Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau talk about Michigan State's win over Michigan and what's ahead for each team. Detroit News
VIEW FROM OTHER SIDE
Andy Greder, who covers Minnesota for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, breaks down the Golden Gophers for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into today’s Minnesota-Michigan State game. You can follow him on Twitter @andygreder.
QUESTION: How has the P.J. Fleck changed the culture/atmosphere around the Minnesota program?
ANSWER: The cultural change is ubiquitous. Nowhere has it been more pronounced on the field than in Fleck’s unwavering standard on player actions. He is working to make a first impression that if players don’t reach his benchmark, he will suspend them.
Q: Despite his struggles, Conor Rhoda remains the starter at QB. Is he on a short leash with Demry Croft back with the team?
A: Fleck is sticking with Rhoda, who will make his seventh career start Saturday, despite four turnovers inside the opponent’s 25-yard line in five games. Fleck likes his leadership and will tolerate mistakes because he believes Rhoda is the best option. Demry Croft was suspended for three weeks and has yet to fully return to the fold.
Q: The Gophers have had their share of injuries. How healthy will they be against the Spartans?
A: The secondary will be the most shorthanded. They will be without standout safety Antoine Winfield Jr., and two key cornerbacks, Zo Craighton and Kiondre Thomas. However, they could have Duke McGhee return from suspension. This is the most problematic position group for the Gophers.
Q: Even with the injuries, the Minnesota defense has been stingy, allowing just 17.2 points a game. What is the strength of the Gophers’ defense?
A: The Gophers linebackers, led by Jon Celestin and Thomas Barber, are the deepest position group on the team. They disguise their schemes and are able to use their instincts to fly around the field — with the help of stout defensive tackle Steven Richardson.
Q: After losses to Maryland and Purdue to open conference play, how critical is the Michigan State game if the Gophers expect to be playing in a bowl game?
A: It’s crucial, but not considered likely with how the Spartans have rebounded from 3-9 last season to a No. 21 ranking heading into this game. The Gophers (3-2, 0-2 Big Then) chances of finding three more wins to reach bowl eligibility look slim. Their homecoming game against Illinois next week will likely be the last game they’re favored in this season.
GOPHERS TO WATCH
■ Conor Rhoda, QB: The fifth-year senior has played in 10 career games and is 4-2 as the Gophers’ starter while Minnesota is 8-2 in games he has played. He has started all five games for Minnesota this season and has completed 54 of 97 passes for 786 yards and five touchdowns. However, he’s thrown four interceptions and the Gophers rank 12th in the Big Ten passing offense at 169.8 yards a game.
■ Rodney Smith, RB: The junior is coming off a 2016 season when he scored 16 touchdowns and ran for more than 1,100 yards and his 20 career touchdowns rank 11th in program history. Along with junior Shannon Brooks, who ran for 116 yards last week against Purdue, the Gophers have a potent rushing attack that has led them to a 9-1 record whenever Smith scores a touchdown. Smith has two touchdowns this season while Brooks has five.
■ Jonathan Celestin, LB: The senior has played in 42 career games and leads the Gophers with 41 tackles this season, including 33 solo tackles, which ranks seventh in the nation and first in the Big Ten. Celestin was dominant against Maryland, recording a career-high 15 tackles and he followed that with six tackles and a sack last week at Purdue.
FACTS AND FIGURES
■ Flipping the script: Through the first two games of the season, Michigan State created just two turnovers while giving the ball away eight times, including six lost fumbles to rank as one of the worst teams in the nation in turnover ratio. However, in the last two games, the Spartans have forced seven turnovers while not committing one on their side to reach plus-1 on the season in turnover margin.
■ Chasing the QB: Michigan State had one of its worst seasons ever in sack production last season, finishing with just 11 all year. That has improved significantly this season as the Spartans have 13 sacks through the first five games, including four in the win over Michigan. That production will get put to the test against the Gophers, who have allowed just one sack through five games, ranking No. 1 in the Big Ten and second in the nation.
■ Building momentum: Michigan State is 8-2 in games the week after playing Michigan, its biggest rival. The only time the Spartans have lost following the game against the Wolverines was in 2014 against an Ohio State team that went on to win the national championship and last season in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. Michigan State is 4-1 against Minnesota under Mark Dantonio and 1-1 in Minneapolis.