Minnesota is just 2-6 overall, including 1-3 in league play, but that lone conference win came last weekend over Iowa in a 22-21 final. First-year head coach Jerry Kill must lead his team to victory in all four remaining games to earn a postseason bid, and while accomplishing that feat seems all but impossible, there is no doubt that the triumph over the Hawkeyes has infused some life into the squad.
"I am happy for the state of Minnesota, the administration, the fans, but most importantly, I am happy for our kids," said Kill after the win. "It is great to see them smile and have a good time."
As for the Spartans, they carried a four-game win streak into Lincoln last weekend for a much-anticipated matchup with Nebraska. Unfortunately for the Spartans, they were completely ineffective on offense in a 24-3 setback to the Cornhuskers. Still, Mark Dantonio's club is tied atop its division in the Big Ten, so there is plenty to play for this weekend and beyond.
"This is about the long haul. This isn't about one game," said Dantonio. "All of our goals are in front of us. We have to play through the schedule. There are disappointed guys in the locker room, but we will respond."
Michigan State owns a 26-17 series lead over Minnesota, which includes a 31-8 romp in last year's meeting.
Minnesota trailed Iowa 21-10 in the fourth quarter before posting a pair of late TDs to steal the win. After a one-yard touchdown run by Duane Bennett, QB MarQueis Gray won the game for the Gophers with a three-yard scamper with only 2:48 remaining on the clock. The offense managed a modest total of 371 total yards, but Gray played interception-free football and made enough big plays as both a runner and a passer.
"MarQueis made some plays out there," said Kill. "It has to be him not me. As the quarterback he has to be the leader, and he did a great job. Our kids hung in there and that is a credit to him. It feels good to see him step up. He is learning."
Overall this season, Minnesota is generating a modest 18.0 ppg and 303.4 total ypg, as the club has clearly struggled to move the ball and score points. Gray has take the majority of snaps for the Gophers and has completed only 50.8 percent of his passes for 940 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. On a positive note, he paces the team in rushing with 500 yards, 94 more yards than Bennett, who is listed as questionable for this weekend's affair with a knee injury. At receiver, DaJon McKnight leads the way with 32 catches for 455 yards.
Defensively, the Gophers permitted 446 total yards to Iowa, including 269 rushing yards at a clip of 6.4 ypc. They also permitted 16-of-24 passes to be completed without posting an interception, so the effort was far from dominant.
Opponents have been able to move the ball with success against Minnesota this season, as the team is yielding 34.0 ppg and 430.8 total ypg. Stopping the run has proven to be extremely problematic, as opponents are rushing for 201.8 ypg at a clip of 5.3 ypc. The pass defense has been poor as well, especially considering the fact that opposing QBs have thrown 15 TDs with only three INTs.
Michigan State has a standout QB to challenge that Minnesota defense in Kirk Cousins, and he is eager to forget last weekend's performance against Nebraska. Cousins completed only 11-of-27 passes for 86 yards with one interception and no TDs in the contest, and his offense managed a mere 187 total yards in the tilt. The Spartans were 3-of-14 on third-down conversion attempts and 1-of-3 on fourth down.
"We are a much better football team than the way we played today, and we still have a lot of things in front of us to accomplish," said Cousins. "It's important to push on and understand so much of what happens to us this season is not what happens to us, but how we respond."
For as bad as the Michigan State offense played last week, the team's defense put forth an outstanding effort against Nebraska on the road. Sure, the Cornhuskers scored three TDs, including two on long drives in the third quarter, but the Spartans permitted just 270 total yards in the affair.
The Spartans are generating 26.0 ppg and 363.6 total ypg this season, and the passing attack has been the key to the success of the offense, especially since the ground game accounts for a mere 3.7 yards per attempt. Cousins has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,693 yards and 11 TDs with five INTs, and standout WR has made 48 catches for 723 yards and three scores.
Opponents are managing a mere 15.0 ppg against Michigan State, which is limiting foes to 228.8 total ypg, impressive numbers by any standards. Just 2.9 yards per rushing attempt are being surrendered, and the pass defense has generated 11 INTs to go along with 24 sacks. Denicos Allen is a man to watch, as he has recorded six sacks thus far.