Michigan State at Minnesota

Sports Xchange

October 11, 2017 at 1:27 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
SITE: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
TV: Big Ten Network
SERIES: Michigan State leads 29-17. The Spartans won the last meeting 14-3 in 2013 in East Lansing.
RANKINGS: Michigan State No. 21

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Spartans

–LB Joe Bachie was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after a huge outing in the win over the Wolverines. The sophomore middle linebacker tied for the team lead with 10 tackles while intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble. He’s been Michigan State’s most consistent defensive player this season, leading the team with 44 tackles while adding five tackles for loss, including two sacks.

–S David Dowell has started just two games for the Spartans, but the sophomore is quickly proving he has a nose for the football. He had seven tackles in the victory over Michigan, but it was his penchant for the turnover that was a big difference in the game. Dowell recovered a first-half fumble to thwart a Michigan scoring drive then added two second-half interceptions as the Michigan State defense locked up the upset victory.

–QB Brian Lewerke continues to make plays with his feet, leading the Spartans in rushing with 61 yards against Michigan. The awful weather conditions forced Michigan State abandon much of its passing attack, but Lewerke’s decision making and poise were critical in the victory. He scrambled for a 14-yard touchdown run to take the lead in the first quarter and helped lock up the win in the fourth quarter with a 4-yard on third-and-3 after he fumbled the shotgun snap.

Gophers

–S Duke McGhee sat out a second game due to a suspension, but he should return to the field against Michigan State. With the secondary depleted due to an influx of injuries, McGhee is vital player for the Gophers.

–QB Conor Rhoda might be looking over his shoulder. After starting the season splitting time with Demry Croft, Rhoda gained the full-time job when Croft was suspended for the last three games. With Croft slated to be available this week, Rhoda’s play will be even more watched.

–RB Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks will find running the ball tough against Michigan State’s vaunted defense. Smith and Brooks have to move the chains and respond with big plays at key moments if the Gophers want to pull off the upset.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

Michigan State is surprisingly back on the national radar and the reason can be summed up quickly.

The No. 21 Spartans have already won more games this season than they did all last year.

Michigan State (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) looks to continue its impressive rebound from last season’s 3-9 campaign when it visits Minnesota on Saturday.

The Spartans are fresh off consecutive victories over Iowa and Michigan, and coach Mark Dantonio will be closely observing how his team handles the success.

“The message to our football team right now is, ‘What are you going to do now? How are you going to respond?'” Dantonio said during a press conference. “Whether it was after a loss or after a win, how are we going to handle anything that comes our way now?

“We’re going to be judged by our next thing. The next thing on our agenda is Minnesota. We go north and think (about) them.”

The Golden Gophers (3-2, 0-2) have dropped their last two games as they adjust to the methods of first-year coach P.J. Fleck.

Minnesota allowed 31 points in each setback to Maryland and Purdue, and fifth-year senior quarterback Conor Rhoda has come under fire for his miscues, which include a lost fumble and an interception in last Saturday’s 31-17 loss to the Boilermakers.

Fleck said he isn’t considering a quarterback change — he is mindful that Rhoda threw only 17 career passes prior to this season.

“Well, he’s the best quarterback we have right now,” Fleck said. “That’s the easiest way to be able to go through it in my mind as a head football coach. I mean, we wouldn’t be 3-2 if it wasn’t for Conor Rhoda, right?

“But one thing I’ll say about Conor Rhoda is, you know, he’s played six total games in his entire career and we want him to have 60 years of experience or 60 games of experience in six games, and say: ‘Why do you do this? Why do you do that?'”

Rhoda has passed for 786 yards and five touchdowns against four interceptions. His top target is sophomore Tyler Johnson, who has 17 receptions for 366 yards and three touchdowns.

Juniors Rodney Smith (398 yards, two touchdowns) and sophomore Shannon Brooks (315 yards, five scores) form a fine backfield duo. Smith has career eight 100-yard games.

Minnesota averages 28 points per game but could find it tough to approach that against the stingy Michigan State defense that forced five turnovers in Saturday’s 14-10 victory over Michigan.

The Spartans rank fourth nationally in total defense at 258.6 yards per game. Michigan State is tied for 11th in rushing defense (97.2 yards per game), and is 13th in scoring defense (16.4) and passing defense (161.4).

Three sophomores have played a major role in the defensive success. Middle linebacker Joe Bachie has a team-high 44 tackles (including five for losses), defensive end Kenny Willekes has a team-best six tackles for loss and safety David Dowell has a team-leading two interceptions.

Offensively, the Spartans are far from flashy while averaging 22.4 points per game.

Sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke is a scrappy player who is completing 61.3 percent of his passes and also leads the team with 309 rushing yards. Lewerke has passed for 1,057 yards and nine touchdowns against two interceptions.

Junior running back LJ Scott (214 yards, one touchdown) is expected back after missing the Michigan game. Dantonio said Scott sat out because he was “nicked up.”

The Spartans will look to find ways to get junior Felton Davis (22 receptions, 265 yards, four touchdowns) and sophomore Darrell Stewart (20 for 212, one score) open downfield against a Minnesota secondary that could be without starting safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Duke McGhee.

Winfield, a sophomore, is nursing a hamstring injury and is out this week. McGhee, a senior, has missed two straight games because of suspension. Fleck hasn’t yet decided whether to reinstate McGhee.

“Duke will possibly be back,” Fleck said. “We’ll see how his week of practice goes.”

Senior linebacker Jonathan Celestin is Minnesota’s leading tackler with 41.

Momentum aside, Dantonio isn’t expecting an easy time Saturday.

“I think Minnesota is a football team right now that’s growing,” Dantonio said. “Obviously has a new culture there. There’s new things going on. I think Coach Fleck is doing an outstanding job up there. They play extremely hard. They’ve been in every football game and had opportunities to win.”

Saturday’s game will mark the first meeting since Michigan State recorded a 14-3 home win in 2013. The Spartans have won the last four matchups and lead the series 29-17.