It’s that time of year. Indiana starts Big Ten conference play this week when they host Michigan State at home Saturday night. Both teams are trying to bounce back from their first loss of the season after IU fell at home to Wake Forest and Michigan State got trounced at home against Wisconsin 30-6. I spoke with Chris Solari who covers the Spartans for the Detroit Free Press to see how they plan to rebound.
David Sugarman: A lot of people, including myself, were surprised by the game last week. What surprised you the most about the loss against Wisconsin?
Chris Solari: Just how much Wisconsin physically dominated Michigan State on both sides of the line. Michigan State came off that Notre Dame game looking pretty strong in both facets. I guess now we kind of get a better gauge of what Notre Dame really is after the loss to Duke. And I’m not necessarily sure that the Wisconsin game really showed a lot of what Michigan State really is. They abandoned a lot of their offensive plays to the edge that really worked very well against Notre Dame. They went and tried to attack Wisconsin down the field a little bit more and it just didn’t happen. Tyler O’Connor, this was the first chance that he had to really stretch the field vertically and failed with three interceptions and no touchdowns. A lot of the blame here is being put on O’Connor’s shoulders, but I think there was more than that. There were missed blocks, there were missed receivers, but he shouldered a lot of it too.
DS: You mentioned O’Connor’s struggles. This is his first game as a starter where he’s done a really poor job. What do you think Wisconsin did to get under his skin that Indiana should try and replicate?
CS: Well a lot of that stems from how much pressure Wisconsin put on him. They were blitzing from all angles and both Michigan State’s line and their running backs and their tight ends, all three facets struggled at times to pick up some of those blitzes. So if I’m Kevin Wilson I’m looking at that tape and saying, “Okay if we put O’Connor under duress, can he make the right decisions? Can he stretch the field vertically?” When he’s taking drop backs like that, if they go that route, that’s tough. That’s tough for a guy who hasn’t show the ability to put the ball over the top to his receivers in the right spots, really all season not just against Wisconsin. He’s thrown passes short, he’s thrown passes behind receivers and I think he telegraphs quite a bit too. I would just put pressure on him from the middle and from the edge.
DS: How do you think he’s going to bounce back?
CS: Well that’s one of the things that I think made Connor Cook such a good quarterback. His ability either game by game or play by play, the resiliency that he showed for three years is part of the reason Michigan State had so much success. O’Connor has yet to do that. This is his first loss. He has had some struggles so I think that will test his moxie. We haven’t seen how Tyler O’Connor responds to failure yet. This will be the first time we get to see that.
DS: Moving from O’Connor to the running game, the run game was so good against Notre Dame (260 rushing yards), why do you think it wasn’t effective against Wisconsin (75 yards)?
CS: I think they just struggled to pick up Wisconsin’s blitzes. They struggled to generate much of a drive. LJ Scott had 61 yards and had a critical fumble that went the other way for a touchdown. Really I think if you look at that score there was a lot of faulty points. Michigan State gave them basically 20 points between fumbles and interceptions in that game. In terms of the running game they tried to go up the middle against a really stout Wisconsin defense. Like I said earlier they abandoned those jet sweeps and the little passes out of jet motion around the edge that worked so well against Notre Dame and I would expect to see more of that this week. But I think the coaches felt like they failed themselves in that instance.
DS: Who is one player on each side of the ball for Michigan State that Indiana fans probably don’t know, but definitely should?
CS: From the offensive side, and I’m pretty sure the coaches know him, but fans probably don’t know the name Donnie Corley. He’s a true freshman wide receiver with real game changing talent. You saw the touchdown he had at Notre Dame went up over the top of Cole Luke, the veteran cornerback and pulled the ball away from him for his first career touchdown. He was kind of a forgotten man in that game plan last week against Wisconsin so I would look for him to be more integrally utilized by Michigan State. On the defensive side I think the two names to keep in mind are also true freshman. They’re two guys who had their redshirts burned late last week. One of them is from Fort Wayne, Auston Robertson and a defensive end from Chicago Josh King. Those are two guys that are highly recruited, highly talented defensive ends. Michigan State struggled to generate pass rush and that’s really why they’re burning the redshirts. They want these guys to play and we know that Kevin Wilson likes to run the ball up tempo so they’re going to have a lot of chances to get in there and make some plays even if it’s just rotationally.
DS: What do you think Michigan State’s biggest concern is with IU and how will they game plan for that?
CS: Well the biggest concern to me is will Riley Bullough in the middle of that defense? He sat out last week with an unspecified injury. But after the Notre Dame game when we talked to him he had ice bags on his right shoulder and arm and inside his shirt so kind of speculating as that might be the case and where the issue is. He’s been an orchestrator of that defense. He gets guys lined up in the right spots, he’s tremendous at filling the gap and he’s also probably one of the most in condition guys that they’ve got on their defense. You take that out of the middle, you take the nerve center out of the middle, I think that was part of the reason you saw some of the struggles against Wisconsin. Now especially when you speed up and accelerate the process like Indiana likes to do and you got things moving quickly, how Shane Jones if he’s in there or Byron Bullough, Riley’s brother, how they respond to that and how quickly they respond could be critical from the difference between touchdowns and stops.
DS: What’s your prediction for how this game will play out?
CS: Well I expect there to be a lot of points. I know that’s probably not a surprise. At this point Michigan State needs that offense. They need to recover and revive what they did against Notre Dame. They’ve got the capability to do it. Whether or not it was a suspect Notre Dame defense, they obviously fired their defensive coordinator; I think we saw the Michigan State offense does have the capability to put up big numbers, especially in the run game. I think they will try to control the time of possession in the game and then sit back and hope they can stop Indiana’s offense. I expect it to be an up and down game. I still think Michigan State has enough to win, but at this point I would not be surprised if Indiana comes out on top. Especially it being a night game at home. It becomes a different environment especially for a lot of young guys, Michigan State going on the road for that first test like that in the conference. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a close game.
You can follow Chris on twitter @chrissolari and read his work at http://www.freep.com/sports/spartans/
You can follow David on twitter @David_Sugarman2 and on Instagram @david_sugarman