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Minnesota at Michigan State preview: Will the Gophers stay undefeated?

Gophers lose one of their star players
Gophers lose one of their star players 01:50

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Golden Gophers travel to East Lansing to battle the Michigan State Spartans Saturday in both teams' conference opener. The Gophers are 2.5 point favorites.

Minnesota is undefeated on the season with all three wins coming at home.

Michigan State has won two of three, but the loss came last week at Washington, 39-28.

It was only the third loss for the Spartans in the last 16 games. 

The Gophers have scored 149 points on the year, their fourth-biggest output in school history through the first three games of a season. However, the three teams they defeated are a combined 0-10.

We will know much more about the Gophers after Saturday's ball game, as Michigan State is a formidable opponent. 

"This is a very good football team that we're going to play. We know that," said Gophers head coach PJ Fleck. 

Minnesota has lost their last three contests in East Lansing, but they have not played at Spartan Stadium since 2013. The team's last win at Michigan State was in 2006.

Michigan State, ranked 11th in the country before the loss last week, is now out of the top 25.

The defense for the Spartans was the reason they lost.

They allowed nearly 400 pass yards to go along with four touchdowns. This was the seventh time in the last 14 games that the defense allowed an opposing quarterback to throw for more than 350 yards.

This is a similar theme for the Spartans' defense; they had the worst pass defense in the country last season.

New Mexico St Minnesota Football
Abbie Parr / AP

The Spartans' defensive line did not register a sack or even a QB hurry in their 39-28 loss.

Minnesota has an opportunity to exploit a struggling secondary.

However, it's yet to be seen if Minnesota can take advantage through the air since the running game has been the focal point of the offense.

Mo Ibrahim, the team's star running back, is already in Heisman Trophy chatter.

The sixth-year back is on a streak of 12 consecutive games with over 100 yards; Ibrahim is second in the country in yards per game averaging 155 through three games.

"They have one of the best offensive lines in the country. They're big, and they're very good at what they do in the run game," said Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, last year's BIG 10 coach of the year.

If Michigan State slows down the run and it becomes a pass-first game, Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan will have to drive the offense down the field. Supplement the challenge without sixth-year wide receiver Chris Autman Bell – who is out for the season after an injury Saturday - and this should be a magnificent test for the Gophers. 

"They're a very good football team, they're a very dangerous team," Fleck said.

On the other end of the ball, Minnesota's defense – who have excelled under coordinator Joe Rossi – is facing a much more talented offense in Michigan State than anything they have played against so far.

Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns last week.

The Spartans might be missing a key contributor on offense, however.

Jayden Reed's status is uncertain for Michigan State. He led the team in many receiving categories a year ago but did not play last week.

Key Questions:

Will Michigan State's defense play better?

In their loss last week, Michigan State did not pressure the quarterback well. They played conservatively on defense and didn't blitz much in an attempt to help the struggling secondary.

The plan was not successful. 

Look for the Spartans to be more aggressive at the line of scrimmage and load the box to try and slow Ibrahim.

If the Spartans can slow down the Gophers' running attack, they will have a great chance to win.

Will Minnesota throw the ball effectively?

This is an opportunity for the Gopher receiving core to step up on the road against a Spartans' secondary that has struggled mightily since the beginning of last season. 

If Minnesota's running game stalls at any point - or they fall behind late in the game - the Gophers will need to move the ball through the air if they hope to stay undefeated. It will be interesting to see if the Gopher offense will be up for the task. 

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