Michigan State looks exactly the same to Indiana coach Tom Allen.
The offense is big, strong and fast. The defense is tough and stout. And yes, the 24th-ranked Spartans again appear to be a legitimate Big Ten contender.
To Allen, that makes Saturday’s Big Ten opener a perfect test as the Hoosiers try to show they are back on track.
“The expectation is we’ve got to score touchdowns when we get down there (the red zone). You don’t beat a team like this kicking field goals,” Allen said. “We’ve got to play great defense. They have big old backs, big receivers, a really good quarterback, a big old offensive line.”
Allen learned some of those lessons during his first two seasons in Bloomington.
Last year, when the Hoosiers failed to score touchdowns they blew a fourth-quarter lead and wound up losing 17-9 to the Spartans.
In 2016, when Allen was Indiana’s defensive coordinator, the Hoosiers walked away with a 24-21 victory and the Old Brass Spittoon — the only time Mark Dantonio has lost the trophy since becoming Michigan State’s coach.
This year could be different for the Hoosiers (3-0). They’re coming off their most complete game of the season and are one win away from their second 4-0 start since 1991. Michigan State (1-1), meanwhile, barely got past Utah State in the opener and has had two weeks to fix the flaws from a loss at Arizona State.
“I think our players have had an opportunity to sit on this and dwell on this a little bit,” Dantonio said. “They have also had time to step away from football for a day or so. You know, I’m looking forward to watching our players play on Saturday night.”
The Spartans understand what’s at stake.
Indiana has caused major problems for a long time now, with quarterback Peyton Ramsey and freshman running back Stevie Scott leading the way, they now have a more balanced attack. The Hoosiers young defense has improved steadily.
Now comes a big prime-time test for both teams.
“We sort of put that on the radar that it would probably be at night and knew this was going to be a big game for us,” Dantonio said. “So we needed to be ready for this game. We put a lot into this, into how we have orchestrated our calendar and what we’ve tried do and it’s important that we play well.”
Dantonio knows all about Indiana punt returner J-Shun Harris. And he didn’t need last week’s game tape to remind him how quickly the speedster can swing a game.
“He’s a guy you have to defend and you have to work special things throughout practice to really get ready for him,” Dantonio said, noting he scored once and nearly a second time in last week’s win. “He should be commended just for coming back from I think his third ACL injury. He’s a testament to hard work and dedication, there’s no question about that.”
TURN BACK THE CLOCK
The last time Indiana opened the Big Ten season against Michigan State was 2016 in Bloomington, which also happened to be the last time Indiana started 4-0. They haven’t beaten the Spartans in consecutive home games since 1991 and 1993, giving the Hoosiers a chance to take their next big step.
“Win Big Ten games, period, that’s what’s next,” Allen said. “We’ve got to win Big Ten games.”
The Old Brass Spittoon might not be the Stanley Cup, the Borg-Warner Trophy or the Lombardi Trophy. But it’s been a coveted prize in this series since it was first awarded in 1950. And, while the Hoosiers haven’t talked much about how they celebrate with the trophy, Dantonio drew laughs when he explained the Spartans routine.
“We spit in it,” Dantonio said.
He’s not kidding.
“I’ve spit in it a couple times — had the opportunity after a game to do that. So that’s fun,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “It’s a very interesting trophy. It’s a little beat up now, but it’s something we take pride in.”
Indiana receiver Whop Philyor was a freshman sensation in 2017. But this season he’s been more of a decoy. Through the first two games, Philyor has five receptions for 46 yards — something that could change this weekend or any weekend this season.
“We have more playmakers on offense than we had I feel a year ago, so there will be I think different games where different guys,” Allen said. “There will be games where he’ll get a whole bunch of catches.”
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