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Know thy Opponent 2010: Michigan State Spartans

Last year's game against Michigan State was a bowl elimination game. Michigan State won and went on to a bowl, while we lost and were knocked out. Had the score been reverse, the Spartans would have been home for the holidays. Purdue seemed to ride the momentum of the historic win over Michigan the week before, but couldn't finish the job. Purdue appeared to be comfortably ahead up 34-23 with a little more than 11 minutes to play, but we couldn't finish. Special teams breakdowns, a costly fumble-six on the first play from scrimmage, and a few big plays denied us a bowl. Like many games, it was our own fault.

Michigan State is picked as a dark horse contender for the Big Ten this year. They don't play Ohio State and Wisconsin must come to East Lansing. Their quarterback situation is settled, plus they have two of the linebackers in the Big Ten. The biggest question is can Mark Dantonio break through when so many others have not?

2009 Record: 6-7, 4-4 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Lost Alamo Bowl to Texas Tech 41-31

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

Series with Purdue: Michigan State leads 31-28-3

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

Last Michigan State win: 11/14/2009 at Purdue 40-37

Last Season for the Spartans

Michigan State recovered from a bad start to win five of their last eight to make a bowl game of the second straight year. One has to feel like they left some wins on the field, however. First, they lost to Central Michigan in a strange ending where the Chippewas went for two and the win, missed it, but recovered the onside kick and kicked a game winning field goal. They lost at Notre Dame when Kirk Cousins overthrew a wide open receiver in the end zone late in the game. The 15-13 loss to Iowa was probably the Big Ten finish of the year, as the Hawkeyes scored with no time on the clock. Michigan State also dropped an ugly game at Minnesota.

There were some definite positives, however. The Spartans grabbed consecutive wins over Michigan for the first time in four decades, a fact celebrated at The Only Colors. The team showed a lot of late season resolve in beating Purdue, even though that was their last win. They survived the departure of Javon ringer to have a fairly potent offense. There are certainly plenty of ingredients left to expect some more wins this year. They couldn't have an easier non-conference schedule with all four games in the state of Michigan. Only Notre Dame is a real test, and that comes in East Lansing. The Big Ten schedule is balanced by missing Indiana (bad) and Ohio State (good).

Michigan State Offense

Last season began with a quarterback derby between Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol. Cousins won the battle and returns as one of the better signal-callers in the conference. He threw for 2,680 yards and 19 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. Should he get hurt Nichol is still on the team, but has converted to receiver. Of course, this does open the door to trick plays when Nichol is on the field. Kind of like with Keith Smith and Justin Siller for us. 

The ground game, after being such a positive with Ringer, was down a bit last year. Larry Caper had modest success with 468 yards and six scores. Edwin Baker was expected to be the next big thing after being the top recruit of the 2009 class. He finished with 427 yards and a score, but he missed several games due to injuries. He can be a dangerous addition to the offense. Against Purdue neither back was the best, as wide receiver Keshawn Martin had 70 yards on three carries. Once again, we refused to recognize or stop a sweep and Martin killed us.

Martin once again will be a dangerous receiver after having a good 2009. He was a big play threat, catching only 18 passes for 411 yards and five scores. Nichol is projected to be a starter at receiver after working on his transition during the offseason. The Spartans must replace Blair White, who had nearly a 1,000 yard season, but there are plenty of other options for Cousins. Tight end Charlie Gantt (22-348-2) is a good safety valve as well as a solid run blocker. B.J. Cunningham (48-641-4) will also be in the mix after having the best season of any returning receiver. He was the one who turned the Purdue game around with a 73 yard score right after we had taken an 11 point fourth quarter lead. Mark Dell (26-449-2) can contribute as well. This could be a dangerous matchup because they have experienced receivers, though our secondary will be playing its 11 game by that point. Hopefully they will be prepared.

Michigan State had one of the best offensive lines in the conference last year, giving up only 14 sacks. Cousins is too good of a quarterback to have that much time to throw. Only Joel Foreman and D.J. Young were starters last year, but Jared McGaha saw time as a backup guard. John Stipek is a new center for Cousins to adjust to, while Chris McDonald may stay after moving over from the defense. He is a bit like our own Nick Mondek.  This is not an overly big line. Two starters are below 300 pounds, but they are still athletic and very effective. If they can provide diversity by helping the running game MSU will be better.

Michigan State Defense

Mark Dantonio is a defensive minded coach, and the Spartans have two of the best linebackers in the country anchoring his defense. Eric Gordon and Greg Jones can clean up a lot of things in the middle of the field. Jones had an astounding 154 tackles, nine sacks, and 14 tackles for loss in 2009. The 154 tackles was good enough for third in the nation and he may be the best defensive player in America. He's a sure-fire first round draft pick even though some are knocking him for his size. Gordon takes some heat off of him after having 92 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Chris Norman will be helping them after getting 11 tackles as a reserve.

The defensive line was fantastic at getting to the quarterback. Michigan State had 35 sacks led by Jones. Tyler Hoover and Colin Neely will play on the ends. Neely had three sacks as a starter while Hoover was more of a reserve. Jerel Worthy was a freshman All-American according to CFN at defensive tackle. He can get to the quarterback on the interior with 4.5 sacks. Blake Treadwell and Kevin Pickelman will rotate at the other tackle spot.

Michigan State is a little suspect in the secondary, giving us a chance to get involved in another high scoring affair. The Spartans had only six team interceptions a year ago and Joey Elliott had a particularly good game shredding them with Keith Smith, Kyle Adams, and Cortez Smith. Chris Rucker and Johnny Adams will be the corners. Adams missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, but he had the critical pick six of Justin Siller in the 2008 game in East Lansing. Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde were starters at safety last year, while Dana Dixon could play as a corner after being the scout team player of the year as he redshirted.

Michigan State Special Teams

The Spartans had one of the league's best kickers last year with Brett Swenson, who was 19 of 22 on field goals. Dan Conroy hit on one attempt in last season's opener, so he may have an edge at replacing Swenson. Kevin Muma may also win the job. Conroy was also used on kickoffs a few times and Michigan State had a solid return team that gave up 22 yards per return.

Aaron bates returns as the punter after averaging 41.6 yards per kick. His coverage team was also good, as they barely allowed more than 7 yards per return and Bates had 23 punts inside the 20.

Martin helped the Spartans have the best return game in the Big Ten with a 28.9 yard average and a touchdown. He also handled punt returns, making him even more dangerous.


With this game being so late in the season it is hard to look at it in August. So many things can change by then. Some projections have Michigan State fighting for the Big Ten, but they easily could be in another 6-8 win season at this point. Purdue has also played relatively well in East Lansing. Except for Indiana and Illinois, Michigan State is the place where Purdue has its best road record post-1997. The Boilers won there in 1998, 2002, and 2006 while losing in 2000 and 2008. All three wins were in dramatic, last minute fashion.

I always view Michigan State as a program like Northwestern and us. All three are consistently middle of the pack teams that can threaten to break into the top four with a few breaks. They have some areas that are major strengths, but also some areas that are big question marks. Like the Northwestern game, I think we'll be battling them for bowl positioning.

Game Outlook

I see a game a lot like last year: competitive, highs coring, and a lot of fun to watch until the end. I think MSU has an edge being at home and with a defensive beast like Greg Jones. He is one of the best in the country at what he does. We must be aware of him at all times. Cousins is a solid quarterback thoat should have plenty of time to throw, so it will come down to which secondary is best. Theirs has more experience than our own.


The Spartans pulls out a close one at home to possibly clinch a Florida bowl, while Purdue's late season run hits a bit of a snag. Michigan State 35, Purdue 31