Woe is Michigan State.
In less than two months, the Spartans have gone from being the trendy preseason pick to capture the Big Ten football championship to concern about getting the two more wins necessary to qualify for a bowl game.
MSU (4-3, 1-2) is an underdog for Saturday's 2:30 p.m., game at No. 23 Michigan (4-2, 2-0). Remaining games are at Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern and at Minnesota.
With the way Michigan State has played, going 2-3 down the stretch to get to 6-6 would be an accomplishment.
How did it get to this for Sparty? Let's count the ways:
1. Offensive line: This unit was touted as the program's best in several years. Seven players with starting experience returned. “We have a foundation now moving forward,'' coach Mark Dantonio said.
Then right tackle Fou Fonoti suffered a broken foot two days before Game Three. Center Travis Jackson broke his leg in Game Five against Ohio State. But this line wobbled even before those two went out for the season.
2. Wide receiver: Inexperience was a big worry coming in. Three wideouts and two tight ends from last year's regular rotation were lost to graduation. The new starters have struggled, to the point that Dantonio pulled two freshmen out of redshirts after the second game. Still, much improvement is needed.
3. Quarterback: Fourth-year junior Andrew Maxwell was praised as a capable replacement for three-year starter Kirk Cousins. But the problems in the offensive line and the lack of help from the new receivers have given Maxwell little chance to develop.
He has played better than his numbers indicate: 54.3 percent completions, six touchdowns, four interceptions. But Maxwell was supposed to have been given time to work into the role, not run for his life while being counted on for production.
4. Defense: The Spartan defense has been very, very good, ranking seventh nationally in total defense. But this unit was supposed to be game-changing great, and that hasn't happened. MSU has forced 10 turnovers in seven games — only one in the past eight quarters. That's not the ball-hawking defense promised.
Michigan State entered the season with a 14-game home winning string, but has lost three times at Spartan Stadium already this season.
Maybe a short road trip to face its main rival will jolt Michigan State — which has four straight wins over Michigan — back to life.
“It can be a defining moment for us,'' Dantonio said. “It could be a rallying point or a moment where we can start going the other direction.''
Michigan State has handled Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson far better than any other defense. But the persistent lack of offensive production looks like it will drop MSU to .500.
The pick: Michigan 21, Michigan State 10.
>> Nebraska (4-2, 1-1) at Northwestern (6-1, 2-1), 2:30 a.m., ABC: On paper, this doesn't set up well for the Huskers. Road game. Spread offense. Elusive quarterback. But Nebraska has a clear talent edge, should want revenge for losing to the Wildcats last year and had an open date to prepare. Plus, Northwestern hasn't shown it can handle the pressure of playing with expectations to win a game like this.
The pick: Nebraska 31, Northwestern 23.
>> Purdue (3-3, 0-2) at No. 7 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), 11 a.m., ABC: Purdue is coming off its two worst performances of the season. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer challenged his players to act like men after giving up 49 points to Indiana. This has blowout written all over it.
The pick: Ohio State 62, Purdue 17.
>> Penn State (4-2, 2-0) at Iowa (4-2, 2-0), 7 p.m., BTN: Everything here hinges on Iowa tailback Mark Weisman (sprained ankle) being able to function. He has eight touchdowns. No other Hawkeye has scored more than one. Penn State, meanwhile, has won four straight and is rested after a bye week.
The pick: Penn State 20, Iowa 16.
>> Minnesota (4-2, 0-2) at Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1), 11 a.m., ESPNU: If both teams were at full strength, this would go down to the wire. But Minnesota has significant injury concerns on both sides of the ball, while Wisconsin is getting healthy and has momentum.
The pick: Wisconsin 34, Minnesota 14.
>> Indiana (2-4, 0-3) at Navy (3-3), 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Indiana can move the football. Scoring 49 points on Ohio State last week is proof of that. But ranking 112th in rushing defense isn't good news when facing Navy's option attack, ranked 14th in rushing offense.
The pick: Navy 38, Indiana 35.
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