At the Big Ten Media days the coaches predicted Michigan State will come in 3rd in conference. In year three of Dantonio that isn’t a stretch. Sparty comes to Madison to kick off the Big Ten season and they hope a run for the Roses. Through Rose Bowl colored glasses? Sparty faithful hope so, and may not be delusional . . . though certainly optimistic. The bloggers at SpartyMSU and the Enlightened Spartan answered my questions to let us know what to expect on September 26.
1) Who's your quarterback?
Sparty MSU: The good thing for MSU is that we have 2 good QBs Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, and in the wings four star recruit Andrew Maxwell and Stud recruit Joe Boisture .. but at this point I think Kirk Cousins will lead the team on the field. Last year he was behind Brian Hoyer and had stats of 32-43-1 for a 74.4% comp rate. This spring I thought both QBs look sharp. I’m not too worried about the QB position…
Enlightened Spartan: 1) Actually, it really doesn't matter who our quarterbacks are, they equally shined and probably had the best Spring ball out of quarterbacks in recent memory. Both Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins are mobile and have strong arms. Each are an improvement over our serviceable, but efficient, QB Brian Hoyer .
2) Who's your running back? And is your offensive line good enough to make them look
decent? Word from the Spring Game is they were a little porous. What on earth should we
expect from your offense?
SpartyMSU: For the spring game, as any spring game Lines go at half speed, and the
Spartans have been working on diversification of the offense. 2008 it was the Javon Ringer
show. He was good, why not go with your strengths. This year our backs are strong, talented,
but no Javon. So, we have to work in the passing game. And that’s what happened. Look at
the Spring Stats: 357 yards passing for both Green and the White team. Which was over
87% of the total offense for both teams, and they ran only 18 rushes each side. But for
passing the QBs were 29 for 43 (Kirk) and 20 – 28 (Keith).
Running backs will be Ashton Leggett, Andre Anderson, Caulton Ray and/or A.J.
Jimmerson. I think Leggett and Ray might start, but with a range of backups, they might
Bottom line, the ball will be in the air more this year than last.
Enlightened Spartan: Our running backs can use some work, and I've never been sold on senior AJ Jimmerson -- so it will likely be a running back-by-committee (Ashton Leggett, Andre Anderson, Caulton Ray) and you may likely see true frosh blue chippers Ed Baker or Larry Caper get the pigskin plenty this fall. Offensive line actually might be the best its been under Dantonio -- they were piss poor last year and didn't reach its potential despite two big seniors on the line: case in point was the team's 3.4 yards per carry a year ago despite the workhorse, Javon Ringer. Our wideouts need to wipe the butter off their hands and hold onto the ball this year... but have lots of experience returning (Mark Dell, Blair White, BJ Cunningham, and Charlie Gantt all should be improved). The o-line can only improve, and Joel Nitchman, Rocco Cironi, and Joel Foreman have plenty of PT (and better footwork) to make this an improved unit. Bottom line: expect an evenly balanced offense in 2009, a far cry from the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-Ringer offense last year. I expect we will be a little more efficient, in all honesty. Mark Dell may be the most improved player in the Big Ten and may rack up big-time stats behind our great QBs and a more balanced offense; he was injury plauged for most of the second half of 2008.
3) Dantonio seems to have righted the attitude issues in East Lansing. He took his first year's close losses to quality teams and turned them into close wins in his second season. He seems to get the most out of his players. However, since Michigan State last played in the Rose Bowl every team in the Big Ten except Indiana and Minnesota has made the trip. Is this the year that Michigan State makes their triumphant return (skipping Ohio State and getting Penn State and Iowa at home is a plus), or are the Spartans still a year or two away?
SpartyMSU: Can’t put the cart before the horse. Sure, all Spartans are keenly aware of the painful eons its been since we made a trip to Pasadena. But, we will return. With so much mediocre history behind us, no one in the program wants to rush in for a One and Done type of season. We are all on board for a long term rise with staying power. We want to get back to the Rose Bowl, its been since 1988 (when we beat USC 20 – 17), I still have a rose on my bedroom mirror as a daily reminder .. but, we are all behind Coach D, and have backed his long term approach. If we get to the Rose Bowl this year, We’ll take it.
Bottom Line: SpartyMSU has predicted it, so I’m packing my Bag and have Hotel reservations !
Enlightened Spartan: MSU seems to be a year away, but is improving across the board, in ALL areas of the team. I think we all should take a closer look at Dantonio's recipe... teach sound fundamental football (reduce turnovers), add in your typical, Pro Set offense to reduce spread-offense mistakes (three things can happen when you throw the football, and two are bad), add more fundamentals (reduce penalties), move to a bare-knuckles defense instead of a stunt defense, add more fundamentals (play to your position) and what do you get? A focus on defense with a minimal mistake offense, that plays games to the end. Dantonio is all about letting the other team make the mistakes as the game wears on, call their bluff, take advantage, and win on fundamentals. Results are improving as the cupboard becomes stocked with better talent.
While I'm not a believer in the recruiting services per se (eg, Keith Nichol helped Oklahoma to a Rivals-ranked Top 5 recruiting class, and now he plays for MSU), I believe you can get an IMPRESSION from them -- and the impression is that the Spartans are gaining better talent and more players who care about character & values to campus to play football. While Greg Jones is already emblematic of this on defense, you should really begin to see much more of this on the playing field as depth across the team has really begun to set in.
So, are we are year away? Probably... as we have a ton of talent returning next year. but that football is a funny shape, and you never know what might happen.
(3) Holding Iowa to 13 points was impressive, but overall the MSU defense wasn't great, and got scorched by Penn State, Ohio State, and dinged up pretty badly at Cal, too. What will make them better this season? Just how good is Greg Jones, and who else will shine for MSU?
SpartyMSU: No one in the Big Ten was as good as OSU or PSU last year, period. They were the cream of the Big Ten.. But to say the D wasn’t that great, well… ok. Not great, but we were good and better than most others in the Big Ten. We did end up in third place in the Big Ten.
Lets roll back the video Tape: MSU wasn’t First in “D”, just had middle of the road in “D” stats for 2008, MSU was # 5 in total “D” in the Big Ten in 2008, #1 in Red Zone “D”. #1 in fourth down conv. “D”. In terms of Big Ten leading tacklers, MSU had the #3 (Greg Jones), #13, #15. Of the top 15 tacklers in the Big Ten, only NU had more than 1 player, with only two. Spartans had three. And of those three, two return.
As for this season, we only get better on “D”…. 9 out of the 12 top MSU tacklers return. The D Line lost 2 starters, but are back filling with existing experienced players. LBs: Starters return. For Secondary, we lost stud Otis Wiley, but 75% of the ints. come back to the field this year, and everyone has starting experience. IN 2009, behind the “D” line, we only added depth this year.
Enlightened Spartan: I would argue the MSU defense was pretty good last year -- depends on how you define as "good." It was called on in some pretty tough situations (eg. Iowa, Wisconsin) to make big plays down the stretch when its offense, and Ringer's running, was anemic. Our wideouts dropped lots of passes last year. It was our defense that time and again bailed out MSU... at the end of games. That is Dantonio coaching, and it worked. The Spartans demonstrated that they weren't in the same league as JoePa or Ohio State -- and it showed. It's not all in the statistics -- and, we won 9 games, largely as a result of our defense, solid fundamentals, and superior coaching. Our defensive backfield has significant experience, size & speed, and is very deep.... reminds me of an Ohio State secondary. Our linebacking corps is the best we've had in 15 years, (ranked #7 nationally by Phil Steele, with Greg Jones, Eric Gordon, Adam Decker, and Josh Rouse. Lots of depth and experience here. Watch out for Trevor Anderson on the Dline, who may end up leading the Big Ten in sacks. Dantonio's best defense yet... and the majority return for another year.
(4) Starting with the painful (for us) game in 2004, the home team has won the last four games in this series, but the last two were very close; what do you think will be different this year that the Spartans will leave Madison with a win?
SpartyMSU: Please see my posting: Preview - Spartans 2009 Game 4: Wisconsin [ed. note: not sure where Sparty got the lyric sheet for On Wisconsin, but he may want to check that again.]
Spartans win…[ed. note: big! SpartyMSU sees it 28-15] !
Enlightened Spartan: It won't be different. It will be very close again. Another FG game. Yes, we'll win. Your dumb coach will screw it up again, thank you very much.
(5) The Badgers start off with a painfully soft schedule. While yours isn't all-world, the road game in South Bend the week before your trip West won't be a cake-walk (not withstanding the impressive 6-straight road wins over the Irish). Do you see the Notre Dame game as a benefit to you coming into Madison, or will that longstanding, heated rivalry take some spirit (and maybe some healthy bodies) away from the Badger game?
SpartyMSU: Spartans LOVE this rivalry (see recent posting: Preview - Spartans 2009 Game 3: Notre Dame)
We have to take the Tom Izzo attitude: play anyone, any time, anywhere. Yeah, we might be a little banged up, but I think the Spartans will know more about the Spartans, then Wisconsin will have their own insight. Come on, what weenie schedule is this ? Northern Illinois, Fresno State, and WoofWoof ? Spartans come in to Camp Randall, and we are the first real slap in the face you’ll be getting. So, The Badgers will have it more difficult than MSU by Sept. 26.
Enlightened Spartan: Don't get sold on the Irish just yet, and their over-inflated ego of an offense that scortched June "Cheater" Jonesless-Hawaii in Hawaii (that is just a joke). We've whipped their panties 9 of the last 12. It'll happen again, right after their tilt of the "wanna-bes vs. used-to-bes," Michigan and Notre Dame. And, no it won't have any bearing heading into Madison. We need to kick yer tail to be in the Big Ten race.
(6) Speaking of which, who is worse, Joe Michigan Fan or Joe Notre Dame Fan?
SpartyMSU: Michigan fans suck. I can and do respect all teams and their fans in the Big Ten and other. But Michigan fans are dicks, and they cannot deal with any verbal jousting or competitive jocularity. I think it comes due to their low self esteem fan base, who truly base their own identity to the Team. Sad really, so sad. It’s the only team I get personal threats from.
Wisc, Illinois, Ind., Notre Dame, NU, etc. We all have a good time at each other’s tailgates. But, with Michigan, its different. Its down right mean. I try to stay away form Ann Arbor on Game days.
Enlightened Spartan: Oh, God, Joe "my UM football stadium addition costs as much as your entire UM football stadium" Michigan Fan.
(7) What should everyone know about Michigan State football that you find very few people actually do know?
SpartyMSU: The pregame team walk, and the tradition of flipping pennies at the Spartan stature before the game..
Enlightend Spartan: Michigan State's football team is the only Big Ten squad mentioned in the book, The Undefeated, by Jim Dent. The book is about University of Oklahoma, their coach Bud Wilkinson, and the longest winning streak in college football history (47 games during the 1950s). MSU is noted repeatedly as a powerhouse of the era.
Ed. Note: Sparty MSU will be in Mad-Town for the game, so welcome them with open arms, and offer them a consoling beer when it’s all over!