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Friday, August 30, 2013

Rose Bowl Contender or Second-Tier Pretender?

2013 Michigan State Football Preview:
Rose Bowl Contender or Second-Tier Pretender?

Welcome to another year of Spartan football. This season, I’ll once again blogging every game, recapping the green & white and previewing their upcoming foes. There’s going to be ups & downs (you can guarantee that) but I assure you it’ll be far from boring.

I don’t need to rehash every play of MSU’s 7-6 (3-5) season, but I’ll give you some noteworthy stats to look back on. It seems every story on MSU from local coverage by Freep or LSJ to national media like BTN and ESPN seem to begin with the fact that 5 games were lost by a total of 13 total points. What most of these stories seem to neglect (except BTN) is the 9 totally games decided by 4 or fewer points, 4 of those ending in Spartan victory. Now, do I think MSU was as bad as a 7-win team? No. But were the Spartans capable of 11 wins? Not quite. I think realistically MSU should have been 10-3 last season.

So before we jump into positions, let’s take a look at the leaders of this team. Just voted last week as a team captain is no surprise LB Max Bullough is one of the best Spartan linebackers this side of Josh Thornhill. I suppose I could’ve gone all the way back to Dan Bass or Percy Snow as the top two leading tacklers in MSU history, or even third or fourth most tacklers in Greg Jones and Ike Reese respectively. However, I chose the fifth highest tackler in Josh Thornhill because of two reasons. First, Thornhill was as intelligent as he was tough. At the risk of sounding like a complete cliché he embodied the “student of the game” mantra. But most of all he comes from a family of Spartans (Brother Kaleb and dad Charlie). So does Max Bullough, whose uncle ironically falls just past Thornhill as the sixth leader tackler in Spartan history. Max’s dad Shane also falls seventeenth on that same list of all time tackles. Oddly enough, the senior LB needs 89 tackles (about 7 tackles per game) to replace his dad on the list. Also selected, are CB Darqueze Dennard and Left Guard Blake Treadwell. Oddly enough, 2012 captain Andrew Maxwell was not selected (more on that later).

The Spartans feature a very favorable schedule this year. Not only do they avoid playing OSU and Wisconsin, but also their non-conference features one true road test in a matchup against Notre Dame. The latter half of the season does present some challenges beginning on November 2nd against U-M at home, followed with a bye week, and back-to-back road games against Nebraska and Northwestern. The Irish in South Bend, Wolverines at home, Cornhuskers in Lincoln, and potentially the Wildcats at Ryan Field (yeah I had to look it up) will undoubtedly decide the fate of this season. Yet, I still believe an unranked Iowa at Kinnick immediately after Notre Dame could derail the Spartans after losing in double OT to the Hawkeyes in 2012.

Ok let’s breakdown the Defensive squad. Unlike all of the media reports, I’m going to give you a double dose of truth. It may be unpleasant, maybe even painful, but you’ll be glad that you have the real story on the Spartan defense. Think of it like dental floss. Let me start by saying this is a good squad. Being a nationally ranked top 10 defense for 2 straight seasons is nothing to scoff at. Last season they were ranked top ten nationally in the following defensive categories: total yardage, rushing yards, passing yards, and points per game. To augment my point, they garnered a 3 & out 44% of their defensive series. Now, here’s the part where I’m going to lose half my readers. I’m going to put it in all caps in case I’m not being clear. MSU’S DEFENSE IS NOT AS GREAT AS THEY THINK THEY ARE! (There I said it). You can scapegoat the offense, but here’s where those people forget (read: neglect) to mention. The Notre Dame front 7 owned MSU’s interior defense and a few big plays gave the Irish enough to win by 17. MSU also got torched for 400+ yards against OSU (it was the Braxton Miller highlight show), albeit a blown call by the officials. Against U-M, the Spartan defense was stout most of the game, once again giving up big plays on the ground and in the air especially the final drive. How about a walk-on fullback named Mark Weisman? You remember the Hawkeye runner who averaged almost 5 yards per carry in that muddy game against Iowa? What about that Nebraska game? Certainly some very atrocious calls in that game, but you can’t blame the guys in stripes for giving up 473 total yards (313 on the ground) and two TDs in the final 7 minutes. I think Taylor Martinez is still running for six at Spartan Stadium.

In closing, I still expect good things from this group despite losing Anthony Rashad White and William Gholston. This squad needs to create more big plays (late-game stops & key turnovers) than it gives up. Or to paraphrase BTN’s Jerry DiNardo, “This defense needs to play with a chip on its shoulder, because they have the talent to compete for a Big Ten Championship.” Now most will simply fault the offense for continually putting the defense in bad field position, consecutive 3 & outs, dropped passes, turnovers, etc. Trust me, the offense bears plenty of blame, but here’s the root of my argument: Good defenses put up good numbers. Great defenses don’t regularly give up big plays. Championship defenses put up wins. Enough said.

Now if you think that was a little bit harsh, just you wait til we discuss the offense. Let’s start with the good: Le’Veon Bell rushed for nearly 1,800 yards and 12 scores. That’s all I got. Now, the offense should open their mouths because it’s time to eat some serious crow. 9th in the B1G in total offense, and 9th in QB rating (Maxwell) completing just 53% of his passes. The latter statistic is slightly misleading when you also consider the incredible amount of dropped passes by Spartan receivers last year. Still, if you combine the sacks for Maxwell & Cook, they’re tied for third in sacks most allowed for the conference. This squad dreadfully averaged barely 20 points per game, which ranked them 108th nationally, scoring less than their 20-point average in 7 games last year! Compounding this abhorrent offense, was a place kicker who made just 71% of field goal attempts. So have there been some good points? Of course. Being down by 13 points with :40 in the 3rd quarter of a bowl game and scoring on their final drive is certainly a statement win. But what does it say about a team who selects a left offensive guard over a QB as team captain?

I think it’s about as good of a time as any to talk about the so-called “MSU quarterback controversy.”

Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook, Tyler O’Connor, Damion Terry.
Right now the starting gig is Maxwell’s to lose. He’s the guy with the most knowledge of the offense, significant game experience, and as of today the least amount of risk. From the statements of the coaches, it’s clear they want a real playmaker, but what they need is a guy who will manage a game, not take it over. Ultimately this team will succeed with a consistent QB that can put up a series of 3’s on the scoreboard, rather than short punts. The Spartans need a QB that can avoid costly sacks and timely turnovers. But if Maxwell shows in the first couple games that he struggles to drive down the field, look for a change to the #2. This is where the competition starts. Right now, reliability and play-making abilities is the most important factor for this year’s Spartan signal caller. Tyler O’Connor is outplaying Connor Cook as the #2 QB (Wait, who’s on first?). Cook’s biggest weakness is his decision-making ability. But how much can you really judge a guy with one major drive, and only 17 career pass attempts. But he seems like a scrappy player who can throw the deep ball. Early indications (according to Joe Rexrode) that Tyler O’Connor, who has the size, speed, and skill closer to that of Damion Terry, is outplaying Cook. Speaking of Terry, I still argue Damion Terry is an obvious redshirt this year, despite a great scrimmage against the first team defense. But wouldn’t it be cool (next season) to see an alternate offensive formation? Imagine a 3rd down or goaline wildcat formation? How about one or two second-half series featuring a complete formation shift to a spread or read-option look? To summarize: Andrew Maxwell is on First, Connor Cook and Tyler O’Connor are battling on Second, and Damion Terry remains on Third (for now). The departure of Dion Sims leaves us some weakness in the TE position. The WRs just need to improve, hands down (no pun intended). I’ve heard that Fowler is fully healthy, and WRs Burbrige and Muphrey could be very dangerous. I’m still not sold on Lippet and Arnette, but could make some contributions this year. Should be an interesting ground game between the dynamic duo of Jeremy Langford and Riley Bullough. Again, game experience will tell who gets the majority of the carries. Despite all of the skilled player analysis, our offensive (and our W-L record) could be hinged on the ability of our offensive line to improve from last year. There are a few nicks here and there but I think if the big guys up front can stay healthy, we’ll be solid.

Final prediction: 10-2 (loss @ Notre Dame and @ Nebraska).

Go Green!

-Dan Stepanian-Bennett


  1. Welcome Back Spartan Dan!


  2. Answer: Contender

    Probably a closer analysis to the truth than mine, Dan. I like to look at the schedule and what did and didn't happen last year and and come out the other side with a most optomistic view.

    Much will be answered tonight. If Sparty can score 28 let alone cover a 28 point spread (the current line) it will get them in a conversation that only Kirk Herbstreet seems to be talking.

    I think Sparty shows up to South Bend with some swag as Tommy Rees and company look ahead to Oklahoma the following week to maintain another undefeated season after beating the chUMps in A2.

    Nebraska looks like the toughest one on the board and what I believe will be Sparty's first loss could take enough out of them to go into Chicago and lose again. I don't think NW can total the number of turnovers they had last year and that could be enough to get by. But wouldn't it be nice to find Sparty and the Buckeyes meeting in the championship game both sporting 12-0 marks? Go Green!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Contender.

    The biggest issues last year were injuries and inexperience. Injuries can't be avoided, unfortunately, but I doubt the number reaches 28 this year and hope it is zero. The QB and receivers have 10-20 times the experience in terms of yards going into 2013 than they had going into 2012. Just taking into account the dropped passes and bad route running pushes the passing numbers to 75% completions and 4000 yards. That shows the unrealized potential that is on the team.

    Sims was not a major factor last season, so having a novice who can only block or only catch will not be a sore spot. Or, it shouldn't.

    Bell was fantastic last year, but it was a one-man show. The TEAM was ranked low compared to prior years and without having to depend on one person, the numbers should actually improve. If, that is, the offensive line is healthy. It has the experience to support a much bigger rushing attack. If it stays healthy.

    Notre Dame is not a certain defeat. MSU with weaker teams has beaten Notre Dame with stronger teams than will face each other in 2013. It will be a good game, but it is no worse than a coin toss.

    Nebraska is not as good as it was last year and the Spartans are due.

    If the Spartans falter is will be while they are issuing a sigh of relief and lose focus for a week. Will that happen? No. Those kids have a lot to prove and they will be on task the whole season.

    I actually see it as better than even odds that MSU goes to the championship undefeated. If it is OSU, then the Spartans have a real shot. Even with a dysfunctional offense and an average kicking game, plus the lapses in defense, the game came down to a bad call by the official. I doubt that perfect storm happens this season.

    Go State!

  5. Requesting two more weeks before answering this question. Thanks.

    1. I'll take 3 please. I get the feeling things are going look tons better over the next 2 weeks. USF's gave up over 50 points (and lost the game) to McNeese State (and it wasn't close as McNeese St was up by 33 early in the second half). We should also be able to roll Youngstown State pretty good too.

      Beating up on bad teams won't give us a good read on where we really stand. I think ND will let us know who we are. We should have most everyone back. Time to work the kinks out. Coaches should have our identy established. If we fall flat there then we are going to need some help to contend.


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