When Penn State and Michigan State get together, anything can happen. This week, we caught up with Kyle Thele over at The Only Colors about this week’s matchup between the Nittany Lions and the Spartans! Before we get started, we’d like to thank Kyle for his time and thoughtful answers for this week’s Interview with Football Frenemies.
1) Michigan State made a change at offensive coordinator this offseason and against lesser opponents, the offense has looked good but against MSU’s better opponents, they’ve struggled and regressed to the prior norm. What’s been the main causes of those struggles against teams like Arizona State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin?
Some of the struggles have been scheme-based. The defenses that MSU has found success against run similar schemes as the Spartans defense, which means the offense has more experience and practice seeing those fronts. While there are some coaching issues and curious play calls, a bigger issue is just pure talent. Brian Lewerke isn’t an NFL quarterback, so he doesn’t have the talent to make up for people around him like previous MSU quarterbacks have done. Similarly, as of right now they don’t seem to have a next-level playmaker that the offense can just turn and feed the ball to. A few guys may become that, but nothing as of right now. Lastly, those defenses are insanely talented. There are a lot of pros on all of those defenses and sometimes there is no point in going beyond “they are really really good.”
2) What have been the keys to success for the Spartans offense when they’re able to move the ball and score? Is it Lewerke settling in? Run game being more successful?
The biggest key for the MSU offense is really the key to any offense, they can’t survive turnovers and they can’t get behind the chains. When MSU turns the ball over or goes backwards, not only are they putting their defense in a tough spot right away, but it’s been shown that for as talented as the MSU defense is, they get tired late in games against these elite teams. Beyond that, the biggest detailed key is Lewerke’s accuracy. If he is hitting receivers in stride, not only putting the ball in places where they can make a catch but giving them room to run after, the offense can put up some big numbers. It’s a lot to put on his shoulders, and maybe more than what’s fair, but Lewerke has to be deadly accurate to beat a talented defense.
3) Michigan State’s defense was highly touted coming into the year but is coming off back-to-back rough games against Ohio State and Wisconsin. What went wrong in general in those losses and how do you expect the defense to perform on Saturday?
The squad that’s had the most success in beating the MSU defense is the MSU offense. Looking at both Ohio State and Wisconsin, the defense started off relatively strong, but quick possessions by the Spartans offense, with three-and-outs or turnovers, and the defense is forced back on the field. This defense may not be playing at the same level it was earlier in the year, but there is elite talent on that side of the ball, they just need to be in a position to play with the lead every once in a while, or even just have a nice long break on the sideline. The wear and tear has not only resulted in lopsided scores in-game, the injuries are starting to pile up. Unfortunately, this defense can’t survive this offense.
4) What are some weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball for the Spartans do you think Penn State can take advantage of on Saturday?
Teams that beat MSU do so by attacking the secondary. Don’t get me wrong, there are some talented players in the defensive backs room for Michigan State, but comparatively they are weaker on the back end. Even with that, the only way to get those passes off is with quick routes and underneath passing. Quarterbacks don’t have time to sit back in the pocket and let their receivers go to work, the the secondary is talented enough to make big plays when a QB tries to fit a ball into a small window. The other way that’s proven successful is play-action and getting the quarterback out of the pocket. The MSU safeties have struggled in their decision making and with picking angles, so when a quarterback makes them decide between run or pass, things have opened up down field.
5) Who are a few key players for the Spartans on both sides of the ball that Penn State fans may not necessarily know but could be an x-factor on Saturday afternoon?
Most of the names on defense are already well established. Kenny Willekes is a beast, Joe Bachie will be in the NFL. Besides them, the Panasiuk brothers, Jacub and MIke, are impact players on the defensive line when healthy. Raequan Williams at nose tackle has been boom or bust for MSU and in the secondary Josiah Scott can be a shutdown corner. On offense, redshirt freshman Eli Collins could be a star in the Big Ten as a running back for the next few years. Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr. both have big-play capabilities at wide receiver as well.
6) What is your prediction and how do you expect the game to play out?
If you haven’t noticed by the tone of most of my answers, I’m mot really confident in MSU right now... Honestly, there is no reason to believe the Spartans will win this game. Last year with a similar team they pulled the upset thanks in large part to special teams and a monsoon. There is a chance of rain on Saturday, but that’s where the similarities end. Unless something drastic happened during the bye week, I see this as a two score game at the least.
Once again, we’d like to thank Kyle for his time especially since I was forgetful and didn’t send him an email until Thursday afternoon.