Much has changed since Indiana’s dominant 24-0 shutout win over Michigan State in East Lansing 11 months ago.
With Tom Allen finding his groove and new Michigan State coach Mel Tucker seemingly in a search for the program floor post Mark Dantonio, it looked like IU had climbed a rung on the Big Ten East ladder for the foreseeable future.
The Hoosiers would go on to finish the 2020 season with a 6-1 Big Ten record while Tucker’s Spartans went 2-5. In August ESPN’s FPI system gave then No. 17 IU a 71.5% chance to beat unranked Michigan State. With the game now coming up on Saturday, the 6-0 Spartans will arrive in Bloomington the No. 10/9 team in the country, and FPI now gives MSU a 66.7 percent chance to win. Vegas likes the Spartans by about 3.5 points.
So how did we get here in just 11 months? Is MSU really that much better?
If they are, it isn’t because they returned more veterans from the 2020 campaign. Indiana returned 83 percent of its overall roster production from last season while Michigan State returned 74 percent according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly.
Early season schedules have no doubt played a part in the disparity between the two programs ostensibly moving in different directions. IU has played three teams currently ranked in the top-10, while none of the six teams MSU has defeated currently have a winning record.
If there is one defining reason to explain why Michigan State has quickly gotten back in front of Indiana, look no further than the quarterback position.
MSU’s Payton Thorne has passed for 1,576 yards on the season while completing 62.7 percent of his throws (98-of-157), with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions (262.7 yards per game).
The Spartans’ offense is No. 15 nationally, producing 486.8 yards per game. Those figures were No. 109 and 330.3 last year.
Kenneth Walker III has been highly productive on the ground for MSU, rushing 129 times for an NCAA best 912 yards (7.1 per carry) and nine touchdowns. According to PFF he has 132 more yards after contact than any other player in college football. Jordon Simmons has added 37 carries and 183 yards (4.9 per carry).
In the passing game the Spartans have three receivers with at least 20 catches. Jayden Reed (23 catches, 492 yards 5 TDs) and Jalen Nailor (23 catches, 490 yards, 6 TDs) have formed a formidable duo while Trey Mosely has added 20 catches for 310 yards.
Meanwhile, the biggest change with Indiana has been quarterback Michael Penix, Jr., who is 58-of-80 (72.5 percent) for 606 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions in his last two games against MSU. Those numbers look nothing like his 87-of-162 (53.7 percent) for 939 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions in five games this year.
But Penix is unlikely to even play on Saturday as he recovers from a separated shoulder. We should learn more about his status as the week unfolds, perhaps even Monday at Tom Allen’s regular press conference.
Whether it is Penix or his backup Jack Tuttle leading the way, they will be facing a Michigan State defense that has some holes. The Spartans are No. 94 nationally in total defense, allowing 420.5 yards per game. They are No. 124 against the pass, allowing 301 yards per contest. Either Tuttle or Penix are going to have to produce points against that defense to keep up.
Whoever is behind center for Indiana, they will be leading the way in a critically important game. The Hoosiers have to find a way to avoid a 2-4 start to the season with Ohio State coming in the following weekend.
Saturday’s contest against the Spartans is also a trophy game, and Indiana will try to retain the Old Brass Spittoon for the first time since 1994. To do that they will have to do something they accomplished to open that magical 2020 season — claim a win over a top-10 opponent.
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