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Know thy Opponent 2008: Michigan State Spartans

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I was grossly wrong about our next opponent last season. Because of the way Michigan State finished the year in 2006 and with everything that they had lost I expected the Spartans to be the worst team in the Big Ten. I believe when I did my Big ten preview last year I even predicted a winless conference finish, putting them dead last at 2-10 overall. I was wrong. The opposite of those expectations seems to be ringing true this year, as many experts are picking Michigan State as a Big Ten sleeper.

As one of the four Big Ten stadiums I have not personally visited, I am leaning towards making the drive to East Lansing in early November. The GBI yearbook doesn’t seem to think it will be a worthwhile trip, but there are enough questions that Michigan State must face before I can render a true judgment.

Last Season for the Spartans

I could not have been more wrong about Michigan State last year. In 2007 Michigan State didn’t make matters easy on its fans by being involved in 8 games decided by a touchdown or less, including a pair that went to overtime. The Spartans lost both overtime contests, as well as three more games by a combined 14 points. They played the very good close (24-17 at #1 Ohio State despite not scoring an offensive touchdown), but they also lost the mediocre in a 48-41 overtime loss at home to Northwestern. The state of Indiana was the only place Michigan State could win a road game, as convincing wins at Notre Dame and Purdue were the only wins away from Spartan Stadium. Still, Michigan State played a series of close games away, losing by 3 at Wisconsin and by 7 in double overtime at Iowa. A 24-21 loss to Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl proved one thing: Michigan State was often its own undoing when it lost.

Purdue’s game against the Spartans was especially frustrating, as the Boilers seemed to take great pleasure in beating themselves. Purdue outgained Michigan State by more than 100 yards, but lost 48-31 because of a number of critical mistakes. Curtis Painter had a pair of interceptions thrown to SirDarien Adams that led to Michigan State scores. A critical Dorien Bryant fumble was returned for a touchdown by Travis Key in the fourth quarter. Finally, Michigan State converted 10 of 19 opportunities on third down, most of them in absolutely critical spots. In my wrap of the game I lamented about how we simply refused to adjust to Devin Thomas in these situations. He had 10 catches for 116 yards, and I swear at least of them were in single coverage over the middle on third down.

Many are picking Michigan State to be this season’s Illinois in Big Ten play because of its schedule. We’ll know how good the Spartans are from the start as they open the season with a road trip to California as their part of the unofficial Big Ten-Pac-10 challenge (Penn State, Purdue, and Ohio State also play Pac-10 teams). Eastern Michigan opens the home schedule before a feisty Florida Atlantic comes to town. Notre Dame is the final non-conference home game before trips to Indiana and Iowa are sandwiched around a home game against Northwestern. Michigan State gets Ohio State and Wisconsin at home while going to Michigan and Penn State for what is a fairly balanced schedule.

Michigan State offense

Michigan State returns 16 starters overall, but will have to replace a few players that were at key positions last fall. Three of those lost were huge contributors to the offense in running back Jehuu Caulcrick, tight end Kellen Davis, and the aforementioned Thomas. Based on last year’s results, Purdue won’t miss all three. In addition to Thomas’ day, Davis had 3 catches for 47 yards and a touchdown while Caulcrick had 77 yards on 24 carries for two more scores. Taking away those 21 points means we win this year, right?

Well, it’s not quite that easy. Brian Hoyer returns as one of the conference’s better quarterbacks, but he is a lot like Curtis Painter in that he has been up and down in his career. In his first full season as the starter Hoyer threw for 2,725 and 20 TD’s against just 11 picks. 16 of those touchdowns don’t return, however, with the loss of Thomas and Davis as his top two targets, as well as Eric Andino. Davis and Thomas accounted for nearly 1,800 of Hoyer’s passing yards and 14 touchdowns between them. Hoyer also didn’t exactly play well in the Champps Sports Bowl either, but is the starter barring disaster or injury.

At running back Purdue will face yet another very talented back in Javon Ringer. By this point in the season our run defense will have already been tested by Oregon’s ground attack, Chris Wells, Tyrell Sutton, and Dan LeFevour, so what is one more 1,000 yard back? Ringer went for 1,484 yards last season, but only had 6 touchdowns. Most of the scoring was done by Caulcrick, who found the end zone 21 times on the ground to go with 891 yards. Michigan State has long thrived on a thunder and lightening type of two back set. Ringer was the lightening, and will be again, but Andrew Hawken will look to replace Caulcrick as the thundering fullback. Hawken did most of his damage last year as a pass catcher with 10 catches for 81 yards and a score. Ringer has battled injuries in his career, but his numbers suggest he was just fine.

As mentioned above, Michigan State must replace its top two receivers, but the running game is more than capable of picking up the slack until someone steps forward. Deon Curry (24 catches, 200 yards, 1 TD) and Mark Dell (20-220-1) will try to fill Thomas’ shoes after he was drafted in the first round. The Spartan’s top-rated recruit in Fred Smith from Detroit could also play a role in the passing game. Davis will be replaced by the Greatest Basketball player ever, Michael Jordan. Jordan switched over from the defense last year, and does not have a reception. He is slotted to be more of an offensive tackle, however, so expect Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek to be more like pass-catching tight ends. Senior Ryan Allison and redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham should provide depth at wide receiver.

The offensive line is very experienced with a trio of seniors to go with a pair of juniors at the starting positions. Many of these are back from a unit that plowed the road for almost 2,600 yards rushing, or about 200 per game. Still, they did allow 30 sacks, so they weren’t exactly a brick wall when it came to protecting Hoyer. They will need to be better this year as Hoyer gets used to new targets. Rocco Cironi replaces All-Big Ten tackle Pete Clifford at left tackle. Jess Miller is the other tackle while Mike Bacon and Roland Martin are holding down the guard spots. Junior Joel Nitchman is the smallest starter on the line at 6’3" 295, and joins Cironi as the only other underclassman.

Michigan State defense

Coach Mark Dantonio’s specialty is his defense. In his second season in East Lansing he should begin to make his mark there. Dantonio likes to attack on defense, and it showed last year as the Spartans managed 40 sacks. We should expect blitzes from all over the place, much like we should against Notre Dame. Fortunately, a large reason that Michigan State’s defense was so successful last year is gone as Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin graduated. Those two had 16 sacks last season from the defensive end spots and 33 tackles for loss. Looking to step in is Trevor Anderson. Anderson followed Dantonio over from Cincinnati and was an All-Big East selection there. After sitting out last season Anderson, is ready to be unleashed on the Big Ten. Joining him upfront are seniors Justin Kershaw and Brandon Long, as well as sophomore Oren Wilson. Kershaw is the only returning starter with 34 tackles last year, but Wilson takes up some space in the middle at 290 pounds.

Arguably the best player on Michigan State’s defense is middle linebacker Greg Jones. Last year he played on the outside and led the team with 78 tackles to go with 4.5 sacks. He was also a true freshman, meaning he has two years minimum left in East Lansing. If he continues to develop he will be very well paid to play on Sundays soon. Joining him in the defensive middle is Adam Decker and Eric Gordon. Gordon had 62 tackles and an interception a year ago, while Decker is new to the field.

Opponents had more success last season moving the ball through the air than on the ground against the Spartans, but the secondary did not give up huge numbers. All told, the passing numbers that Michigan State gave up were very comparable to what Hoyer netted, making the category a wash. Painter finished the day 29 of 45 for 344 yards, but two ugly interceptions were the difference. Considering we only had the ball for about 20 minutes, we had success against them. If Painter can move the ball without the picks again, Purdue has a chance. The secondary is experienced with a pair of starters back as well as two reserves that played extensively before moving into starting roles this year. Kendell Davis-Clark and Ross Weaver will man the corner positions. Davis-Clark was second on the team in tackles with 72 stops and added 4 sacks in the blitz-crazy scheme. At safety Otis Wiley is a returning starter while Roderick Jenrette moves into the other starting spot. Wiley had a team high 4 interceptions last year, taking one to the house. Jenrette had an interception in reserve duty.

Michigan State Special Teams

This was not a position of overwhelming strength last year as Brett Swenson returns after hitting 15 of 22 field goals with a long of only 46. He did hit 7 of his final 8 attempts, however. Aaron Bates returns as the punter, but he averaged only a little more than 39 yards per kick last season. Both coverage units were pretty good, not giving up a touchdown while holding opponents from breaking big returns. A pair of new returners must emerge as Devin Thomas handled most kickoff returns and the departed Terry Love handled punts.

Intangibles

I know I have been rather pessimistic in these previews, but when I opened my GBI yearbook I was shocked to see that the staff predicted not just a loss in East Lansing, but a 35-17 blowout. Last year’s game was a 17 point loss, but it really came down to three plays: The two Painter interceptions (which led to 10 points) and the Bryant fumble. If you take those away, you take 17 points off the board and Purdue likely gets a few of their own with the way they were moving ball. This Michigan State team has some key playmakers returning and some good talent, but they also lost quite a bit with players like Adams, Saint-Dic, Thomas, Davis, and Caulcrick departing. Those five did a ton of damage last year to opposing teams. Michigan State has talented players replacing them, but they also must produce those numbers while no one else steps back.

What will help is that Dantonio is now in the second year of implementing his schemes. He seems to have turned around the culture in East Lansing of having a swoon after a big start. Such a start is possible again this year if the Spartans can upset Cal in Berkeley. That will do loads for this team’s confidence. Also, Michigan State has perhaps the best shot of anyone of taking down Ohio State. The Spartans played them tough last year in Columbus, and the fans will be jacked to see the Buckeyes come to East Lansing for what could be one of the best games of the Big Ten season. Michigan State could easily be 3-0 in the Big Ten at that point, and a win would put them in the driver’s seat for Pasadena.

Game Outlook

I would normally say this is an automatic loss for one reason: I am considering it as my Big Ten road trip. Purdue is a sad 1-5 in the first time I see them in a Big Ten venue other than Ross-Ade. I have seen us lose in my first visit to Minnesota (in 2005), Indiana (2001), Illinois (2002), Ohio State (2003), and Michigan (2007). Four of those games were of the absolutely heartbreaking variety. Only my 2006 trip to Northwestern resulted in a first visit Big Ten win. Still, I think we have a better chance in this game than people realize.

If we limit our turnovers we proved we could move against the Spartans last year when they had a much more experienced defense. Why can’t the same be true this year? By this point, game 10, our receivers will have plenty of experience. All we need to do is slow down Ringer and force Hoyer to beat us. He is so up and down that it is not a guarantee he will. Remember, they may have less talent returning at receiver than we do. I feel we match up well with them, and Tiller has a knack for stealing games he shouldn’t against Michigan State.

Prediction

At this point in the season we will be desperate for a good win. Either we will need this one to get to a bowl game in Tiller’s final year, or we will need it to get to a good bowl. I think this is the game that we finally begin to turn things around and build for the future under Hope. Tiller seems to think that the 2010 team could be very, very good. I think the steps toward that begin with this game. Purdue 32, Michigan State 31