View from the other side: Michigan State vs. Central Michigan

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News


Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV: FS1/760

Devonni Reed (5) and Malik Fountain (8) lead the Central Michigan defense.

Records: Central Michigan 1-3, Michigan State 2-1

Line: Michigan State by 29

View from the other side

Evan Petzold, who covers Central Michigan for Central Michigan Life, breaks down the Chippewas for The Detroit News answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Central Michigan-Michigan State game. You can follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

1. How has the quarterback change impacted the CMU offense?

Petzold: The quarterback change from redshirt sophomore Tony Poljan to junior Tommy Lazzaro has been positive. Since making the switch, head coach John Bonamego's offense has moved the ball down the field with much greater success. Against Northern Illinois, Poljan was granted outstanding field position on three straight drives due to special teams miscues by the Huskies, but the team only came away with three points. Once Lazzaro replaced him with 6:22 left in the third quarter, the Chippewas posted back-to-back touchdown drives. Lazzaro, through just a quarter-and-a-half, found redshirt freshman receiver Julian Hicks for a completion seven times. Prior to Lazzaro's entry, Hicks had not had a reception. The entire offense seems to feed off Lazzaro's energy, which has been noticeable from the coaching staff, offensive line and receivers. Even though Poljan is the backup quarterback, he should see multiple reps on the field at wide receiver. Bonamego continuously has said Poljan is too athletic to keep off the field.

More: Michigan State's offensive line strives to find consistency

More: Michigan State aims to avoid loss of focus against CMU

2. Michigan State has the best run defense in the nation. How does this factor into CMU’s game plan?

Petzold: Junior running back Jonathan Ward, who went for more than 1,500 yards (rushing and receiving) and 13 total touchdowns last season, has yet to find the end zone in 2018. He has just 52 carries for 156 yards. Even though the offensive line is finally back at full health with tackle Clay Walderzak recovering from a knee injury, there are still concerns surrounding CMU's run game. Kumehnnu Gwilly has 38 carries for 122 yards and one touchdown, and Lazzaro should get a few opportunities in the run-pass option. The signal caller already has two scores with his feet in two games played. MSU head coach Mark Dantonio's defense is impressive against the run, but Bonamego plans to keep the same game plan as previous weeks. He will give Ward as many opportunities as possible, hoping he finally has a breakout game against one of the nation's top teams. It also helps that the Chippewas will get third-string Romello Ross back from injury. He will make his first appearance of the 2018 season against the Spartans.

After scoring 13 total touchdowns last season, Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward has yet to score a touchdown this season.

3. CMU has been effective against the pass. Can the Chippewas match up with MSU’s talented receivers?

Petzold: Besides the defensive line, Central Michigan's secondary is probably its greatest strength. Starting Devonni Reed and Alonzo McCoy, two second-year safeties, is a testament to their talent. The two players behind Reed and McCoy are senior Tyjuan Swain and junior Da'Quaun Jamison, so that alone proves how impressive Reed and McCoy have been throughout their time at CMU. Junior cornerback Sean Bunting is the most veteran starter in the secondary and is accompanied by junior Xavier Crawford, a graduate transfer from Oregon State. Crawford started all 12 games for the Beavers in 2016, making 70 tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack, an interception, one forced fumble and 10 passes defended. He missed 2017 with an injury. The cornerback jumped to Central Michigan in the offseason with former Oregon State coach Cory Hall, who is now the defensive backs coach in Mount Pleasant. The entire secondary is deep and talented. Bonamego said Michigan State's wide receiver group is one of the best in the nation, but I would not be surprised if Reed, McCoy, Bunting and Crawford hung around with them for a few quarters.

More: Fresh off first win, CMU has 'work cut out' against MSU

4. How good is senior linebacker Malik Fountain?

Petzold: The senior is probably the best linebacker in the Mid-American Conference and would not have a problem starting or contributing starter minutes for a Power Five program. He is one of Central Michigan’s captains and is a leader on and off the field. Fountain has made 47 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception and a pass defended in four games this season. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker is tied for most total tackles in the MAC, and second in assisted tackles. Fountain is a smart football player and understands the opposing team's run-pass option plays very well. When a quarterback hikes the ball, Fountain understands exactly when to dive in and make the tackle or drop back to defend a pass. Having an instinct like that can be taught, but it comes naturally to Fountain.

5. Can this Central Michigan team repeat what those in 1991, 1992 and 2009 did by winning at Spartan Stadium?

Petzold: I do not believe Central Michigan will be able to repeat an upset over Michigan State as it did in 1991, 1992 and 2009. I think this is a game where Bonamego's group will find out a lot about themselves. The team is young and inexperienced, but needs a challenge like MSU to really help it find its way, and only so much can be told from its loss to Kentucky since it was Week 1. With the best quarterback in and a roster with nearly 100 percent health, the team morale is on a new level. However, I just don't see enough from CMU to believe it will give MSU much of a scare come the fourth quarter.

Players to watch

Malik Fountain, Sr., LB: The senior is the heart of the Central Michigan defense and has already recorded 47 tackles in four games, which is tied for the most in the MAC. He is 10th in the nation in tackles among active players and needs just 61 more tackles to move into the top 10 in program history. Against Northern Illinois two weeks ago, Fountain had 18 tackles, including eight solo stops.

Tommy Lazzaro, Jr., QB: The numbers won’t blow anyone away, but in his first start for the Chippewas last week, the junior was 7-for-16 passing with a touchdown and ran for 44 yards and another score. He’s the full-time starter now after taking over for Tony Poljan and gives the Chips more of a dual threat, something that will keep the Michigan State defense guessing.

Mike Danna, Jr., DE: The Chippewas rank fifth in the nation in pass defense and plenty of that is thanks to the pressure put on the quarterback in the win last week against Maine, Danna had five tackles for loss, including four sacks while finishing the game with seven tackles. His five tackles for loss were the most by a CMU player since 2005 while the four sacks are the best in the last 15 years.

Facts and figures

Grounded: The Chippewas have been outstanding against the pass this season, allowing only 140 yards a game, good for fifth in the nation. They are also best in the MAC in passing efficiency defense (106.85) while their four interception are tied for tops in the conference. CMU also ranks first in the MAC in total defense, allowing 334.2 yards a game.

Upset minded: This is the 11th meeting between the teams that are roughly and hour apart. And despite the disparity in size, it hasn’t always been easy for the Spartans. Central Michigan owns three victories in the series, all coming at Spartan Stadium. The Chips won back-to-back games in 1991 and 1992 and knocked off Mark Dantonio’s team in 2009.

Tough matchup: Michigan State has the best run defense in the nation, allowing just 32.7 yards a game on the ground, and have held opponents to less than 50 yards rushing in five straight games. It doesn’t bode well for Central Michigan, which at 120 yards a game in rushing offense ranks 111th in the country.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau