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No panic for MSU heading into Michigan showdown

The Sports Xchange

October 13, 2015 at 7:34 pm.

Oct 10, 2015; Piscataway, NJ, USA;  Rutgers Scarlet Knights linebacker Quentin Gause (50) puts pressure on Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) during the second quarter at High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 10, 2015; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights linebacker Quentin Gause (50) puts pressure on Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) during the second quarter at High Points Solutions Stadium.  (Jim O’Connor-USA TODAY Sports)

While Michigan State continues to squeak past opponents and watch its national ranking continue to drop, there is a certain amount of angst taking over around the Spartans.

Just don’t try and convince anyone of that inside the program.

“No, we’re not panicking,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’re gonna keep coaching the next play, keep coaching and keep playing for the next play.”

The seventh-ranked Spartans would be more apt to point toward the fact they have won 32 of their last 35 games and have 11 straight victories in Big Ten road games, compiling an 18-3 mark away from home in the conference since 2010.

They’d also remind folks they have yet to lose a game this season, standing at 6-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten.

“The bottom line is we’re winning,” Dantonio said. “We’re a 6-0 football team and I keep saying, across the country, you watch what goes on every week, there’s tough games out there and people are struggling and I do believe we’re getting everybody’s best shot. But I’m sure next week will be a great football game.”

That game, of course, is the matchup with No. 12 Michigan on Saturday in Ann Arbor. It’s a rivalry game, to be sure, and it’s one Michigan State has dominated, winning six of the last seven. But few expected before the season it would be a top-15 matchup.

But with the way Michigan (5-1, 2-0) has played — the Wolverines have pitched three straight shutouts and have the No. 1 defense in the nation — combined with Michigan State’s quickly dwindling resources and this has become one of the more hyped matchups of the season.

And considering the history between the teams, the game will likely deliver on the intensity.

“The fact that I’m a freshman, I don’t really know how things are with Michigan and Michigan State,” running back LJ Scott said. “I know it’s a big rivalry, and I know there’s going to be some hate out there.”

For the Spartans, what will be more important than getting caught up in emotion is trying to right the ship in several different aspects, including special teams, up front offensively and in the defensive backfield.

The kicking game has been a problem for much of the season and it was again in the win over Rutgers. Kicker Michael Geiger had a field goal blocked and is 5-for-9 on the season while punter Jake Hartbarger totaled 35 yards on two punts, one going just 11 yards after a bad snap.

Injuries also continue to mount. Michigan State got right tackle Kodi Kieler back last week but he struggled with a right knee injury. Left tackle Jack Conklin sat out for a second game while center Jack Allen went down with an ankle injury. Tight end Josiah Price (ankle) also missed a second straight game and running back Madre London hurt his right leg and did not return.

“We’re going to allow our players to compete this week, and those that are able to play will play,” Dantonio said.

NOTES, QUOTES
PLAYERS TO WATCH

–QB Connor Cook threw for 357 yards in the victory over Rutgers, one yard shy of a career best. But he was hit often as the offensive line continued to deal with multiple injuries. Keeping the talented Michigan defense guessing will be key this week in order to keep Cook from being rushed. He’ll need as much time as he can get against a Michigan secondary that is playing as well as any in the country. Cook was outstanding at times last week and seemed as comfortable with his entire receiving corps as he has at any point this season. He’s played in, and won, his share of big games and this will be just the latest test for a player that is now 29-3 as a starter for the Spartans.

–RB LJ Scott could see himself as the unquestioned No. 1 running back this week as the status of redshirt freshman Madre London is unclear. London injured his right leg last week and missed most of the second half. Scott took over and scored the last two touchdowns for Michigan State. He and London have split carries fairly evenly so far, but this might be the week Scott, who leads the Spartans in rushing, takes the bulk of the carries, though junior Delton Williams and sophomore Gerald Holmes could still factor into the rotation.

–LB Riley Bullough is Michigan State by blood. His father and uncle starred for the Spartans long after his grandfather helped the Spartans to national titles as a player and coach. His brother, Max, won three of four against Michigan, and now it’s the junior’s turn to lead the MSU defense in the rivalry. Michigan has shown the ability to run the ball and Bullough will be vital to the Michigan State’s efforts to slow that running attack. He leads the Spartans with 55 tackles and that sort of production will be key in this matchup.

SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Michigan State 68-34-5. The Spartans won the last meeting, 35-11, last season in East Lansing

QUOTE TO NOTE: “It’s not you’re a Michigan or Michigan State fan, you literally identify yourself as part of the blue and maize or the green and white. That’s your identity, that’s your everything. Some people don’t really understand that that aren’t from around here, but I certainly do.” — Michigan State LB Riley Bullough on what the game means for a Michigan native.