There’s been a lot of talk around East Lansing this week has been about attitude adjustments. The Michigan State players haven’t been happy with their own, so much so that several upperclassmen got up and spoke to the entire team — coaches and players — before a team meeting on Tuesday. How this all translates onto the field Saturday vs. Brigham Young remains to be seen.
Michigan State (2-2, 0-2 Big Ten) is trying to break a 2-game losing streak and will have to do it against a 2-3 BYU team which, despite having a losing record, is more than capable of coming into Spartan Stadium and winning. All five of BYU’s games this season have been decided by 3 points or fewer, with four of the five games coming against Power-5 conference teams.
This is the first time these two programs have played each other, but BYU is quite familiar with the Big Ten, sporting a 4-8-1 all-time record against the conference. Last season, the Cougars opened the season with a 33-28 win at Nebraska on a game-ending Hail Mary and lost 31-0 at Michigan.
Here’s a closer look at Saturday’s matchup:
When Michigan State has the ball
The Spartans should keep game film of their two second-half scoring drives against Indiana last weekend archived so they can review whenever they need to remember who they are. The two drives consumed a total of 20 snaps, chewed up a total of 69 rushing yards on 10 carries, and saw QB Tyler O’Connor go 9 of 10 for 83 yards and 2 touchdowns. They were balanced and they didn’t commit any penalties.
L.J. Scott is still listed as the No. 1 running back right now, but finding a positive rhythm with Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London all capable of carrying the bulk of the load has been a struggle. Michigan State would like to establish one of them early to set the offensive tone.
The Cougars defense is aggressive, averaging more than 6 tackles for loss per game this season and sporting one of the nation’s co-leaders in interceptions in safety Kai Nacua (4 INTs). That aggressiveness can be taken advantage of, however, as BYU has given up a combined 88 points in its last two games against West Virginia and Toledo.
Advantage: Michigan State
When BYU has the ball
Michigan State will be without redshirt freshman DT Raequan Williams for the game because of an undisclosed injury and standout junior DL Malik McDowell for the first half after he was called for targeting in the 24-21 OT loss at Indiana. That doesn’t bode well considering senior running back Jamaal Williams is in the BYU backfield.
Jamaal Williams (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) would fit perfectly into Michigan State’s offensive game plan, so the Spartans will have their hands full trying to slow down the No. 2 rusher in the nation. Williams had a school-record 286 yards against Toledo last week and has 703 yards and 8 touchdowns this season. Senior quarterback Taysom Hill doesn’t have great numbers (59.6-percent completions, 5 touchdowns, 6 interceptions) but he can also run the ball and he is the Cougars’ emotional leader after coming back from season-ending injuries each of the last two seasons.
There have been 14 different players to catch a pass for BYU this season, five with at least 12 catches. Nick Kurtz leads the way with 18 receptions for 205 yards. But the attack is balanced enough that each of the five players with 12 catches has 1 touchdown grab. Michigan State’s pass defense hasn’t produced much pressure on opposing quarterbacks or shown an ability to cover tightly. Not having McDowell for the first half and seeing injured LBs Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke join Raequan Williams on the sideline for the entire game doesn’t help matters.
This area has been a disappointment so far for the Spartans. They have gotten little from the return game and the coverage units were burned for a couple of big plays by Indiana last week. Punter Jake Hartbarger has been good with 7 punts already inside the 20-yard line. But kicker Michael Geiger had one field goal blocked last week and then missed badly on a 49-yard attempt in overtime.
BYU’s coverage unit limited Toledo to 13.3 yards on 7 kickoff returns last week. Punter Jonny Linehan, a former rugby player from New Zealand, has 7 punts of 50 or more yards this season. The Cougars have had two different kickers (Jake Oldroyd vs. Arizona, Rhett Almond vs. Toledo) make game-winning field goals this season.
This is one of those weeks Mark Dantonio has to earn his money. Things aren’t going well for his team and he needs to guide it through the adversity. One good thing about Dantonio is he doesn’t flinch and his players know what to expect from him when it comes to his approach. The Spartans committed 11 penalties last week. It’s a good bet you won’t see anything near that number on Saturday.
Kalani Sitake is in his first year as the head coach of his alma mater. He played fullback for the Cougars and brings that type of intensity to the job. He spent 10 seasons as an assistant at Utah under Kyle Whittingham, one of the most underrated coaches in the country. The fact that the new coach and his staff have had their team in every game this season says a lot of good.
Advantage: Michigan State
People around East Lansing aren’t used to losing but with Michigan State having lost two games in a row for the first time in nearly four years there has been a lot of grumbling and questions from the outside. There is no feeling that those grumblings have permeated inside the team but there is an extra sense of urgency this week. Is that urgency enough to overcome three key players missing on defense, plus another for the first half?
Kevin Goheen’s prediction: BYU 27, Michigan State 24
Luke Srodulski’s prediction: Michigan State 24, BYU 23
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo
Luke Srodulski covers Michigan State recruiting for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @lsrodulski