Northwestern heads to East Lansing this Saturday to take on the Michigan State Spartans (2-3, 0-2), a team in a free fall just one season removed from a College Football Playoff birth.
Michigan State has been the epitome of consistency over the last few years with three Big Ten championships over the last six years and the aforementioned Playoff berth. But after opening the season ranked 12th in the AP Poll and reaching No. 8 in Week 4, the Spartans have lost three in a row. Let that sink in. A team that lost five games total from 2013-2015 has lost three in a row. Their most recent outing was a crude indictment of the current state of this proud program, as BYU shellacked the Spartans 31-14 in East Lansing.
The result? A game that most Northwestern fans had penciled in as an L suddenly looks very winnable; ESPN's Football Power Index gives Northwestern a 50.2 percent chance of winning at Spartan Stadium.
Here are three things to know about a Michigan State team that needs a win desperately if they are to become bowl eligible in 2016.
It's not clear who will start at quarterback on Saturday
Fifth-year senior Tyler O'Connor started the first five games of the season and had decent success, posting a 60.9 completion percentage with 8 touchdowns against 5 picks. But he was pulled in the fourth quarter of the loss to BYU after throwing for just 58 yards in favor of Damion Terry, a junior who found himself marred in a battle for the backup position just a week ago.
There's some belief from those following the program that the switch to Terry will stick, that in this already lost season (by MSU's standards), there's little to lose from going a different direction in search of something to jumpstart this team. The Detroit News' Lynn Henning wrote that Michigan State "cannot continue with O'Connor, who simply lacks the vision and the command, as well as the two-way talents."
Despite those strong words, coach Mark Dantonio has been noncommittal as to who will line up under center on Saturday. He's been so noncommittal, in fact, that the Michigan State's depth chart for the matchup against Northwestern has three players listed as the starting quarterback: O'Connor, Terry and redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke.
The offense is having serious problems moving the ball
This probably isn't the most surprising thing and has certainly contributed to the quarterback woes, but Michigan State's offense has been really bad this season. They're 75th in overall S&P+, 85th in rushing S&P+, 101st in rushing success rate and have just 18 rushes over 10 yards, which ranks 119th out of 129 FBS teams. A particularly interesting comparison with last year comes in power success rate, a measure of team's success running the ball in short-yardage situations. Last year, Michigan State ranked 14th in that department; this year they are 102nd. Add this up and you'll begin to see how the Spartans put up just 206 yards of total offense against BYU in that listless loss.
This has prompted Dantonio to make a multitude of personnel changes ahead of the Northwestern game. He's opted to start two new receivers, a new starter at left guard and of course the oft-mentioned quarterback controversy. Dantonio knows that his team isn't going to win with this type of offensive production, so he's shaking things up to try and find a group that can put some points on the board.
With all that said, this is still a talented football team desperate for a win
Pat Fitzgerald had this to say of Michigan State at his Monday press conference: "This is a team that's won Big Ten Championships. They know how to win. Sitting right up there with Michigan, Ohio State in terms of talent."
While the Spartans typically don't recruit quite as well as their in-state rivals or Ohio State—Michigan State typically ranks around 20-25th in national recruiting rankings, while Ohio State is rarely out of the top-five and the Harbaugh-led Michigan Wolverines sit near the top as well. Fitzgerald is right in pointing out the Spartans talent level and overall program culture. Dantonio is one of college football's better coaches, and he's not going to punt on this season after one tough stretch. Expect the Spartans to come out fired up on Saturday and ready to make a statement.