“We have to have a lot of blitz answers,” receiver Kofi Hughes said.
Welcome to a homecoming challenge only the strong can survive. Are the stumbling Hoosiers, with a 2-2 record and two straight losses, strong enough?
“It will be a tremendous challenge,' coach Kevin Wilson said. “(Michigan State) has got a high standard of what they are shooting for. I know they're coming in 3-2, but they've got a standard to win that division. They'll come in guns ablazing and keeping their program on track.”
The Spartans don't always get the sack — they rank 11th in the Big Ten with just four in five games — but they do get in your head.
“They're very aggressive,” quarterbacks/receivers coach Kevin Johns said. “They're big, strong and fast. They're everything you'd expect in a Big Ten-level defense. They'll load the box and stop the run. They'll dare you to throw. They play press man coverage all over the place. They present a lot of challenges. Our kids are ready for it.”
The Hoosiers will have to be. Michigan State leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (12.8 points allowed), total defense (263.4 yards allowed) and pass efficiency defense. Its second in rush defense (96.2 yards allowed) and pass defense (167.2 yards).
“Michigan State has a dominating defense,” Wilson said. “They're talented at every position. It's one of the best defenses, not only in the Big Ten, but in college ball.”
In the pros, receivers and quarterbacks are so in sync they make sight adjustments and shorten routes when they see a blitz coming. That's a little advanced for a youthful IU squad using two inexperienced quarterbacks (Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld).
“We'll just follow our base rules,” Johns said. “It's the things we've been practicing for a long time.”
Still, the receivers must be aware and adjust to blitzes and overall pressure.
“As a receiver, you might think it's a one-on-one matchup and all you have to do is beat the cornerback,” Hughes said, “but really you've got to beat the D-linemen (trying to sack the quarterback).
“On blitzes, we're trying to run our routes as fast as we can to time everything up because our quarterback doesn't have much time.
“You have like a time clock in your head. You don't have as much time as you do on a normal play, so you've got to speed everything up. We work on that in practice.”
Michigan State began the season as a top-10 program with aspirations of reaching the Big Ten title game for the second straight year. But home losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State due in large part to offensive struggles (last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency) leave the Spartans driven to restore their season's luster.
That drive starts with tailback Le'Veon Bell, the Big Ten's leading rusher with 655 yards. He averages 27 carries a game, and figures to have a major role on Saturday.
“Offensively, they're physical and they like to pound it with the big back (Bell),” Wilson said. “They have got to get their pass game going. I know they're working hard on that and the way they run it, it will get going. It will get more complete as they mature there.”
Indiana might help that maturity. It ranks last in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 213.5 yards a game. It is last in total defense (allowing 448.8 yards) and 11th in scoring defense (27.0 points). It's allowed 85 points in the last two games.
This is a rivalry game, with the teams playing for the Brass Spittoon, but the stakes are greater than that, Wilson said.
“We need to have success against this team.We play them every year. We haven't made (the Spittoon) a focal point or rallying cry. You embrace that challenge. You hit it whole heartedly. If we have success, it will be great for our program.”
More informationKickoff: Michigan State at Indiana, noon, Saturday
For more on Indiana athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.