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Gophers at Michigan State, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, BTN, 100.3-FM

The cupcakes are gone, the Gophers having devoured them in quick fashion, satisfying the taste buds if not providing the necessary nutrition. Now comes the main course, the nine-game Big Ten schedule that begins Saturday at Michigan State. With aspirations to win the Big Ten West, the Gophers begin prove-it time.

Three big story lines

1. Just how good are the Gophers?

Coach P.J. Fleck's team is averaging 49.7 points and allowing only 5.7 per game. Yet will that translate to Big Ten play and its bigger, stronger and faster athletes? Vegas thinks so, quickly moving the Gophers from three-point underdogs to three-point favorites.

2. How will the Gophers do without Chris Autman-Bell?

When Minnesota's best wide receiver suffered a season-ending lower leg injury against Colorado last week, wideout Clay Geary said the team "lost the heartbeat'' of its offense. How players like Geary, Mike Brown-Stephens, Dylan Wright and Daniel Jackson fill that void will determine if it's a speed bump or a roadblock.

3. In the 2:30 p.m. hour, they cried, Mo, Mo, Mo

Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim is the nation's second-leading rusher at 154.7 yards per game, and he hasn't carried the ball more than 23 times. That could change now that Big Ten play is here and Autman-Bell isn't on the field. Ibrahim has shown he's the team's most potent weapon.

Two key matchups

Gophers LT Aireontae Ersery vs. MSU LB Jacoby Windmon

The season is only three weeks old, and Windmon, a transfer from UNLV, twice has been named Big Ten Defensive player of the week. His 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles lead the nation. Ersery has been solid for the Gophers, and he'll likely see Windmon when he lines up on the edge.

Gophers linebackers vs. MSU tight ends

In last week's 39-28 loss at Washington, Spartans QB Payton Thorne found TE Daniel Barker, a transfer from Illinois, seven times for 69 yards and TE Tyler Hunt four times for 14 yards. Gophers LBs Mariano Sori-Marin and Braelen Oliver will need to account for that duo.

One stat that matters

7 Touchdowns scored by Ibrahim, all on rushing plays. He leads the nation in total TDs and rushing TDs.

The Gophers will win if … the wide receiver corps makes up for Autman-Bell's absence; TE Brevyn Spann-Ford continues to be a target; the offensive line handles the step up in talent level that the Spartans present; and the defense continues to get off the field on third down.

The Spartans will win if … Thorne hurts the Gophers with his feet and his arm; their defensive line proves disruptive to Gophers QB Tanner Morgan; and their secondary improves greatly after allowing nearly 400 passing yards to Washington.


People have been waiting for the Gophers to play somebody, and now they will. Michigan State is coming off an 11-win season and Peach Bowl triumph, so the Spartans certainly have earned respect under coach Mel Tucker. Was last week's loss at Washington an aberration or a sign of things to come? The Gophers can help answer that question by continuing to play mostly error-free football, this time in front of a hostile crowd for the first time.

The combination of coordinators Kirk Ciarrocca on offense and Joe Rossi on defense has helped the Gophers maintain a calm, detail-oriented approach. Morgan is spreading the ball around, and Ibrahim keeps gaining yards after contact. A Spartans defense that allowed Washington's Michael Penix Jr. to pass for 397 yards could be something the Gophers can exploit.

If Minnesota's defensive line can keep Thorne from breaking contain, good things can happen for the Gophers because of their deep secondary, which is playing with confidence.

My expectation: The Gophers took care of business in the nonconference season, building good habits that should help them on the road. Ibrahim is quickly re-establishing himself as one of the nation's best running backs, and that will continue Saturday. Gophers 27, Michigan State 20.