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Know thy Opponent 2007: Michigan State Spartans

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By the time the Michigan State game comes around we should already have the six wins necessary to be bowl eligible. We'll be 10 games into the season and should be 6-4 at the very least. That is my worst case scenario. Anything less than that will call for a serious examination of the current coaching staff and will certainly bring with it quite an upset fan base. Fortunately for us, game 11 will be against Michigan State, and will like be our least challenging conference opponent. Hopefully we'll be playing for bowl positioning and won't need another win just to get to the post-season at this point.



Recently we have played very well against the Spartans. We are 7-1 against Michigan State came to West Lafayette, with the one loss ironically coming in the year we went to the Rose Bowl. Many of these games have been exciting finishes where we have somehow managed to pull out a game we probably had no business winning. For whatever reason the tables are reversed for us when it comes to Michigan State, because they seem to be the one team we can pull out one miraculous win after another against.



Not much is expected of the Spartans this year, but at least for their sakes John L. Smith is gone. New head coach Mike Dantonio now takes over a program that has an unfortunate history of completely melting down after one close loss in the middle of the season. For Michigan State fans' sake I hope he is the man to turn things around, because no program has collapsed more in the Big Ten recently than Michigan State. Hopefully it will no longer be a situation of the later you play them the better, because this can be a very good team in time.



Last Season for the Spartans:



The last two seasons have started off very well for the Spartans, as they were 3-0 last year and 4-0 the year before. Afterward, however, is a completely different story. In 2005 a 34-31 overtime loss at home against Michigan started a 1-6 finish that saw the Spartans miss a bowl game. Last season it was an epic choke job against Notre Dame that got things started, and the only salvation the rest of the year was an even more epic choke job by Northwestern in a 1-7 finish. I have no idea why this team has fallen completely apart in late September the last two years, because there is no valid reason for it with the experience they had. At least four games last year (Notre Dame, Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue) could and probably should have gone in Michigan State's favor, and in all but the Indiana game the Spartans beat themselves. When get absolutely throttled by Indiana you have a serious problem.



This year that experience is gone as long-time starter Drew Stanton and his top three receiving targets have departed. The defense also must adjust to a new coach that is very defensive minded and will demand a lot out of his players. 2007 certainly doesn't look good for Michigan State, but there is a chance at a winning year. UAB and Bowling Green need to be wins to start, while Pittsburgh is a toss-up game. Last season the Spartans won in Pittsburgh, so they certainly should be able to win at home. After that is a trip to Notre Dame that will probably be a loss, but Michigan State has won five straight in South Bend so you can't totally write them off. Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa, and Purdue in that order are all toss-ups within the conference. In what is a blessing many people aren't expecting much from Michigan State this year, and that could work in their favor.



Michigan State Offense:



Last year Drew Stanton had to run the ball quite a bit. Part of this comes from the fact he is a mobile quarterback, while the other part comes from having to run for his life because he wasn't getting any protection. For any team to be good they need a good offensive line, especially when they are breaking in a new quarterback like the Spartans are. This year Michigan State will likely have a more run-oriented attack as they have a massive line to run behind and a couple of pretty good running backs to power the ball.



Four of the five projected starters up front are more than 300 pounds, with only 6'4" 285 John Masters at center being under the 300 pound mark. Last year the line was hit with some injuries that gave multiple guys experience. Still, the unit gave up 28 and will need to me much better with an inexperienced quarterback under center. Mike Gyetvai and Pete Clifford are both 6'7" monsters on the left side of the line, while Roland Martin and Jesse Miller form a solid right side.



Running behind them will be Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick who offer differing styles. Ringer is a burner who played well before hurting his knee last year, while Caulcrick is a power runner that will be used to simply pound the ball against opposing defenses. With this experience and the size of Michigan State's line our run defense is going to be tested severely, but we will have already faced serious tests at this point in the season. Either we will learn from those tests, or we will get shredded by yet another good running game. To complicate matters Dwayne Holmes will be a 275 pound fullback paving the way for Ringer and Caulcrick.



Brian Hoyer is the new quarterback and played quite a bit last year against Minnesota and Penn State. He is the only real option for the Spartans because of experience, but he's not all that bad. Much of what I have read about him reminds me of Minnesota's Bryan Cupito. He's the type of guy that won't blow up for 450 yards a game, but plays very smart and won't lose the game for you. He throws the ball fairly well, but there is very little experience to throw the ball to.



The leading returning receiver was T.J. Williams who had 25 catches for 281 yards and three scores. He's expected to be behind Terry Love, who had 18 catches for 234 yards. He and Deon Curry are both speedy deep threats, while Kellen Davis needs to have more production at tight end. There are some true freshmen who might see the field, but they really aren't ready yet and may likely redshirt. The passing game will likely be more of a compliment to the running game, and the Spartans will be in trouble if they fall behind.



Michigan State Defense:



This group was pretty bad at times last year. It couldn't hold an 18-point lead with less than nine minutes to go against Notre Dame. It gave up at least 38 points in successive weeks to Ohio State, Northwestern, and Indiana. It was aggressive without actually doing much, and will be entirely rebuilt under Dantonio. Still, there are some key pieces left to work with.



Otis Wiley and Nehemiah Warrick are the next two in line of pretty good safeties we will see this year. Both are hard hitters who play well against the run and will be better against the pass this year. Wiley had 10 pass breakups last year, but no interceptions. Both corners are new, but have pretty good size and may be better than what Michigan State had last year. Rose Weaver and Kendall Davis-Clark are physical with receivers, but have little playing time under their belts.



Kaleb Thornhill and SirDarean Adams are both back at linebacker and should be the backbone of a good but not great unit. Adams is a converted running back and will use his speed to be all over the field. This will be critical against us in pass coverage, as Michigan State likely won't need to go into a nickel package much because of him. All told seven letter winners return at linebacker, so there are plenty of options to go around beyond the starting three. Andrew Hawken, Josh Rouse, and Eric Gordon (I thought he was playing basketball at IU?) all look to factor in as far as playing time.



The defensive line, however, has been a liability of late and has done next to nothing as far as a pass rush goes. Ervin Baldwin had four sacks last year, but he is the most proven pass rusher on the team. Justin Kershaw and Ogemdi Nwagbuo are the starting tackles that have to do more than simply be there against the running game. The front four is pretty set, and anyone who rotates in outside of Jonal Saint-Dic hasn't seen too much of the field. This is far from the team's strength, and if our line can protect Painter we should have time to pick this defense apart.



Michigan State Special Teams:



Brett Swenson was a pretty solid kicker as a true freshman last year and proved it by nailing three field goals against us. He doesn't have a ton of range, but he is fairly accurate. Aaron bates takes over the punting duties as a true freshman, but performed fairly well in high school. Both return games don't offer much, but the overall speed is there to do something if it can develop.



Intangibles:



Michigan State can't have a third straight season fall completely apart, can they? The last two years expectations have been fairly high when the wheels came off. This year with a new coach and all the other circumstances many people are picking Michigan State to be the worst team in the Big Ten. Because of that, they may not have a whole lot to play for by the time they come to West Lafayette. I like to think that with a new coach the collapse of the past two years won't happen, but a similar record may be in order simply because the Spartans are about a year away.



This will also be our senior day, and it will be the last time we get to see Dustin Keller, Dorien Bryant, and the rest of the seniors play at Ross-Ade. We have played fairly well on senior day lately, in fact we're 8-2 under Tiller (in 2001 Senior Day was officially against Michigan State, not the rescheduled Notre Dame game), and having Michigan State as an opponent will help.



This should be a breather by comparison to the stretch before it, but we know how well we handle that. In 2000 it was also supposed to be smooth sailing after the Ohio State game and we ended up getting crushed 30-10 by a Michigan State team that finished 5-6. Thankfully Iowa bailed us out by beating Northwestern that day.



One final factor to consider is the sheer wackiness this series has produced the last ten years. In 1997 and 1998 we needed two late touchdowns each time to pull out a miraculous win. In 2002 Kyle Orton sat in the freezing cold, came off the bench and completed a 40 yard bomb to John Standeford on 4th and 8 and followed it up with a two-point conversion for a 45-42 win. Even last year we needed a 19-yard field goal by a kid who had only attempted an extra point in his five year career. What will it be this year?



Game Outlook:



Michigan State has the size and the talent in the running game to give us fits if our run defense isn't better, but if our run defense isn't better will have had a ton of more problems before this game. Their defense isn't anything special, but isn't horrid either. Our offense should have a pretty good game against them and our defense should know they are rather one dimensional. Holding their ground game in check and getting the defense off the field will be huge.



Honestly, this isn't a team we should have a ton of trouble with if things hold serve throughout the rest of the schedule. If we are strong enough to beat Notre Dame this year and be competitive with Ohio State and Penn State we shouldn't have any trouble with Michigan State. Still, they won't have anything to lose at this point and that may be bad for us.



PREDICTION:



Only if we are beaten up pretty badly coming into this game do I see us having a problem. Their defense will be very vanilla and as long as we don't turn the ball over a lot we'll be fine. Purdue 38, Michigan State 20.