Purdue up next for improving Michigan State

Michigan State is quietly emerging as a factor in the Big Ten
title race.

The Spartans (5-1, 2-0) looked out of sorts at times in
September, when coach Mark Dantonio still was trying to decide on a
quarterback and the defense scored most of the touchdowns for the
first couple weeks. Now Michigan State is among only three teams
undefeated in Big Ten play, and the Spartans are favored again this
weekend at home against Purdue.

Michigan State can ill afford a slip-up now – especially when
the November schedule includes Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern
in consecutive games.

Purdue (1-5, 0-2) lost its first two conference games to
Wisconsin and Nebraska by a combined 85-17, but Dantonio is still
leery.

”When you have a young football team as they do, you’re going
to have a big learning curve, so they’re going to be able to move
forward as they move through their season,” Dantonio said. ”When
is that time that they move forward and have a big game?”

Here are five things to watch as Michigan State tries to take
care of business against the Boilermakers:

LANGFORD’S ENCORE: Michigan State’s issues at quarterback have
obscured another challenge the Spartans have faced. They needed to
replace workhorse running back Le’Veon Bell, who left after last
season for the NFL.

Jeremy Langford is the team’s leading rusher so far, and he
scored four touchdowns last week against Indiana.

Freshman Delton Williams has looked good as well, averaging 5.9
yards per carry.

NEGATIVE PLAYS: Quarterback Danny Etling was 14 of 35 against
Nebraska, but what coach Darrell Hazell is especially concerned
with is avoiding sacks and other negative-yardage plays that can
derail a drive.

”Danny’s got to be a little more accurate with the ball at
times, but the big thing for Danny is to make sure that he throws
the ball away in those critical situations,” Hazell said. ”Some
of our third-down situations that we didn’t convert were because we
didn’t throw it away – and now all of a sudden it’s second-and-13
or second-and-14, and those are hard for anybody to overcome.”

DANDY DEFENSE: The one constant for Michigan State all season
has been the defense, which was tested last weekend against
Indiana’s fast-paced offensive scheme.

After a 42-28 win over the Hoosiers, the Spartans are still No.
1 in the nation in total defense.

COOK’S IMPROVEMENT: Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has
looked better in the Spartans’ first two Big Ten games. He went 22
of 31 for 235 yards with two touchdowns and an interception last
weekend.

Michigan State will probably take a stat line like that if Cook
can produce it on a consistent basis.

”I see a very, very patient offense,” Hazell said. ”They’re
playing behind their defense. They’re not forcing the ball
anywhere, and if they’ve got to punt it, they punt it.”

RUNNING ROOM: Purdue is averaging only 77.8 yards rushing, the
worst mark in the league. That’s not a good sign going into a game
at Michigan State – which leads the nation in rushing defense.

Hazell planned to give redshirt freshman Robert Gregory a chance
to help. At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, he could give Purdue a more
imposing inside running threat than either 184-pound Akeem Hunt or
175-pound Dalyn Dawkins.