or don’t run routes at all. Dantonio said all of those things happened and contributed to the loss against the Hoosiers.
If the freshmen are going to play, they can’t have major mistakes like they did last week. Growing pains are part of the deal but they hindered the offense and quarterback Tyler O’Connor at inopportune times last week.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo