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Friday, August 31, 2012

MSU Football - Season Preview: 2012

MSU Football Preview

It’s that time again Spartan fans, the start of the college football season. It’s a new year with its own excitements and its own challenges. It’s a sweet smell, right? Well, this first posting will recap last season, breakdown MSU’s 2012 squad and preview the Spartans’ game against Boise State.

Last year was a year of many great highs and a few tragic lows. For the second straight year, MSU won 11 games including three wins against teams in the top 16, capped off with a triple OT win against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. The Spartans also claimed the first ever Legends Division title. However, MSU fell short against a very good but beatable teams like Nebraska and a loss in the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin. While, I won’t debate the merits of the “running into the kicker” penalty (again), the loss prevented MSU from smelling roses in Pasadena.

Fast forward seven months, the team lost its a co-starting RB Edwin Baker, MSU’s winningest quarterback, Kirk Cousins and his four primary targets in Keshawn Martin, BJ Cunningham, Keith Nichol and Brian Linthicum. MSU also loses Safety Trenton Robinson and the most aggressive defensive lineman this side of Ndamukong Suh in Jerel Worthy (now playing for the Green Bay Packers).

The offensive 5 returns starters, including almost all of its offensive line, except one. Anchored by Senior lineman Chris McDonald, four of these Spartan bulls have started 10 or more games. As goes the health and success of this front five, so goes the Spartan offense. In addition to the experience up front, MSU reloads its backfield with leading rusher Le'Veon Bell and an underrated 3rd down back Larry Caper. Undoubtedly, Bell will receive a large share of the carries. He’s a 6’4” 240 pound steam-engine locomotive- while, not the quickest to accelerate but a near impossible
freight train to stop when hauling at full speed. Complimenting the duo is a speedy 5’9” sophomore Nick Hill, who will also return some kicks on special teams. If he can improve his downfield vision and elusiveness, he can have big play potential to the likes of Keshawn Martin. The Spartan backfield also looks to replace its fullback Todd Anderson. The most important question of the running game is whether or not it can take the pressure off first year starter Andrew Maxwell and improve on the 11th ranked rushing attack (out of 12 teams) in the Big Ten last year.

As important to keeping any defense honest, is a strong receiving corps. This group boasts size, strength, talent and moderate depth. So what is lacking? Experience. This will be a big test for six-year offensive coordinator, Dan Roushar. His play calling was impeccable at times last year, and yet there were times his playbook resembled something from John (Lansing) Smith. Mark Dantonio needs Roushar to make consistent play calling, provide Maxwell with modest check-downs and timely audibles. I think this goes without saying, but this team struggled at times with down & distance. Overall, this team returns just 16% of its offensive production! This is despite Le’Veon Bell leading Big Ten RBs in total receptions. This year’s receivers, led by Juniors Dion Sims (6’5” & 285 lbs), Bennie Fowler and converted CB, Sophomore Tony Lippett, will have to replace NFL-caliber talent this year. Expect to see some decent reps by Sophomore Tennessee-transfer WR DeAnthony Arnett along with Keith Mumphery and possibly even the spring camp surprise (former RB), Jeremy Langford.

So how do you replace a humble, well-spoken, three-time captain and workhorse in Kirk Cousins? You can’t. Not only did he lead his senior class to more wins over a four-year period than any school in the Big Ten, but he also holds the most wins, career passing yards and total touchdowns in Spartan History. For fear of jinxing, I won’t mention his record against a certain in-state rival during his tenure at Michigan State. But the persistent question is how do the Spartans supplant their collegiate Joe Montana? I don’t know, maybe bringing in a patient, well-groomed Steve Young- that could help, right? Former 49ers QB, Steve Young rode the pine from 1988-1990 before making 7 pro bowls and 3 Super Bowl rings (including MVP Super Bowl XXIX). Now cue Junior Andrew Maxwell, a 6’3”, 212-pound Junior, who spent the last three years studiously learning the offense and working with the now current starting receivers. If you ask me, I’ll take a “new” quarterback who’s spent three seasons learning the system over a five-star 18 year old KID who’s never seen the inside of a dorm room until this fall. Playing in 4 games last year (albeit inconsequential), he’s only attempted 29 passes. Pardon the pun, but Maxwell certain is “green” when it comes to being in the spotlight as a starter. Having said that, an August 17th tweet from Freep’s @joerexrode confirmed MSU QB coach Dave Warner stating that he “expects Maxwell to start this season where Cousins was a year ago.” That says as much about a QB’s skills as it does his leadership ability. You cannot replace or try to repeat a Kirk Cousins. Maybe that’s why Coach Dantonio’s advice to Maxwell was so simple: “Be yourself, be who you are.” With all his praise, a sprained right-knee sidelined Maxwell from the Green & White scrimmage, missing out on some key reps early in spring practice. From all reports, he will be ready for the first game. Expect some conservative play calling in the first couple of games to give Maxwell some comfort under center. From what the media has touted, Maxwell is going to be all that is advertised for and more. But despite all of the comparisons to his predecessor, Maxwell’s primary role will be to manage the offense, not control the game. Think: Director of Operations, not CEO… well, at least until Big Ten play starts.

So if the ole saying that “offense wins games and defense wins championships” is true, then this squad has the potential to attain the Triple Crown of college football- Win your division. Win your conference. Win a BCS game. Just like opposing offenses this year, I’ll keep this limited to a 3-and-out.

First Down: Strength in numbers
MSU returns 9 of 11 starters. There is as much talent on this defense than almost any Spartan defense I’ve ever seen. There is great strength at LB. Between Chris Norman and Max Bullogh this is a good LB corps (have you ever Googled, “Max Bullough Spartan Pride” before?). But if you add in a heat-seeking missile in Denicos Allen it makes it a great LB corps. Allen is the type of player this defines “SEC speed.” That means he’s not the next Andy Katzenmoyer or AJ Hawk (or Greg Jones for that matter). He’s only 5-11 and 225 pounds. But remind that to Ohio State QB Joe Bauserman who got “Bobby Boucher-ed” (if you’ve seen the movie “Waterboy”). If that doesn’t convince you, then 9 solo tackles and 3 sacks against Wisconsin in the championship game will. On the ends, look for no better pair in the conference than William Gholston and Marcus Rush. After redshirting last year, Tyler Hoover returns for his senior year. The secondary returns 3 out of 4 starters, and all 4 backups. The term “lockdown cornerback” applies to Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard who combined for six interceptions last year.

Second Down: Sack-Lunch
Last year the Spartans gave up 20 TD passes, while getting 18 interceptions and raking in 45 sacks (20 more sacks than the previous year). Among the nation’s top defenses last season, MSU also ranked 10th in scoring defense, 6th in yards allowed and 2nd in sacks.

Third Down: Coaching (here comes the “chalk talk” or skip to fourth down)
Pat Narduzzi plays what’s called an Over 4-3/Cover 4 defense. It’s a simple 4-3 base defense that allows you to run a lot of things out of it with easy adjustments to offensive formations. These alignment shifts helps weak side run help when they run what is called an “Over G” with the noseguard. There’s a lot of shifting but allows the LBs to be “ball hawks.” But seriously, what more can you say about a coach who calls a double-A gap blitz and still has the personnel to cover the field. WOW. The secondary starts with CB in press coverage (not very common in cover 4). The risk is having no safety help for fade routes down the sidelines. But the reward is WRs with bubble releases and slow starts, forcing check-downs to secondary receivers (like TEs & RBs) and giving down lineman (or blitzing LBs) a chance to get after the QB. The flexibility of this system is that it will allow corners to press TEs, cover runs and flats essentially stacking 8 and sometimes 9 players in the box.

Fourth Down: X-Factor.
How do you follow up a top ten defense? A top 5 defense, maybe? Sure. How do you outperform expectations when everyone is saying that your entire squad is legitimate? The best you can hope for is an “as expected” performance. What does this mean?
1) That means, when players like Will Gholston starts being double (and sometimes triple) teamed by opposing blockers, there will be tacklers left unblocked. Simply put, just make the play. Deflect the ball, knock down opposing QBs, tip thrown footballs, sniff out screens and draws, stay home to ruin reverses and end-around plays and most of all, just make that open field tackle “in space.”
2) That means at least to average a +1 Turnover Ratio every game. So if Maxwell throws his first pick of the season, this defense needs to come up with two turnovers.
3) That means not getting complacent as a defense. Narduzzi & Co have been trying to make sure that the defense is consistently playing smart, sound defense while avoiding costly penalties and mental breakdowns. It’s going to be the only way this defense can carry their way into Pasadena this season.

Tonight’s Game:
Let me start by saying that this is Boise’s conference championship. Why? Because they do not play a single ranked opponent for the rest of the season- unless you’re hoping for big things when the Wyoming Cowboys playing Boise State at their War Memorial Stadium in Laramie Wyoming.

In closing I will surmise what I think the key matchups to beating Boise State tonight.

Key #1: Bronco passing game vs. Spartan defense
Boise State has a new offensive coordinator, an often injury prone RB in DJ Harper, a suspended WR Geraldo Boldewijn and a new quarterback Joe Southwick. The question remains, why did they wait until August to name a starting QB? For the Spartan Defense, two words: Will Gholston.

Key #2: Spartan offensive line vs. Bronco front seven
Despite boasting a good secondary, Boise State has to replace it’s entire front seven. Let me repeat, Boise State is not returning a single starting defensive lineman or linebacker! MSU offensive line will have to clear the way for Le’Veon Bell without Skyler Burkland (hand) and Blake Treadwell (shin).

Final thoughts:
Spartan fans, this ain’t exactly Youngstown State or Florida Atlantic. This is a legitimate ranked team and Boise State has a great spread offensive scheme. They are extremely smart and they are talented. They shift different personnel and formations almost every play. MSU’s practice squad actually played with 14 players in the huddle this week to simulate different looks to the defense. Trust me, this will not be an easy win.

Ultimately, MSU hopes to continue the legacy under Dantonio. 11 wins the last 2 years, 44 wins the last 5 years, 5 straight bows and a 30-4 record at home.

Final Score: Michigan State: 31  Boise St: 24

1 comment:

  1. Dan, Wow. What an effort! Thank you for the post. Welcome back! Sorry I could not "market the post" for you - I was already headed to EL. Kind of a weird game. It could have been a route. We stopped our own drives. They could not run the ball and had a tough time getting yards without some trickery. They scored off our turn-overs and they could not stop up us without help from... US! Thanks again Dan!


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