Know thy Opponent 2009: Michigan State Spartans

My Big Ten road trip last season was to East Lansing. I braved the wind and cold to officially watch our bowl chances go up in smoke. This year, Michigan State comes to West Lafayette on Senior Day. It will be the final home game for 21 Purdue seniors, and if we don't have five wins or more at this point, it could mean the difference between a bowl game and another season home for the holidays.

Michigan State is an interesting team. We did not adapt to the cold well last year and had a number of dropped passes. We handed them seven points on an awful interception before halftime. Also, at one point we had to play a fourth string walk-on scout team quarterback. Still, we did not play that badly (at least on defense) in a 21-7 loss. That gives me hope that this year can be different.

2008 Record: 9-4, (6-2 Big Ten)

Bowl Result: lost Capitol One Bowl 24-12 to Georgia

Blog Representation: The Only Colors, The Enlightened Spartan, Sparty MSU

Series with Purdue: Michigan State leads 30-28-3

Last Purdue win: 11/4/2006 at Michigan State 17-15

Last Michigan State win: 11/8/2008 at Michigan State 21-7

Last season for the Spartans:

Last year was a Purdue-esque season for Michigan State. I think we can all agree that the Big Ten as a whole was in the middle of a down year. Michigan State played nine mediocre-to-bad teams and four really good teams. Predictably, they finished with a 9-4 record. They lost a relatively close game on the road at California, got trucked by Ohio State and Penn State, then lost the Capitol One Bowl to a good Georgia team. There was little doubt they were the third best team in the conference, as there was clear separation between them, the top of Ohio State and Penn State, and everyone else.

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Are Sparty and Pete long lost brothers?

A huge reason for their success, Javon Ringer, is now gone. Brian Hoyer is also gone at the quarterback position. Their 2009 non-conference schedule is sneaky tough. Aside from a gimme game against Montana State, Michigan State hosts two of the better teams in the MAC. Games against Central Michigan and Western Michigan are hardly easy wins because both teams feature solid offenses with veteran quarterbacks. Both are more than capable of pulling an upset. There is also a trip to Notre Dame, where everyone in the country hopes the Spartans can continue their ownership of the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium. The hopes of a nation are with the Spartans that day, as a Michigan State victory would give Notre Dame one of the critical four losses needed to assure they don't get another undeserved BCS bowl bid.

As far as our game last season with the Spartans, I felt it was another missed opportunity. The defense played well and prevented Ringer from going totally nuts, but our offense failed to do anything until a final 98 yard drive that prevented a shutout. We had a good game plan, but one mistake (Siller's awful pick six) pretty much ruined any chance of a victory.

Michigan State offense:

Michigan State must find a way to replace Javon Ringer. Ringer had a monster season, rushing an astounding 390 times for 1,637 yards and 22 TD's. For good measure, he added 28 receptions for another 190 yards and even returned 11 kicks for 224 yards. He outscored the kicker, which is rare, and accounted for more than a third of Michigan State's total yardage gained on the season. Andre Anderson was second on the team in rushing attempts and yards with only 26 carries for 97 yards. Hoyer and Ashton Leggett are the only other players that had a rushing touchdown, each scoring once. Glenn Winston, who was recently released from jail, has now been reinstated as well.

How do you replace a guy that touches the ball on 429 different plays? Anderson, now a sophomore, is first in line to be the starter at tailback. Most likely, however, they will try to replace the yards by committee. A.J. Jimmerson and Leggett will also be contributors as Michigan State looks, at this early stage, to have the same running back-by-committee approach that we will have. They also have a star running back recruit that is a bit of a wild card like our own Al-Terek McBurse. Edwin Baker was one of the best high school running backs in the country last season. He is 5'10", 205 and already has enough size to make an early impression.

The quarterback battle is another key area for Michigan State. Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol appear to be dead even for the starting job at the moment, and both could play significant minutes. Nichol sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma, while Cousins saw a decent amount of action as Hoyer's backup. Cousins' 32 completions on 43 attempts gave him a very high percentage. He ended up with 310 yards passing and two touchdowns against one interception. That in-game experience may give him a very slight edge for now.

Many of the top receivers return from a unit that was very balanced. Blair White (49-659-1) had the most receptions, but tight end Charlie Gantt (19-304-4) was the leader in touchdowns. Michigan State was not afraid to go to Gantt in short yardage situations or at the goal line. Gantt actually had the longest reception of the season for Michigan State with an 82 yard catch and run. B.J. Cunningham (41-528-0) will be the main #2 receiver, while Mark Dell (36-679-3) led the team in receiving yards. This is an experienced receiving unit that should help the growth of either Cousins or Nichol.

The Spartans must replace the entire right side of their offensive line, which was possibly the best part of the line. Rocco Cironi at 6'6" 308 is the anchor at left tackle, and he is an excellent run blocker. This line will likely excel at run blocking once again as the passing game gets used to a new quarterback. Of course, this late in the season Michigan State should be together and will likely be playing much better than at the beginning. Joel Foreman and Joel Nitchman provide stability as returning starters at left guard and center, respectively.

Michigan State defense:

It is no surprise that Michigan State's defense continues to get better, as Mark Dantonio is a defense-first style of coach. This year, the Spartans return eight starters from a unit that got better, but still struggled against the really good teams on its schedule. Cal, Penn State, and Ohio State scored seemingly at will on the Spartans, but this unit did play a respectable game against Georgia in the bowl game.

One of the biggest losses on defense was safety Otis Wiley. Wiley delivered a hit on Kory Sheets in the 2007 game that led to a fumble return for a touchdown that sealed the game for MSU. Junior Marcus Hyde is the leading candidate to replace him after registering 31 tackles and an interception in reserve action. Johnny Adams could see the field at cornerback, and he already has hurt us. It was his pick six just before halftime in last year's game that virtually sealed that loss. Unfortunately for him, Ross Weaver and Chris Rucker already have the starting spots nailed down. Danny Fortener will man the other safety spot, giving Michigan State one of the most experienced secondaries in the Big Ten. The group managed 14 interceptions last year, but four came from Wiley.

Linebacker Greg Jones is probably the player to watch on the defense. He led the team in tackles and tackles for loss last year, registering 127 stops and 14 behind the line of scrimmage. He is excellent against the run and could be one of the top linebackers in the nation. Eric Gordon and Brandon Denson will play the outside spots, though Denson is a bit undersized by Big Ten standards. Gordon was second on the team with 85 tackles and added three sacks in 2008. This unit is not afraid to blitz the quarterback, making pass protection difficult.

Senior defensive end Trevor Anderson has been with Dantonio since his time at Cincinnati. He had 8 sacks a year ago, but three came against Michigan. He tends to play in streaks, so he will either have a monster game or all but disappear against us. Colin Neely is the newcomer to the defensive line at the other end position. He and tackle Kevin Pickleman are undersized, but will be sued more as pass rusher than run stoppers. That's to be expected as good as MSU's linebackers are. Oren Wilson is a true sophomore, but he started every game at tackle as a freshman last year.

Michigan State Special Teams:

Brett Swenson makes sure that the Spartans get points any time they get near the end zone. He was 22 of 28 on field goals with a long of 50 yards. He has made 52 career field goals in his time in East Lansing, making him one of the Big Ten's most proficient kickers. Aaron Bates also returns as a solid punter, averaging 42 yards per boot. The punt coverage wasn't great, however, as teams averaged 10 yards per return and MSU did give up a touchdown.

The kickoff return game struggled mightily, not even averaging 20 yards per return. It should be a lively competition to see who gets the starting job here, but A.J. Jimmerson is the leading candidate. With Wiley gone, Michigan State also must find a new punt returner.

Intangibles:

It is senior day for us, so that has to be worth something. Unfortunately, we are getting Michigan State at the end of the season instead of the beginning. By this point, both the quarterback and running back derbies should be settled. The defense will likely play at a very high level all season long. All they need is an offense that can go out and give them 20-25 points per game. With no Ohio State on the schedule, it is possible that the Spartans will be a week away from a very big home game against Penn State for the Big Ten title. If they are looking ahead it will be beneficial to us, but I doubt they will be looking ahead.

Still, I don't think this is a daunting team. Last year they were good and just beat up on a mediocre league. They are in the same position to do so this year. Our game in East Lansing was hardly a dominating blowout. Our mistakes gave MSU more than enough to win. We handed them seven points and generated virtually nothing on offense because of dropped passes. This has been a wild series since 1997 where the best team hasn't necessarily won every game. That was true of our surprising upset in 1999 as it was of Michigan State's in 2000.

I hate myself for leaving this game early

Game Outlook:

Again, I don't like that this game is at the end of the year. Michigan State is too solid of a team and could have too much to play for. Look at some of our recent wins over them. In 1997 and 1998 we won because of their mistakes late in games they dominated. Our last win in the series in 2006 came about because of a late interception that set up Casey Welch's late field goal. When we have won it has been because the Spartans screwed up. If they play a mistake free game we lose. I see that happening again here.

Prediction:

We had better five wins at this point, because if we're counting on this one as #5 I think we will be in for a long wait. I still think Indiana is our ace in the hole for getting win #6 and the bowl bid that comes with it. Beating Michigan State would be nice, but they simply are better and more experienced than us right now. I think we lose a close one at home where their maturity comes through. Michigan State 24, Purdue 21

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