Michigan State is quietly emerging as a factor in the Big Ten title race.
The Spartans (5-1, 2-0) looked out of sorts at times in September, when coach Mark Dantonio still was trying to decide on a quarterback and the defense scored most of the touchdowns for the first couple weeks. Now Michigan State is among only three teams undefeated in Big Ten play, and the Spartans are favored again this weekend at home against Purdue.
Michigan State can ill afford a slip-up now — especially when the November schedule includes Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern in consecutive games.
Purdue (1-5, 0-2) lost its first two conference games to Wisconsin and Nebraska by a combined 85-17, but Dantonio is still leery.
"When you have a young football team as they do, you're going to have a big learning curve, so they're going to be able to move forward as they move through their season," Dantonio said. "When is that time that they move forward and have a big game?"
Here are five things to watch as Michigan State tries to take care of business against the Boilermakers:
LANGFORD'S ENCORE: Michigan State's issues at quarterback have obscured another challenge the Spartans have faced. They needed to replace workhorse running back Le'Veon Bell, who left after last season for the NFL.
Jeremy Langford is the team's leading rusher so far, and he scored four touchdowns last week against Indiana.
Freshman Delton Williams has looked good as well, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
NEGATIVE PLAYS: Quarterback Danny Etling was 14 of 35 against Nebraska, but what coach Darrell Hazell is especially concerned with is avoiding sacks and other negative-yardage plays that can derail a drive.
"Danny's got to be a little more accurate with the ball at times, but the big thing for Danny is to make sure that he throws the ball away in those critical situations," Hazell said. "Some of our third-down situations that we didn't convert were because we didn't throw it away — and now all of a sudden it's second-and-13 or second-and-14, and those are hard for anybody to overcome."
DANDY DEFENSE: The one constant for Michigan State all season has been the defense, which was tested last weekend against Indiana's fast-paced offensive scheme.
After a 42-28 win over the Hoosiers, the Spartans are still No. 1 in the nation in total defense.
COOK'S IMPROVEMENT: Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has looked better in the Spartans' first two Big Ten games. He went 22 of 31 for 235 yards with two touchdowns and an interception last weekend.
Michigan State will probably take a stat line like that if Cook can produce it on a consistent basis.
"I see a very, very patient offense," Hazell said. "They're playing behind their defense. They're not forcing the ball anywhere, and if they've got to punt it, they punt it."
RUNNING ROOM: Purdue is averaging only 77.8 yards rushing, the worst mark in the league. That's not a good sign going into a game at Michigan State — which leads the nation in rushing defense.
Hazell planned to give redshirt freshman Robert Gregory a chance to help. At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, he could give Purdue a more imposing inside running threat than either 184-pound Akeem Hunt or 175-pound Dalyn Dawkins.
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