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Ankony: Red-zone execution could be key in matchup with up-and-down Spartans

The Old Brass Spittoon will be up for grabs for the 67th time this weekend, as Indiana goes on the road to face Michigan State.

Kickoff is scheduled for noon on Nov. 14 from Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan. Indiana is looking to improve upon its undefeated record and become 4-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1987. Let’s preview the matchup.

Tom Allen leads IU onto the field last year in East Lansing. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

Good Spartans, Bad Spartans

Through three games, it has been difficult to determine just how good Michigan State is.

In week one, Rutgers upset the Spartans 38-27 on their own turf. The first game of the Mel Tucker era did not go as planned, as the Spartans turned the ball over seven times. Michigan State managed to out-gain Rutgers in this one, but the seven turnovers proved too costly.

Sophomore receiver Jayden Reed looked like a breakout candidate for Michigan State after catching 11 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers, but has since caught just two passes for 25 yards in two games.

Week two resulted in what many consider to be the worst loss for Jim Harbaugh as head coach of Michigan, as Michigan State defeated its in-state rival 27-24 at The Big House. Spartan quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns, and executed a crucial 11-play, 92-yard drive to take the lead with just over five minutes left.

At first, this win helped ease the pain of giving Rutgers its first Big Ten win since 2017, but that sentiment did not last long. The Spartans followed up this win with a demoralizing 49-7 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes. Lombardi threw 20 incomplete passes and three interceptions in a game that was a blowout from the start.

In the first two drives of the game, Iowa played true Hawkeye football and steadily marched down the field for 74- and 75-yard drives to go up 14-0 before Michigan State knew it. So, with a 1-2 record and a win over Michigan, it is hard to say which Michigan State will show up Saturday, but momentum is not on the Spartans’ side after a big loss to Iowa.

Red zone execution

Michael Penix Jr. is coming off arguably his best performance as a Hoosier in Indiana’s 38-21 win over Michigan. Indiana is ranked in the Top 10 for the first time since 1969, and all seems well in Bloomington.

But taking a closer look at Indiana’s Big Ten rankings, the Hoosiers’ offense hasn’t been as good as Indiana fans may think. Indiana currently ranks 12th in the Big Ten in yards per game at 339.3. So how has Indiana won its first three games of the season to reach a No. 10 ranking in the AP Top 25?

In one word: efficiency. The difference for Indiana, compared to its opponents, has been its ability to cash in on red-zone opportunities. The Hoosiers have made it to the red zone 16 times this year and scored a touchdown in 12 of those trips. More specifically, this has been Penix’s sweet spot on the field, throwing for six touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Indiana has not yet proven to be a team that is going to get chance after chance to score, but when it does get those chances, the Hoosiers have capitalized. Because of this efficiency, Indiana has forced opponents to play with a very low margin for error.

Michigan State's red-zone defense ranks last in the conference in opponents' touchdown rates in the red zone, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 12 of their 15 trips inside the red zone. Indiana is at the opposite end of the spectrum, ranking first in the conference in red-zone defense. The Hoosiers have allowed opponents to score just five times on nine trips inside the 20-yard line.

On Saturday versus the Spartans, another efficient performance from the Hoosiers could be enough for another victory, even if Penix regresses from his 342-yard, three-touchdown game versus Michigan.

A battle of weaknesses

While the Hoosiers sit atop the Big Ten East standings tied with Ohio State, they are near the bottom of the Big Ten in an important category. Indiana is 13th the conference in yards per rush. The only team lower on those rankings is Michigan State.

Stevie Scott has been productive on goal-line carries and Sampson James has started to emerge as a nice complement to Scott, but largely, the Hoosiers have struggled to establish a consistent running game. As a team, Indiana has rushed 104 times for 268 yards, while the Spartans rank just below at 109 carries for 235 yards.

Whop Philyor stiff arms a defender during last year's loss to Michigan State in East Lansing. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

Scott has an intriguing matchup with the Spartan front seven, which has one of the best run-stoppers in the country in linebacker Antjuan Simmons. We talked more about this matchup in a season preview detailing the top five matchups of the season to look forward to.

The biggest difference in the two running games again comes down to red-zone efficiency. The Hoosiers have rushed for six touchdowns, compared to just one for Michigan State.

In Indiana’s win over Michigan, the Wolverines were held to just 13 rushing yards all game, and a similar formula for Indiana could prove to be effective against the Spartans. Michigan State was forced to pass for the majority of the game in its blowout loss to Iowa, which has hurt the Spartans’ ability to build a balanced offensive attack.

Jordon Simmons and Connor Heyward have received the bulk of the carries for Michigan State, and will be up against an Indiana defensive line that has showed steady improvement throughout the season. Ultimately, whichever team is able to get out from the bottom of the Big Ten rushing rankings could come out with a win on Saturday.

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