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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

MSU football three questions: Too soon to panic about Spartans But loss to Notre Dame did show some key weaknesses

Each week, Joe Rexrode asks and attempts to answer three pressing questions on the Spartans. [Lansing State Journal. 9/20/11]
• Is Saturday's 31-13 loss at Notre Dame a sign of bad things to come for MSU football this season?
It certainly has been over the years. MSU's previous five losses to Notre Dame came in 2009, 2006, 2004, 2002 and 1994.
The 2009 team finished with Mark Dantonio's only losing record (6-7) at MSU. The 2004 team went 5-7 under John L. Smith.
And the other three teams got their head coaches fired! That's Smith in 2006, Bobby Williams in 2002 and George Perles in 1994.
Of course, Dantonio likely will be MSU's coach as long as he wants - and this team is no more doomed to repeat history than Notre Dame was destined to lose Saturday because of MSU's past success in South Bend.
Which is why it was so strange to hear some MSU players talk last week about the Spartans' previous wins there, as if they mattered at all.
What matters is what you're doing on the field right now, and that's why the loss to Notre Dame signals potential - but not certain - trouble.
MSU has a lot to figure out on its offensive line, with Saturday's home game against a pretty weak Central Michigan team serving as a test lab before the Spartans head to Ohio State for the Oct. 1 Big Ten opener.
Starting right tackle Skyler Burkland is lost for the year with a broken bone near his left ankle, so more shuffling may be ahead for a group that was already struggling when the promising Burkland went down.
A lot of other things need work, too, including the kicking game. Saturday's performance was riddled with mistakes from players and coaches, but this team still has the potential to contend in the Big Ten's Legends Division as expected.
And if you're worried about the Notre Dame history, don't forget that MSU gave up a return for a touchdown (two, actually) and got thumped at Notre Dame in 1987, but Perles led the Spartans to a Rose Bowl victory that year.
See, this could be a sign of good things to come!
• Did MSU's trick plays Saturday, including the stuffed fake field goal, indicate a lack of confidence in the offense?

Some are taking it that way, but let's repeat this until people start realizing it: DANTONIO LOVES TRICK PLAYS.
He has employed countless gimmicks in his MSU tenure. Fake punts, fake field goals, flea-flickers, you name it.
Think back to 2007. The Spartans got a key first down in a key win at Purdue on a fake punt. It was a direct snap to Jehuu Caulcrick, who ran through a gaping hole.
The next week against Penn State, the Spartans were down late and punting. Dantonio, incredibly, called the same play. Penn State, not surprisingly, had it sniffed out. Caulcrick broke a tackle and got the first down anyway.
Which brings to mind Saturday's call. There was loud joking in the press box, during the timeout before the fake field goal, that Dantonio might call one. Hot dogs fell from dropped jaws when he actually did.
Second-guessing a call that doesn't work is the easiest thing to do, and it often has little merit. Not this time.
• Were there any positives to come out of the loss other than another huge day for B.J. Cunningham?
The MSU secondary looks good. The defense as a whole was solid for most of the game after a slow start, and the starting defensive backs usually covered and tackled well.
And make no mistake, the Spartans won't see a passing arsenal of this quality for the rest of the season, or at least until their bowl game.
Redshirt freshman safety Kurtis Drummond debuted as the No. 1 nickel back and responded with an interception.
Drummond's ascent is a positive because it allows cornerback Darqueze Dennard to stay at corner on passing downs. He was moving back to safety in those situations.
If the Spartans keep playing like this in the back end, they'll be in most games this season. They just really need starting corners Dennard and Johnny Adams to stay healthy and on the field at all times.

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