Gophers football vs. Michigan State: Keys to game, how to watch, who has the edge

Minnesota travels to Michigan State to open up Big Ten play on Saturday

NCAA Football: Western Illinois at Minnesota
The Minnesota Golden Gophers Spirit Squad celebrates a touchdown Sept. 10, 2022, against Western Illinois at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Matt Blewett / USA Today Sports
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Minnesota at Michigan State

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan
Radio: KFAN, 100.3 FM
Weather: 59 degrees, cloudy, 8 mph north wind
Betting favorite: Minnesota, minus-3

Records: Minnesota is 3-0 after blowing out lower-level nonconference foes Colorado, New Mexico State and Western Illinois by a combined score of 149-17. Michigan State is 2-1 after beating Western Michigan and Akron by a combined 87-13. The Spartans were 11th in the Associated Press poll until a 39-28 loss at Washington last week and fell out of the rankings.

History: Minnesota has lost five straight to Michigan State since 2010. The U hasn’t traveled to East Lansing since 2013, when the Gophers lost 14-3. At Minnesota, head coach P.J. Fleck is 0-1 against the Spartans, falling 30-27 at home in 2017.

Key matchup: Gophers receivers vs. Spartans secondary. Minnesota will play the rest of the season without No. 1 wideout Chris Autman-Bell after he suffered a leg injury in last week’s 49-7 win over Colorado. He led the team with targets on 23% of passing plays. The remaining U pass catchers will have opportunities against a MSU pass defense ranked 103rd in the nation.

Fleck has an overall record of 42-27 in six seasons at Minnesota.
With about 15 minutes of playing time each game, Minnesota’s freshmen are getting a crash course in big-time college basketball
P.J. Fleck’s program hasn’t yet won the Big Ten West, but it’s building a track record unseen since the 1960s
Win marks 1st time Minnesota has won the Axe in consecutive years since 1993-94
Minnesota seeks 1st back-to-back wins over Badgers in nearly 30 years
Minnesota has now lost 7 straight against its border rival
Fleck in search of 1st victory over the Hawkeyes
Minnesota has lost 7 straight to Iowa and 17 of the last 21
The redshirt freshman has been on the field for 220 plays this season
Minnesota looking for its third-straight victory over the Wildcats


Who has the edge?

Gophers offense vs. Michigan State defense: After ranking dead last in the country in pass defense in 2021, the Spartans were better against two softer Group of Five opponents. Then the Pac-12’s Washington had big success with 397 yards and four touchdowns. The Gophers are running the ball on 70% of snaps, and MSU has been good against the rush (26th in the country), so Saturday could hinge on Minnesota’s ability to have success through the air. … While the Gophers have allowed only two sacks through three games (both vs. Colorado), they have not faced the likes of DE Jacoby Windom, who has a Big Ten-leading 5 1/2 sacks on 12 pressures this season. The UNLV transfer “is going to be a pro,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said, and will need Minnesota’s best. … Spartans slot defender Chester Kimbrough has added two sacks this season. … RB Mo Ibrahim has 40 career rushing touchdowns and is one away from breaking a tie with Darrell Thompson for the program record. Ibrahim is averaging 1.3 rushing touchdowns pre game; Thompson averaged 0.9. Ibrahim has tied Thompson in 13 fewer games played. … The Gophers have thrown one interception on 68 attempts this season, and it came on a tipped pass that should have been caught by TE Brevyn Spann-Ford. … Both teams are plus-1 in turnover margin this season. EDGE: Michigan State

Gophers defense vs. Michigan State offense: Minnesota has been suffocating this season, with only three points allowed by its starting defense through three games. (Backups account for the remaining 14 points allowed.) The Spartans are averaging 38 points per game. … Minnesota is No. 1 on third-down defense, allowing conversions only 12% of the time. MSU has converted on 46%. “This week is going to be a tremendous challenge with this quarterback and these receivers,” Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said. … Under former Gophers offensive coordinator and Lakeville native Jay Johnson, QB Payton Thorne has seven TD passes this season. Thorne broke Kirk Cousin’s MSU school record with 27 TD completions in a season in 2021. … The Gophers’ best defensive position group is its secondary, and it will need to prove it Saturday. WR Jayden Reed missed the Washington game with an injury, but Rossi said the Gophers are preparing for him to play. He had 1,000 yards and 10 TDs a year ago. If Reed remains out, Keon Coleman and Tre Mosley can produce. They each have three TDs grabs this year. … Minnesota is No. 2 in nation in rush defense at 69.7 allowed per game, but the Spartans come with a pair of quality tailbacks. Jalen Berger, a Wisconsin transfer, and Jarek Broussard, a Colorado transfer, have combined for 392 yards and six TDs through three games. EDGE: Gophers

Special teams: Michigan State freshman K in Jack Stone is 1 for 2 on FG attempts, with a make from 43 yards and miss from 44 yards. … Gophers fifth-year senior K Matthew Trickett is 3 for 3 this year. EDGE: Gophers

Prediction: The Gophers are 1-4 in Big Ten openers under Fleck, but this team has been all business in three dominant victories. This team will officially take pole position in the Big Ten West with an opening victory on the road. Gophers, 27-23


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