Preview: Gophers have chance to deny Michigan State bowl eligibility
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Who: Michigan State Spartans (5-6 2-5) at Minnesota Gophers (6-5, 2-5 in Big Ten)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805).
TV: Big Ten Network
Line: Michigan State by 8.5
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (2nd season, 9-14). Michigan State -- Mark Dantonio (6th season, 49-28).
Series: Michigan State leads 27-17
Last meeting: Receiver Da'Jon McKnight's go-ahead touchdown catch to put the then-two-win Gophers one quarter away from a stunning upset of Michigan State in East Lansing last season. A late 35-yard touchdown run by Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell, however, ended that notion in a 31-24 defeat.
At stake: It will be an experience the Gophers haven't had in two years. For the first time since 2009, the Gophers' season won't end with their regular season finale when they meet Michigan State on what is sure to be an emotional day at TCF Bank Stadium for the team's 15 seniors. Standing at six wins, the already bowl-bound Gophers still have an opportunity to improve on their postseason standing, and guarantee them of their first winning season in three years. A "U" victory would also effectively keep Michigan State out of a bowl game. The Spartans' season has been a classic example of "close, but not enough," having lost four of their last five games by a combined margin of 13 points. The Gophers will have to contend with a bold statement from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who told reporters earlier this week, ''When we win Saturday -- I'll say 'when' -- we'll be a 6-6 football team." Sometimes a boisterous guarantee can be enough to spark an unimpressed opponent, but that can work both ways.
Gophers: LT Marek Lenkiewicz is questionable after injuring his knee at Nebraska. Lenkiewicz has been cleared for practice since Wednesday, and if healthy, could split time with starting LT Ed Olson. C John Christenson is also questionable with an ankle injury, which kept him out last week. WR Marcus Jones is out for the foreseeable future with a knee injury. A torn ACL last week in a walk-through ended DT Roland Johnson's season. RS junior Eric Jacques and RS sophomore Harold Legania have since filled Johnson's spot in the rotation on the defensive line. TE Drew Goodger will be sidelined with a dislocated shoulder. LB Brendan Beal (knee) is out.
Michigan State: S Jairus Jones (leg) has missed five consecutive games, and remains questionable for Saturday. C Travis Jackson is out for the season after suffering a broken leg and torn MCL on Sept. 29 against Ohio State. T Fou Fonoti (foot) and Brandon Clemons (foot) are also out for the year.
Three things to watch
Moving on: Kill and the Gophers were in the headlines this week for the wrong reasons. One day after the Gophers were drastically overwhelmed in a 38-14 loss at Nebraska, top receiver A.J. Barker quit the team in a vocal and public manner on Sunday, trashing the "U" coaching staff in a 4,000-word blog post filled with claims of mistreatment and the denial of a scholarship. In the wake of the media frenzy Barker's comments caused, Kill was forced to repeatedly defend his program and coaching style. The charged atmosphere surrounding the team has since settled down as the Gophers have moved on without Barker. But it's unknown if Barker's rash departure will have an effect on the team Saturday. If you take the players by their word, the answer is a firm no. "We know what Coach Kill stands for and always has stood for, " senior linebacker Mike Rallis said. "He's an easy guy to play for. We know he's going to give everything he's got to us, so it's pretty easy to give everything you've got to him ... That's all we'll try to do, turn the spotlight into a positive."
Offense on the fritz: Only once in their last eight games have the Gophers been able score more than 17 points. That has cost them in all five of their losses, as the Gophers' defense has faltered at times with an offense that has provided sparse scoring support. The Gophers' passing game was a mess last weekend against Nebraska, held to only 90 yards (10-of-28). Freshman starting quarterback Philip Nelson struggled through the worst game of his career. He completed eight of his 23 passes for 59 yards and tossed a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, before he was pulled early in the fourth quarter. But Nelson wasn't getting much help from his receivers, who were getting shut down by Nebraska's stout pass defense, and a tailback tandem of Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. that managed to total a combined 38 yards. The success of the Gophers' rushing attack has been a determining factor in the progress of the running game. Kirkwood's four lowest yardage outputs this season have all come in "U" losses (11 yards -- Nebraska; 8 yds -- Wisconsin; 33 yds -- Iowa; 58 yds -- Michigan). For Kirkwood and the Gophers' ground game to get going on Saturday, they will have to break through a fierce Michigan State defense that ranks No. 1 overall in the Big Ten in total defense (289.4 yards per game). The Spartans have allowed on average only 108.3 rushing yards per game and five touchdowns on the ground. If the Gophers can get a respectable amount of forward motion out of their run game, it could give Nelson the time he needs to get into a rhythm with his receivers.
Can the Bell be stopped? Le'Veon Bell can do damage to a defense. Michigan State's star running back has rumbled to 1,382 yards this season, second in the Big Ten only to former Wisconsin Heisman candidate Montee Ball (1,417). Though better as of late, the Gophers' defense has had more than its share of woes stopping the run this season. The Gophers have given up 182 rushing yards or more four times, surrendering on average 185.6 yards per game in Big Ten play. After suffocating Illinois' offense in a 17-3 victory that secured bowl eligibility two weeks ago, the Gophers' defense gradually fell apart at Nebraska. Lacking energy and continuity early on, the defense gave way to 31 unanswered offensive points. "For whatever reason guys started to get worn down," Rallis said. "I think we had put a lot into that Illinois game. It was an emotional game. An emotional game, an emotional win and maybe that had something to do with it. But for whatever reason we had a letdown, and I think this week, recognizing that that was the problem we'll be able to correct it." Michigan State doesn't have as potent an offense as Nebraska, but the Gophers don't have the scoring potential to afford being plunged into an early deficit. That makes getting a solid all-around game from the "U" defense critical if the Gophers want to stay in this match-up.
The call: Michigan State
The Spartans have more to lose in this one. A loss on Saturday would leave Michigan State without a bowl bid for the first time since its 4-8 season in 2006. That five-year streak isn't likely to end. The Gophers aren't going to away easily on Senior Day in their final home game of the year. But with Bell harnessing the potential for a big rushing game, Michigan State should sneak away with a victory in a low scoring affair.