Michigan State writer: Learning curve has been steep for Spartans' offense
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan State leads the Big Ten in total, scoring and rush defense.
Yet it's just 4-3 on the season, 1-2 in the Big Ten. Why?
Well if it's not the defense, it's probably the offense, and that is where Michigan State has struggled.
Josh Slagter, MSU football writer for MLive, was kind enough to answer a few questions about what's gone wrong -- and right -- for the Spartans heading into Saturday's matchup against No. 23 Michigan (3:30 p.m., BTN).
MLive: For as much as people talk about Michigan not living up to preseason expectations, the Spartans seem to have been worse after narrow wins against Eastern Michigan and Indiana and a loss Saturday to Iowa. What's wrong in East Lansing?
Josh Slagter: The learning curve for a new starting quarterback and new wide receivers has been steeper than expected, even with Le'Veon Bell in the backfield. The offense shows flashes, but doesn't finish many drives.
And in the last two home games, against Ohio State and Iowa, Michigan State needed its defense to get off the field and couldn't do it. The Buckeyes ran out the clock and the Hawkeyes marched for a game-tying touchdown.
There's plenty of blame to fairly go around, even if most fans' focus is on offensive coordinator Dan Roushar.
MLive: A stat that might surprise some: Andrew Maxwell has a worse completion percentage (54.3 percent) than Denard Robinson (54.8). Has he really been that bad, and what's the key to turning it around against Michigan's pass defense, which ranks third nationally?
Slagter: Dropped passes a huge part of Maxwell's completion percentage. It's been better the past few weeks, but the Spartans led the Big Ten in drops by a wide margin heading into the Indiana game.
Only in Michigan State's loss at Iowa has Maxwell struggled with his accuracy for a duration of a game. He's had some slow starts, but good second halves. Maybe the weather had something to do with it, too, but Iowa was his worst game.
MLive: Michigan State has punished Denard Robinson the past two years, sort of writing a blueprint that other teams have since followed. Do you think it goes back to the formula of loading the box to force him to pass, or do you expect to see something new?
Slagter: Michigan State won't waver from its style of putting defensive backs in 1-on-1 coverage on the outside and bringing pressure from all over the field.
Teams have counteracted that this season with short, quick throws to get the ball out. As a result, the Spartans are last in the Big Ten in sacks after leading the league last season.
MLive: Where on the field will Michigan State hold its biggest matchup advantage against Michigan?
Slagter: Michigan State's linebackers are elite and a big reason the Spartans are No. 1 in the Big Ten against the run.
Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones, who is starting now in place of captain Chris Norman, all are excellent tacklers. Bullough is the heart and soul of the defense.
MLive: Michigan State has won four straight against Michigan. It makes it five in a row (a series record for MSU) if ...
Slagter: The defense capitalizes on opportunities. There have been missed sacks and dropped interceptions through the first seven games. Surprisingly, Michigan State's defense doesn't have a score.
Robinson has been better the last two weeks, but the Spartans need to force some turnovers and turn them into touchdowns. If that happens, the Spartans have a chance.
Josh Slagter's prediction: Even if the Spartans' defense keeps Robinson in check, it's hard to envision an inconsistent offense scoring enough. Michigan's also a little overdue in this series, right? Michigan 24, Michigan State 14.