EAST LANSING - There are a myriad of interesting storylines surrounding Michigan State's second matchup with Youngstown State in the past three seasons.
Unfortunately, many of them will only be worthy of a passing mention by the time the ball is kicked off at 2 p.m. - barring another threat of a lightning storm - at Spartan Stadium.
Because despite the numerous connections that exist between the MSU and YSU programs, the only word that will be on everybody's mind at gametime will be Q-U-A-R-T-E-R-B-A-C-K.
Namely, MSU's quarterback.
The ongoing saga is expected to take yet another turn on Saturday with sophomore Connor Cook expected to get the start and with the possibility that true freshman Damion Terry could have his redshirt lifted and be inserted in Saturday's game.
"The question is our offense. We're looking for production, looking for somebody to take and seize the moment there. We obviously have to get more production offensively in terms of points,'' seventh-year head coach Mark Dantonio said.
By the way, some of those interesting connections that probably won't get enough coverage before and after Saturday's matchup: the fact that Dantonio was defensive secondary coach and defensive coordinator at Youngstown State from 1986-90. Or the fact that Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, is the son of former YSU head coach Bill Narduzzi. Or how about the fact that co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Jim Bollman was a YSU assistant from 1986-90. And of course, let's not forget that linebackers and special teams coach Mike Tressel is the nephew of former Penguins head coach Jim Tressel.
There's even an interesting note concerning the MSU QB who is expected to get the bulk of the snaps on Saturday. Cook, a former Walsh Jesuit High School signal caller will be on opposite sideliness from his former Warriors' teammate Nick Wargo, a YSU redhsirt freshman, who took over the reigns at Walsh in 2011 after Cook's departure.
But again, none of that will mean much on Saturday as the offense searches for consistency, a permanent leader, and the one thing Dantonio mentioned time and time again in his weekly press conference. Rhythm.
"We've got to find a rhythm,'' Dantonio said. "I also believe when we do, it will turn, there will be a momentum surge, not just for the offense but for our entire football team. That will re-energize this football team to its capacity. That's what we've got to look to do.''
While the quarterback carousel continues to be an issue, no matter what the final result, the one aspect of MSU's progress that can't be denied is the strength of the defense.
With four touchdowns scored - three by sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun - and six forced turnovers in eight quarters of football, MSU's dominating defense has become the real story of early 2013 season.
It is a defense, led by senior linebacker Max Bullough, who is tied for the team lead in tackles at 13 along with another senior linebacker in Denicos Allen and junior safety Kurtis Drummond, that will be facing an NCAA Football Subdivision that has rolled up 95 points against two other FCS teams that don't offer scholarships.
"They've got a really good defense and statistically, it obviously shows up on paper but on film it shows up even more,'' fourth-year YSU head coach Eric Wolford said. "On third down I think they're 85 percent. That's unheard of in college football. So they're pretty stout.
"Coach Dantonio's a defensive guy and I wouldn't expect anything else. You know they're going to play good defense and that's the way it's gonna be.''
The Penguins, a former powerhouse in Division I-AA, opened the season with a 28-10 victory over Dayton before stomping Morehead State in the followup, 67-13.
Led by senior quarterback Kurt Hess, already the program's record holder for career touchdown passes (56), passing yards per game (201.5), 200-yard passing games (19) and passer rating (142.53), YSU is looking to make a statement.
The last time the two teams met in 2011, the Spartans captured a hard-earned 28-6 victory with Hess finishing 17-of-35 for 126 yards with one TD and one interception.
Seventeen of the present Penguins, including eight starters, were on that 2011 team.
"I don't make any predictions but we expect to play well, said Wolford, whose program is 0-5 against Big Ten competition but did knock off Pittsburgh last season. "We've been in big games before. I think the biggest matchup you'll see is at the line of scrimmage. They've got some big ole boys up front. So the big question will be if we can physically match them for 70-something plays.''
The experience of Hess, who enters Saturday's contest with 25 completions on 38 attempts for 355 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions, should help the Penguins' cause.
YSU's run game is led by senior Adaris Bellamy who has an 11.9 yards per carry average after gaining 203 yards on 17 carries.
Bellamy has scored one touchdown for a run game that also utilizes the talents of another senior running back Torrian Pace. Pace, who has the most carries among the Penguins stable of runners with 21, has gained 90 yards and scored three touchdowns this season.
Sophomore Marcel Caver leads the receivers with six catches for 126 yards and a touchdown, while the offensive line is anchored by senior center and preseason All-American Chris Elkins, who was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference's Offensive Lineman of the Week on Monday.
Elkins centers an o-line that lists four seniors and just one redshirt freshman as starters on the depth chart.
The Penguins attack has also been supplemented by junior kicker Joey Cejudo, who earned MVFC Spacialist of the Week honors this week.
Defensively, the Penguins are led by junior linebacker Travis Williams and his 12 tackles, including two for loss and one sack.
Williams is aided by senior linebacker Ali Cheaib and redshirt freshman safety Jameel Smith. Cheaib has 11 tackles, while Smith has added 10 stops.
Youngstown State's defense will be facing a Spartan offense that has scored just two touchdowns, doesn't exhibit much of a passing game and is desperately seeking some consistency.
Junior running back Jeremy Langford leads the Spartans in both rushing and receptions. As a runner, Langford has 29 carries for 132 yards and a two scores. He has also caught seven passes for 28 yards.
Oddly enough, while Cook is expected to get a majority of the snaps on Saturday, senior Andrew Maxwell still leads MSU with 114 yards on 15-of-30 passes. Of course, that means absolutely nothing for a team that ranks 120th out of 123 FBS teams in pass efficiency, completing less than 50 percent of its passes with no touchdowns. The Spartans are averaging just 105 passing yards per game.
"If we're going to be successful, sometimes you have to look at change, too. We need to score more points than we did last year,'' Dantonio said. "We don't have Le'Veon Bell in the system right now, so we need to adapt in some ways. So we're adapting a little bit. We're changing a little bit. But within that you have structure and you have to look at it. We have to get the questions answered.''
The Spartans top wide receiver after two games is junior Keith Mumphery, who has five grabs for 42 yards among a group that has totaled just 157 yards so far this season.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
MSU: With Notre Dame looming on the horizon, this needs to be a game where a lot of players get a lot of reps. The Spartans can't be fooling around with the Penguins for three quarters before solidifying a win in the fourth. MSU needs to be efficient and the Penguins on ice early.
YSU: The Penguins just need to hang around if they have any hopes of pulling off a monumental upset. They have to avoid having the game be essentially over at halftime because the Spartans have built a four- or five-score lead. Execution and ball security will be key for YSU's chances in a hostile environment.
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