Michigan State football preparing for two quarterbacks once again against Indiana

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EAST LANSING — When Xavier Henderson was a sophomore in 2019, Michigan State football’s defense faced a quarterback question when it came time to play Indiana.

Would Peyton Ramsey or Michael Penix Jr. be the Hoosiers’ starter?

Penix had been hobbled with an injury that sidelined him after beating out Ramsey for the starting job, and Indiana coach Tom Allen kept who would play a game-time secret. That Saturday, Penix played the Hoosiers’ entire 40-31 loss to MSU, which managed to survive his big day — 33 of 42, including 20 straight at one point, for 286 yards, three passing touchdowns and another rushing score.

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Two years later, history repeats itself.

Head coach Tom Allen shakes hands with Jack Tuttle (14) during warm-ups before the start of the Indiana versus Idaho football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 11, 2021.
Head coach Tom Allen shakes hands with Jack Tuttle (14) during warm-ups before the start of the Indiana versus Idaho football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 11, 2021.

The No. 9 Spartans travel to Bloomington, Indiana, for a noon kickoff Saturday (FS1). Penix again is injured, and Allen again won’t commit to his usual starter or backup Jack Tuttle. And that again leaves MSU (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) preparing for two quarterbacks.

“It's just kind of trying to understand Indiana's scheme and what they want to do offensively,” said Henderson, now a senior safety and the Spartans’ top tackler with 52. “It doesn't really change too much when the quarterbacks change. They're getting the ball out, and they want to get the run game going, too. So it just first comes to understanding what they want to do, and they got some differences.”

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Allen on Monday said Penix’s ACL rehab during the offseason allowed Tuttle to take reps as the No. 1 quarterback all spring. Penix suffered a shoulder separation that does not need surgery during the Hoosiers’ 24-0 loss to No. 8 Penn State on Oct. 2 that led into the bye week Saturday for Indiana (2-3, 0-2).

Penix is rehabbing his shoulder and considered “week to week,” Allen said, after his veteran got knocked out of a game for the sixth time in his career.

“Jack, as always, will be ready to go,” Allen told reporters. “One of his strengths is the ability to be locked in and focused and prepare at a high level, no matter what the role he is being asked to perform. He will be ready, as always.”

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. passes against Michigan State during the second half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.
Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. passes against Michigan State during the second half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.

Indiana averages 23.8 points and 343.5 yards per game this season, while the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Penix is completing just 53.7% of his passes for 939 yards with four touchdowns and seven interceptions. He keyed the Hoosiers’ 24-0 win over the Spartans last season by going 25 of 38 for 320 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions before suffering his second season-ending ACL injury later that fall.

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Tuttle, who transferred from Utah after the 2019 season, was 6 of 11 for 77 yards in the fourth quarter against the Nittany Lions after replacing Penix. The 6-4, 212-pound Tuttle took over as the starter in 2020 following Penix’s season-ending knee injury, beating Wisconsin on the road and losing to Mississippi in the Outback Bowl. The former four-star recruit was 44 of 72 for 362 yards, two touchdowns and an interception last season.

MSU cornerbacks coach Travares Tillman, a senior defensive assistant last year, said scheming against Indiana’s fast-paced, no-huddle offense is critical.

“They can't change it too much, just the quarterback changes. But they have that offense,” Tillman said. “You do look at the two styles of quarterbacks and you kind of prepare for both. We'll get ready for either.”

MSU’s secondary ranks 124th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools at 301.7 passing yards allowed per game, last in the Big Ten, but also sits 54th nationally in passing efficiency defense (126.62). The Spartans rank fifth in sacks per game at 3.83.

“Our preparation is gonna be fairly the same,” defensive end Drew Jordan said. “Both quarterbacks are really talented guys, and we're just gonna continue to work on our schemes and tighten the screws a little bit more so we can continue to be successful.”

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On the Marqui

Oct 9, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights wide receiver Brandon Sanders (12) is tackled by Michigan State Spartans cornerback Marqui Lowery (9) during the second half at SHI Stadium.
Oct 9, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights wide receiver Brandon Sanders (12) is tackled by Michigan State Spartans cornerback Marqui Lowery (9) during the second half at SHI Stadium.

Tillman praised redshirt freshman Marqui Lowery, who got his first action at cornerback in Saturday’s 31-13 win at Rutgers. The 6-0, 175-pound Louisville transfer made two tackles after missing the past four games with an undisclosed injury since his debut on special teams against Northwestern on Sept. 3.

“Marqui is doing a great job. He's a kid that comes out and works every day hard in practice,” said Tillman, a former NFL defensive back. “He earned those reps. He's a guy that I was excited to finally see get on the field. ... Marqui is a guy that is long, he can run, he has great feet. And as a cornerbacks coach, that's what you're looking for.

On the edge

Michigan State defensive end Drew Jordan reacts after sacking Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral  during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Piscataway, N.J. Michigan State won 31-13.
Michigan State defensive end Drew Jordan reacts after sacking Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Piscataway, N.J. Michigan State won 31-13.

With defensive end Drew Beesley still out for an unspecified amount of time, Jordan, the former Duke starter, got more reps and produced a season-best four tackles and his first half of a sack at Rutgers.

“With having him out, those are big shoes to fill,” said Jordan, who had 10 sacks and 102 tackles in 48 career games at Duke. “And a lot of guys have stepped up and come to the task to play that role and to be a bigger contributor on Saturdays.”

One of them who impressed coach Mel Tucker was converted running back Brandon Wright, who made his defensive debut Saturday due to his work on the scout team rushing the quarterback.

“You saw him get in the game and get a couple of rushes because he was rushing well in practice against our (No. 1 offensive line),” Tucker said Monday.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football preparing for two QBs again vs. Indiana