My main thoughts about Michigan State is that after two games they don’t look like they have any one strike-fear-into-your-hearts strength, nor do they have any massive weaknesses. That’s not to say there’s no strengths or weaknesses (obviously), just that their magnitudes aren’t going to force you to significantly alter your gameplan to exploit one facet specifically (or prevent them from over-relying on one form of attacking your offense or defense). Overall, I just feel like they’re quite well-rounded.
My gut is then that the keys for Washington mirror each other on offense and defense: Make Payton Thorne uncomfortable when he drops back, — more on that in a moment — keep Michael Penix safe, ball security on offense and disrupting MSU’s on defense, and tackling.
The ball security I simply mention because it feels like everybody and their mother has been giving the ball up when playing the Spartans the first two weeks, and they haven’t been immune either. In fact, despite the lopsided scores, both Western Michigan and Akron advanced the ball down the field pretty well more often than I was expecting considering their talent disadvantages, but they just kept turning it over whenever they’d get momentum.
Which, speaking of turnovers, brings us to Payton Thorne. Tackling will be crucial in this game in general since many of MSU’s skill players are slippery and Washington’s been fine-not-great in that department to start the season. That’s also true in the pass rush — pressuring Thorne is a must, pressuring him early on due to his happy feet is preferable, and actually being able to bring him down once getting to him could make a huge difference.
Beyond the fact that he can get a bit antsy — and we all know antsy quarterbacks tend to get even antsier and more erratic as a game goes on if the pressure is brought early and often — he has a few mechanical blips that can be exacerbated by this. What stood out to me is two things: One, he sometimes opens up his throwing stance just a bit, throwing his motion off-balance and leading to him sailing the ball.
Two, when throwing in the face of a collapsing pocket, he often throws “against” his legs. This isn’t uncommon for quarterbacks when there’s little space for movement and rotation, but it can become a problem because if you’re not able to generate power from your back foot, you have to have a cannon arm to get a pass off that gets to its target on time — or even that gets to its target at _all_, seeing as without that arm strength a passer will have to compensate for lesser speed by throwing the ball with a greater parabola. That then has less leeway on the trajectory of the ball for where it can potentially be in a receiver’s catch radius. I wrote about this issue in more detail re: Jake Browning’s strength back in 2018 I think it was, but am too lazy to go back and find it. Whomp whomp.
I go on this tangent simply because MSU’s receivers have an advantage over Washington’s outside corners, but Thorne is a relative weak link of their offense (even if not a huge one). Based on both teams’ skillsets, the Dawgs are likely to have more success disrupting the pass by getting Trice, Martin, ZTF, and Smalls on Thorne than hoping the corners can consistently win their position battle.
_If_ they can do that, then I trust Washington’s air offense more than MSU’s. That’s where the tackling becomes so key, because former Colorado guy Jarek Broussard is going to be a beeyotch to bring down. It’s fair to think MSU will want to lean on their run game somewhat given that you don’t want to live or die by Thorne, so the defining question to me becomes can Washington’s offense set the momentum and force MSU to play catch-up — if not, Sparty will be able to dictate a ground-based, more patient offense that goes against the Dawgs’ favor.
Oddly enough, both my gut and my brain say Washington wins this in a close one, but because this is effectively a “new” team who hasn’t played an opponent as good as Michigan State yet, I want to keep my expectations low. Surely this opponent will force Washington to play through bumps and errors they haven’t been forced to make yet, right?
Actually, no, screw it, my gut and brain are gonna win out somehow over my burning desire to never get my hopes up.
Washington- 31, Michigan State- 28
I’m not sold on the Huskies, especially on defense. I’m pretty worried about how UW will contain the running game, combined with the one-on-one back shoulder throws to some pretty talented targets on the outside. Offensively, maybe the Dawgs are for real and can keep up. UW will need some turnovers to win this game, but I don’t think they will get enough of them.
Washington- 27, Michigan State- 34
My primary reaction to the line for this game was surprise that bettors appear to be higher on the Dawgs than the media or coaches in the national polls. The 3.5 points is roughly equivalent to the value of home field advantage for betting purposes. That means that the betting public sees the teams as roughly equal on a neutral field. If that’s the case, it’s surprising that one is ranked as high as 9th in the national polls while the other has not yet received any national attention.
Of course, it’s understandable that members of the media or opposing coaches would still feel the hangover from the calamitous 2021 season. One could very reasonably argue that the numbers that matter most in this matchup are 4 and 11, as in the number of wins for each team last season. Neither one has proven much yet this year against teams with far less talent. The last several times we saw either team tested, Michigan State was beating the likes of Pitt and Michigan while the Dawgs were getting embarrassed at home in the Apple Cup. Yes, we have a new coaching staff, a new QB, and renewed self-belief. None of that changes the reality of how UW has most recently played against touch competition. That can only change on the field.
From what we have seen this year, there’s a lot to like about the specific matchups. UW’s defensive weakness appears to be the deep passing game. MSU’s biggest down-field threat, Jayden Reed, appears to be either out for the game or physically limited. Additionally, QB Payton Thorne is less of a dynamic playmaker than a steady field general. Offensively, UW has done a great job pass blocking for Michael Penix and Penix has done his part to move well in the pocket and get the ball out on time. MSU’s pass rush will be by far the toughest one yet, but there is reason to think UW is equipped to handle the challenge.
Altogether, I can see a path to UW’s offensive firepower being a little too much for MSU’s ground-and-pound techniques to match. I’m also skeptical of my own analysis because I don’t know how much it is colored by my homer glasses. I also worry that it’s unfair to expect a win over a top 10 (or 11) opponent this early in a pretty thorough rebuild. Maybe I’m just hedging against my own emotional response, but I’m going to wait to see UW show up against to opposition before I start expecting wins.
Washington- 28, Michigan State- 30
I’ll be honest that there’s a lot about this game about which I don’t feel very confident. The first 2 games for each team told us a lot about where each team is at least average but not much more than that game. Washington’s passing game? Should be pretty good. Michigan State’s running game? Should be above average. Both team’s pass rush? Seem pretty solid.
We can’t reasonably go much further with the information in front of us. Washington has legitimate question marks on defense despite giving up 13 points per game so far. CB Jordan Perryman looked like a lockdown corner in preseason camp but struggled before getting injured against Kent State. He’s supposed to return on Saturday but the Husky pass defense certainly appears to have several holes. At the same time, Michigan State’s QB Payton Thorne has been erratic in their first 2 games and the Spartans may be without their best deep threat/kick returner in WR Jayden Reed. If one side is able to win that matchup decisively it probably determines who wins the game.
That’s because I trust the Huskies will be able to throw the ball against MSU. The entire passing game as a unit has been exemplary for UW so far and the Spartans are only a season removed from one of the worst pass defenses in the P5. That’s better this year particularly because of the addition of pass rusher Jacoby Windmon. Maybe he’s unblockable and constantly harrassing Penix but if not then the Dawgs should pick MSU apart. On the other end I feel confident that the running back duo of Berger and Broussard for Michigan State will be able to consistently move the chains.
Put it all together and I see a lot more points being scored than stops made. If the MSU QB/UW pass defense plays to a draw then this game will come down to factors. 1. The crowd and 2. Health. At this point I need to have faith that Husky Stadium comes alive with the #11 team in the country coming to town in what should be a close, competitive game even if classes haven’t started yet. That should be worth a few false start/delay of games. It also sounds like Washington is getting healthier with Jaxson Kirkland, Rome Odunze, and Jordan Perryman coming back while Michigan State is likely without their best WR, starting S, and lost their best LB to a season-ending injury. That’s enough for me to go with my homer-ific instincts and say the Dawgs pull away in the 4th quarter when Thorne throws a pick while running out of time in the comeback attempt.
Washington- 38, Michigan State- 30
THE FINAL TALLY
Against the Spread (UW -3.5): Washington- 1, Michigan State- 3
Straight Up: Washington- 2 Michigan State- 2
Average Score: Washington- 31.0, Michigan State- 30.5