November 29, 2013

Still playing for something

EAST LANSING - Don't tell the No. 11 Michigan State football team that there's nothing to play for when they meet Minnesota on Saturday.

Despite clinching the Legends Division title last Saturday with a win over Northwestern, the Spartans will still have plenty to play for when they close out the regular season at noon at Spartan Stadium against the Gophers (BTN).

MSU, which will meet Ohio State on Dec. 7th for the Big Ten championship and the right to go to the Rose Bowl, will have plenty at stake when they host Minnesota.

There will be a chance to complete the conference schedule undefeated for just the third time in program history - the first since the Big Ten moved to eight games- to move into the Top 10 of the BCS rankings. and finally, the opportunity to send their 18-member senior class out with a win in their last home appearance.

While all of those goals don't seem as lofty as getting to Pasadena, they are very important to a team that will be looking for its third 11-win season in four years.

"We are nowhere near finished yet,'' said defensive tackle Micajah Reynolds, who will be one of the 18 seniors honored prior to Saturday's game. We still have three big games. This game is very important and has a lot of implications. It's really hard not to jump ahead to next week but we're just trying to maintain our focus and remember that there are a lot of things on the line for this game as well.''

In order to do that though, the Spartans (10-1, 7-0) will need to overcome a challenge from the conference's biggest and most pleasant surprise of the season in Minnesota.

And while the Gophers (8-3, 4-3) may not be in line for a BCS bowl berth, they too are playing for something despite becoming bowl eligible for the second straight season with an upset victory over then-No. 24 Nebraska back on Oct. 26th.

Minnesota will be looking to improve its standing nationally to earn the best bowl bid it can and the only way to do that is by beating an MSU team that boasts the best defense in the conference and hasn't lost since Sept. 21st.

The Spartans, who will be facing the Gophers for the 46th time, hold a 28-17 series advantage and a 15-6 mark in games played in East Lansing. However, in the last 11 contests from 1998-2012, the Gophers have the advantage, winning six of those games.

Minnesota last beat the Spartans in 2006.

Offensively, the Gophers, who have thrived and almost seemingly been inspired by their head coach Jerry Kill's ongoing battle with epilepsy, aren't a flashy unit.

But what they are is a scrappy, well-coached and disciplined bunch that has steadily gained momentum under acting head coach and defensive coordinator Terry Claeys - a nominee for the Broyles Award, handed out to the nation's top assistant coach.

Leading the way on offense for a Minnesota is junior running back David Cobb, has gained 1,010 yards on 192 carries, while scoring seven touchdowns and averaging 5.3 yards a pop.

Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson has thrown for more than 1,200 yards and has tossed nine TDs and four picks. He's also run for 343 yards and scored six times on the ground.

Nelson's favorite receiving target has been senior Derrick Engel, who has amassed 25 catches for 401 yards, while scoring five TDs. But with Engel not expected to play because of knee injury, freshman tight end Maxx Williams, who has 330 yards worth of receptions and has scored four times, may become a bigger target in the passing game.

"They can throw the ball and run it as well,'' said senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard. "They've got a couple of good receivers and their offense looks way better than it did last year. It's a better team for sure.''

All of this production has been done behind an offensive line that averages more than 300 pounds per man and is led by junior left guard Zac Epping and sophomore tackle Josh Campion.

While the Gophers have averaged a modest 351.3 yards of offense a game, they are a notable 6th in the country in red zone offense, converting at 93.9 percent inside the 20.

But Minnesota will be facing a defense that doesn't allow a lot of teams to get that close.

Tops in the country in total defense (236.6) and rushing defense (59.4), the Spartans give up just 12.5 points a game and will be facing a Gopher team that puts up 28.5 points a game.

Heading up MSU's defense is junior safety Kurtis Drummond and his 71 tackles, which includes three for loss, and his four picks and five pass breakups.

Drummond's work is assisted by four more standouts on a great defense with senior linebackers Max Bullough and a Denicos Allen, senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard and sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun.

Despite the reputation established by MSU's defense, Bullough knows Minnesota won't be intimidated by the Spartans' impressive defensive numbers.

"They're a tough football team,'' Bullough said. "They're a team that's adopted a mindset of they're going to run the ball and they're going to do what they do and hit you in the mouth to see if you can stop them. They're kind of like Iowa now, an old school Wisconsin. They run three or four plays and they just try and get better at them, and the more specific your game plan is the better you can get at those plays.''

While the Spartans were one of the most offensively-challenged teams in the Big Ten early in the season they have grown to be a unit that has come to complement the defense.

Led by sophomore Connor Cook's nearly 2,000 yards of passing and 16 TDs against just four interceptions, MSU is now producing 30.8 points a game behind 186.6 rushing yards, 198.6 passing yards and a No. 1 ranking in time of possession at 34:38.

Junior running back Jeremy Langford will be looking for his seventh-straight 100-yard game after averaging 4.8 yards a carry and scoring 15 TDs, while sophomore Macgarrett Kings still holds a slight edge in pass receptions with 33 for 370 yards and three TDs.

Senior Bennie Fowler, who has a team-leading 481 yards in receptions, also leads MSU's wideouts in TD receptions with six.

MSU's offensive line is led by a trio of seniors Blake Treadwell, Fou Fonoti and Dan France.

Defensively, Minnesota will be counting on former junior college transfer and junior linebacker Damien Wilson, who leads the team in tackles with 65, while contributing 5.5 tackles for loss.

Junior defensive back Cedric Thompson is second on the team in tackles with 60.

The Gophers' defense, which is surrendering 375.6 yards a game and 23.1 points a game, also boasts senior defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman's 11 tackles for loss and third-leading tackler senior linebacker Aaron Hill's team-leading two interceptions.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

MSU With so much going on emotionally and the possibility that some players peeking ahead to the conference championship game, the Spartans biggest challenge may be staying grounded early in the ballgame. MSU would really help its cause for a perfect Big Ten regular season if they could put the Gophers down and take them out of their comfort zone on offense.

MINNESOTA The Gophers must continue to do what serves them well, taking care of the ball and not making mistakes so they can hang in with a chance to steal a victory late in the afternoon. Of course, if Minny can force a few added turnovers that would help but the Gophers will need to dominate special teams in order to win this contest.



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