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Opponent-by-opponent: MSU

Linebacker Max Bullough leads a Michigan State defense that continues to be one of the best in the Big Ten, year after year.

Inside Indiana is going through IU's upcoming football season opponent-by-opponent to prepare you for the 2013 season. Starting with Indiana's first foe of the season Indiana State and finishing with Purdue, we will examine each opponent, category-by-category. Up next are the Michigan State Spartans.

2012 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)
Starters Returning, Offense: Nine
Starters Returning, Defense: Seven
Key Losses: RB Le’Veon Bell, DE William Gholston,
Key Returning Players: LB Max Bullough, QB Andrew Maxwell, C Travis Jackson, CB Darqueze Dennard
Top Passer: QB Andrew Maxwell — Completed 234 of 446 attempts, 13 TDs, nine INTs
Top Rusher: RB Le’Veon Bell — 382 attempts, 1,793 yards, 12 TDs
Top Receiver: WR Keith Mumphrey — 42 receptions, 515 yards, one TD
Top Pass Rusher: DE William Gholston — 59 tackles, 13 for loss, 4.5 sacks
Top Tackler: LB Max Bullough — 111 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks

2012 RECAP: After reaching the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game in 2011, the 2012 season was a bit more difficult for Michigan State. The defense was again one of the best in the Big Ten, but the offense sputtered at times with new quarterback Andrew Maxwell.

The team ran for just about as many yards as it did in 2011, but the passing totals dropped by nearly 1,000 yards. Running back Le’Veon Bell ran for nearly 1,800 yards, almost literally carrying the Spartan offense.

Linebacker Max Bullough was one of the Big Ten’s best defensive players, surpassing the 100 tackles mark and was named to the First Team All-Big Ten by the coaches. Alongside Bullough was defensive end William Gholston, who terrorized opponents off the edge.

The Spartans advanced to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU, where they mounted a late comeback to beat the Horned Frogs, 17-16. It was the first time since the 1989-90 seasons that Michigan State won back-to-back bowl games.

OFFENSIVE OUTLOOK: Michigan State is in an interesting situation on the offensive side of the ball. While Maxwell will almost undoubtedly improve as a passer, Michigan State is without a true starting running back. With Bell now graduated and competing for the starting running back spot for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Spartans have a very inexperienced group of running backs.

Among them is Riley Bullough, the younger brother of Max. Riley is originally a linebacker like his brother, but is being converted to running back in advance of the 2013 season.

Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell struggled at times in his first year as a starting quarterback, but possesses many tools that could make him an excellent passer.

Michigan State has an interesting group of young wide receivers, including sophomore Aaron Burbridge and senior Bennie Fowler. Fowler is the sole senior in the receiving corps, and led the team in touchdown receptions (four) in 2012.

DEFENSIVE OUTLOOK: Michigan State led the Big Ten in scoring defense and total defense in 2012, and despite a few key pieces graduating, the Spartans should again have a solid defensive squad. The Spartans have the experience on the defensive side to compete with just about anybody.

Bullough enters 2013 as possibly the conference’s best defensive player, and will undoubtedly find himself on numerous preseason watch lists. Senior safety Isaiah Lewis, who ranked second on the team in tackles, returns alongside senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

On the defensive line, MSU loses a pair of starters in Gholston and nose tackle Anthony Rashad White, but apart from that, there should be no major issues on the defense, barring injury. The lack of depth at certain positions could be the only foreseeable problem for the Spartans on defense, but as long as prominent Michigan State defenders stay healthy, the team should again present a major challenge to Big Ten offenses.

AN EXPERT'S TAKE: Inside Indiana asked Dan Killbridge from Spartan Tailgate a few questions, and Dan was kind enough to provide us with some intel on the Spartans.

Inside Indiana: How secure is Andrew Maxwell in that starting quarterback position? Was Connor Cook getting some significant time in spring practice, from what you could tell?

Dan Killbridge: Maxwell is currently listed as the starting quarterback, but that doesn’t say a whole lot regarding his job security. He was handed the reigns as a junior with no competition of note last season and suffered growing pains throughout the season. In his defense, pass protection was subpar all season and receivers dropped more catchable balls than one could count. Cook and even third-string redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor received significant snaps in spring ball and incoming freshman Damion Terry is of the most highly-anticipated recruits of the Mark Dantonio era. This is certainly a competition, one that could stretch well into the 2013 season. Dantonio has also expressed a need to prepare at least one signal caller for the 2014 season, and will likely give significant reps to more than one quarterback this fall.

II: How important is replacing Le’Veon Bell at running back, and is former linebacker Riley Bullough the answer at the moment?

DK: It’s very important considering Bell was the most productive player on a woeful offense by a landslide. He handled almost all significant snaps at the position and will be missed for his combination of speed and power. Bullough looks like the starter for now, but he only has a few practices under his belt. Dantonio made the position switch during the last week of spring practice and Bullough was promising in the spring game, earning tough yards and showing the ability to break tackles. He should be very valuable in short-yardage situations, but there are three incoming freshmen tailbacks with the potential to contribute immediately as well. Gerald Holmes is a bigger back in the Le’Veon Bell mold and some think he could be the starter by the time Big Ten play rolls around. Elsewhere, true freshmen Delton Williams and R.J. Shelton will compete for playing time alongside junior Nick Hill, junior Jeremy Langford and redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins. Look for the Spartans to play as many as five running backs early and use several players throughout the season to make up for the loss of Bell.

II: With question marks on offense, how much responsibility falls on this experienced Spartan defense?

DK: Plenty. MSU loses standout defensive end Will Gholston and Johnny Adams, but has two promising options to fill their shoes in sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun and sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes. Elsewhere MSU returns all three starting linebackers and figures to field one of the best units in the Big Ten yet again under defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Despite the offensive struggles in 2012, the Spartans’ defense kept the team in every game. It may have to do so yet again this fall with so many unknowns on offense. If the group performs as well as its capable and produces sacks and turnovers with more frequency than in 2012, MSU’s offense will simply need to perform at an adequate level in order to give the Spartans a chance to return to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

WHEN IU MEETS MICHIGAN STATE: Indiana proved that it could hang with Michigan State in 2012, jumping out to a 17-0 lead. However, the Spartan defense put a stranglehold on the IU offense for the remainder of the game and Maxwell, Bell and the Michigan State offense put together some big drives to come back and defeat Indiana.

Both teams enter 2013 either improved or just as good as they were in 2012 in many respects, so the game might go similarly in that Michigan State has the ability to take control. IU has the ability to put up points in a hurry, but to beat the Spartans, IU must put together a full game of solid execution.

Due to the fact that Michigan State’s offense will probably not be among the most explosive in the Big Ten, it is important for Indiana to limit big plays and get off the field in third-down situations.

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