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Gophers-Michigan State: 5 things you can count on

Can the Gophers pick up another win against the Spartans on Saturday afternoon?
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The Minnesota Golden Gophers picked up a much-needed win at Iowa last weekend. At 4-3, Minnesota controls its own destiny to win the Big Ten West division and the march toward their first appearance in the Big Ten Championship will see them host the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday afternoon.

The Spartans have had a tumultuous season that has been headlined by the firing of head coach Mel Tucker for sexual misconduct. At 2-5, the Spartans are playing out the string and still looking for their first conference victory in the Big Ten.

The Gophers have been anything but predictable this season, but here are five things you can count on when both teams take the field.

1. A different look for the Spartans

Normally, you could look through the previous games of an opponent and determine what they're likely to do. But in the case of the Spartans, few things have remained the same since the beginning of the season and even more things have changed during the team's bye week on Oct. 7.

Tucker was replaced by defensive backs coach Harlon Barnes back in September, Katin Houser replaced Noah Kim at quarterback and the Spartans lost top defensive tackle Simeon Barrow Jr. to the transfer portal this week.

Most relevant to Saturday's game is the change at quarterback. Houser has completed 30-of-51 passes with two touchdowns and one interception in losses to Rutgers and Michigan but he's struggled against the blitz, completing just under 50 percent of his passes with nearly half of his dropbacks coming against extra pressure.

If the Gophers defense can get home, all of the changes shouldn't mean much for the Spartans.

2. A banged-up backfield for the Gophers

P.J. Fleck's passion for running the ball may have caught up to the Gophers in recent weeks as several running backs are entering this week with injuries.

Darius Taylor returned after missing the previous two games against Iowa but left early due to a leg injury and fellow freshman Zach Evans was rolled up in the first half and also did not return. With Fleck's vague nature on injuries, it's possible the Gophers could be without both players and could rely on Sean Tyler and walk-on Jordan Nubin to pace the backfield.

This could throw quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis and the passing game back into the spotlight. The redshirt sophomore has been disappointing in his first full year as a starter completing just 10-of-25 passes for 126 yards in the win over the Hawkeyes.

Even worse is that Kaliakmanis isn't getting help from his receivers. Daniel Jackson stepped up for seven catches and 101 yards against Iowa, but Taylor was the only other player to catch a pass with three catches for 25 yards.

Minnesota won't suddenly break out the air raid on Saturday but they could use the short passing game to get their receivers involved and take pressure off their wounded backfield.

3. Michigan State leaning on the run

This will be a typical Big Ten matchup as both teams will live and die by what's going on in the backfield. While we just discussed the Gophers' issue, the running backs are a strength for Michigan State led by Nate Carter.

Carter has run the ball 130 times for 565 yards with four touchdowns this season but is also a threat in the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, Carter is third among Big Ten running backs with 136 passing routes run this year and has 12 catches for 80 yards to show for it.

While Carter is a threat, the best way to stop him is to focus on pressuring Houser and keeping Carter in pass protection. With starting right tackle Spencer Brown suspended in the first half after a personal foul penalty against Michigan, the Gophers should be able to meet Carter in the backfield and stop the Spartans offense.

4. Another big day for Dragan Kesich

While Iowa is high on punting, the Gophers have been high on kicking field goals.

Dragan Kesich has been a pleasant surprise for the Gophers and was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after knocking down four field goals in the win over Iowa. According to Ryan Burns of Gopher Illustrated, Kesich is the first Minnesota kicker with four field goals in a game since Emmit Carpenter in 2016.

It's understandable if Minnesotans don't want to trust a kicker, but Kesich has been reliable as they come, making 14-of-16 field goals and all 14 extra points this season.

With Minnesota's special teams struggling overall, Kesich has been a bright spot.

5. A low-scoring win for the Gophers

The Gophers went into the bye beat up physically and emotionally two weeks ago. After facing the toughest schedule in the nation, the Gophers were 3-3 and couldn't seem to get anything going against Iowa before an invalid fair catch signal helped them win at Kinnick Stadium for the first time since 1999.

Such a win could be a springboard for a program but this is Minnesota sports. Usually, when something good happens, it's followed by a massive let down.

Fortunately for the Gophers, the Spartans are down bad and are coming in on a five-game losing streak. This won't be a high-scoring affair but it also shouldn't be a letdown as the Gophers should get the victory.

Prediction: Gophers 16, Michigan State 7