I have a lot of respect for former Minnesota offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, now the OC and play-caller at Michigan State. Plus, he’s got the best quarterback and skill position group that Joe Rossi’s defense has faced all year.
The big question that needs to be answered is, does Spartans WR1 Jayden Reed play in this game after not traveling and missing the Washington game last week with an injury. He is the straw that stirs the drink for the Michigan State passing game, and I say that knowing there’s a lot of talent elsewhere in that room. But they are a different passing offense without him, so we’ll see if he returns.
But Minnesota will have to put a body on dual-sport athlete Keon Coleman, who leads the team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards in Reed’s absence. Coleman is also on Tom Izzo’s basketball team, so you know he knows how to go up and get it. I’d imagine we’ll see a lot of Terell Smith and Justin Walley against him.
Tre Mosley has been dangerous out of the slot for Michigan State, and he is currently third on the team in targets and tied for the team lead with three receiving touchdowns. Ryan Stapp and Michael Dixon are going to have to find him. I’ll also be curious to see how Minnesota decides to cover tight end Daniel Barker, who is second on the team in targets. Will it be Michael Dixon or a linebacker?
But the head of the snake for this Michigan State offense is their quarterback Payton Thorne. He’s a big, strong, athletic quarterback who can break the pocket and get yards with his legs, and he’s got the arm to push the ball down the field with ease.
If I’m defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, I’m doing whatever I can to throw as many different looks at Thorne as possible, but the key for Minnesota’s defense will be to get Thorne off his spot. According to Pro Football Focus, Thorne is completing 66% of his passes with six touchdowns to zero interceptions when the pocket is kept clean around him. When he’s under pressure, that completion percentage drops to 50%, and he’s thrown four interceptions with just one touchdown.
It will be a double-edged sword for Minnesota if they can’t generate pressure with four or five, which is why it’s going to be huge to see if guys like Trill Carter, Thomas Rush, Jalen Logan-Redding, Danny Striggow, and Jah Joyner, among others, can get into Thorne’s face. If they can’t, and Rossi’s got to send blitzes, there will be a lot of one-on-one opportunities for the Michigan State WR’s and A LOT of green for Thorne to run to if he breaks the pocket.
But getting pressure on Thorne will be massive for the Gophers in this game.
I mean, did you expect to read something else here?
Chris Autman-Bell is now out for the season, and he was leading the team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards. I’ll continue to bang the drum and say it can’t be just one guy that can fill the shoes of Autman-Bell, but it’s going to have to be a collective effort.
Dylan Wright was already playing a ton of snaps, folks. His 112 snaps through the first three games are higher than any other three-game stretch in his career. But it’s now about featuring his skill set more. I want to see more out of Wright knowing where to be in the RPO game, but there’s no doubt in that play-action game or the red zone; he can’t be ignored.
Brevyn Spann-Ford is the leading target guy currently not named Chris Autman-Bell, and I expect him to remain in the top three in targets each game. He’s got the highest receiving grade on the team right now with an 83.6 PFF grade and will be counted on more on third downs and to move the chains.
But we already knew about Wright and Spann-Ford, so it’s going to be guys like Daniel Jackson and Michael Brown-Stephens that need to assume more prominent roles. But my question is, who is now the slot receiver and who gets Autman-Bell’s snaps on the outside, where Chris had lined up on 90% of his 2022 snaps. We saw in 2021 that Jackson was the guy inside with a 77% slot rate, and it was MBS who played outside. Well, with Jackson injured to start the year and just returning last week, Brown-Stephens has slid inside as a whopping 86.5% of his snaps have come out of the slot. While in his first week back last week, it was Jackson who ONLY played outside.
So who will be where Michigan State is something to watch.
I also know folks are clamoring for more of seventh-year receiver Clay Geary, but my question is, where are the increased snaps going to come from? Autman-Bell didn’t play inside, and that’s where all but one of Geary’s snaps came from.
This Michigan State secondary is the most exploitable part of their defense. We saw it last week as Washington picked them apart with the short passing game and then deep shots. That should again be the recipe for Kirk Ciarrocca as I have a lot of respect for the Spartans pass-rush, led by two-time Big Ten defensive player of the week Jacoby Windham and DL Simeon Barrow.
When kept clean in 2022, there is not a quarterback in the Big Ten with a better passing grade than Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan with a 93.7 grade. But when he had pressure around him, his passing grade dropped to 59.9. Keep Morgan clean, and good things will happen. Let Windham and Barrow get in his face, and like most college quarterbacks, it probably won’t end as well.
Jay Johnson’s Michigan State offense is pretty damn explosive, as through the first three games, the Spartans have seven passing touchdowns of over 15 yards, and five of those are 25+ yards. In contrast, Minnesota’s starting defense has given up one passing play of over 25 yards in their first three games combined.
I think many Gopher Football fans know by now that the two things a Joe Rossi-led defense wants to do on any given week are stop the run and limit big plays. So let’s start with how the Gophers are playing against the run, and I’m going to include the first three quarters of work from the first three games, as Minnesota’s starters were out in the fourth quarter in all three games.
Minnesota’s starting defense has allowed 135 rushing yards on 52 carries with zero rushing touchdowns, which comes out to a balmy 2.59 yards per carry. Michigan State’s top running backs, Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard, have combined to rush for 5.22 ypc with six rushing touchdowns in their first three games. Berger is more of their north-south running back who gets downhill quickly, while Broussard is more shifty and elusive in space.
But a lot of this running game stuff comes down to Minnesota’s front seven vs. Michigan State’s OL. Per Bill Connelly of ESPN, the Spartans averaged negative yards before contact last week against Washington, which is going to play a massive part in why their rushing game couldn’t get going. As if you already have a defender on you in the backfield before you get to the line of scrimmage, it’s a lot tougher sledding. The Gophers’ defensive line has to continue to bring the physicality up front, and Sori-Marin and Oliver have to wrap up.
I talked about Michigan State’s pass-catchers earlier, but I’ll say again that they are the best group of skill guys this Gopher secondary has seen all year. And Thorne isn’t afraid to throw up 50/50 balls to them. For what I still perceive as the strength of this Gopher defense, we’ll find out if that remains true after this game.
For the Gopher offense, they’ve got to hit some play-action shots. Michigan State’s defense allowed 11 passes of 15+ yards last week, and the Gophers will need more than a handful if they win this game on the road. And Michigan State’s rushing defense has been outstanding so far, as they’ve allowed 2.69 yards per carry on 100 attempts against them. Contrast that with the Gophers rushing for 5.8 yards per carry on 161 attempts.
Mo Ibrahim is a tremendous back, but he will need some holes to run through against the best-run defense to date.
Win the explosive plays battle, and you’ll likely come away with a win.