No. 7: Michigan State
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 28, 2012
Last fall, Michigan State beat Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan in the same season for only the second time in program history; the first, in 1987, came during the Spartans’ last outright Big Ten title. Rare? Beating all three of those conference rivals in one year is as rare as 11-win seasons, of which the Spartans have two in as many years. But none before 2010, a point that the rest of the Big Ten pointed out with glee prior to Michigan State’s current resurgence under Mark Dantonio. Now, after 22 wins over two years, those same rivals have only questions: How have the Spartans done it? How can we copy it? The simple answer: Take a system, add a serious heaping of patience and throw in a helpful dash of senior leadership. Add more patience. Wait, and don’t watch: it’ll never boil, or something to that end. And now that the Spartans have lost last year’s senior leaders — along with a number of other key contributors — the program has a question of its own: Can we maintain this sort of pace without our stars? Again, it’s time to have faith in the system.
Big Ten, Legends
East Lansing, Mich.
13 (5 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 31
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
You can’t predict the unpredictable, the overtime touchdowns, narrow wins, what have you: what you can predict, based on what Michigan State brings to the table, is at least a two-win decline, if not more, based on a handful of lingering concerns. The key will be maintaining the national title-level success with Nebraska in the fold, Michigan back in the mix, Wisconsin battling for a national title and Ohio State and Iowa on the road. If Dantonio and the Spartans can go 9-3, let alone 11-1 with this schedule and this team, it’ll be one whale of an achievement. I just don’t see lightning striking twice.
In a nutshell Losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game hit the Spartans where it hurts: no Rose Bowl bid, for starters, but a loss also pushed Michigan into a B.C.S. bowl at the Spartans’ expense. That the Spartans overcame that particular disappointment — let alone a significant second-half deficit — to beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl speaks volumes about this team’s strong coaching and senior leadership. This was a team that took its cue from the veterans, from Kirk Cousins on offense to Trenton Robinson on defense, and was guided by a steady and confident coaching staff. The end result? Another 11 wins, a program-record fifth consecutive bowl berth and the program’s first bowl win in more than a decade.
High point Perhaps the most satisfying three-week stretch in program history. It began with an ugly, nasty, hide-the-children win in Columbus — Michigan State’s first win in the Horseshoe since 1998. That was followed by a win over Michigan, the program’s fourth straight, and ended with the last-second victory against Wisconsin. Pretty good, right?
Low point The 31-13 loss to Notre Dame in September was strange. So was the Spartans’ inflexible offensive game plan in a 24-3 loss at Nebraska in late October.
Tidbit As noted, Michigan State just beat Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan in a single season for only the second time in program history. Last fall also included a win over the Buckeyes, Badgers, Wolverines and a team from the SEC, Georgia, for the first time in program history. This isn’t surprising: Michigan State has won only six games against SEC competition in its history, with four of those wins coming from 1929-1947. How rare is beating Ohio State and Michigan in the same season for Michigan State? That’s something the Spartans have achieved seven times: 2011, 1999, 1998, 1987, 1966, 1965, 1953 and 1951.
Tidbit (Michigan edition) Michigan State has won four straight over the rival Wolverines: 35-21 in 2008, 26-20 in 2009, 34-17 in 2010 and 28-14 last fall. The current streak marks the Spartans’ first multiple-game winning stretch over Michigan since 1965-67; it’s also the program’s third four-game winning streak in the rivalry’s history, joining 1950-53 and 1959-62.
Tidbit (home, close games edition) The Spartans have gone 7-0 at home in each of the last two seasons, marking the program’s first two-year stretch of undefeated play at Spartan Stadium since 1955-56. Michigan State has also played tremendously well in close games over the last two years, winning eight of nine games decided by 10 points or less – winning seven straight before losing to Wisconsin, 42-39, in the Big Ten title game, and then getting back in the win column against the Bulldogs.
Former players in the N.F.L.
26 RB Todd Anderson (St. Louis), RB Edwin Baker (San Diego), TE Garrett Celek (San Francisco), C Kyle Cook (Cincinnati), QB Kirk Cousins (Washington), WR B.J. Cunningham (Miami), TE Kellen Davis (Chicago), WR Mark Dell (Denver), P Brandon Fields (Miami), QB Brian Hoyer (New England), LB Greg Jones (New York Giants), WR Keshawn Martin (Houston), DT Brandon McKinney (Indianapolis), C Chris Morris (Tennessee), DE Ogemdi Nwagbuo (Carolina), DT Domata Peko (Cincinnati), RB Javon Ringer (Tennessee), S Trenton Robinson (San Francisco), CB Chris Rucker (Indianapolis), S Eric Smith (New York Jets), QB Drew Stanton (Indianapolis), DT Kevin Vickerson (Denver), CB Ross Weaver (Detroit), DT Oren Wilson (New York Giants), DT Jerel Worthy (Green Bay), OT D.J. Young (Arizona).
Arbitrary top five list
Quarterbacks taken in fourth round (1980-2009)
1. Rich Gannon, New England (1987).
2. Steve Beuerlein, Los Angeles Raiders (1987).
3. Aaron Brookz, Green Bay (1995).
4. David Garrard, Jacksonville (2002).
5. Scott Mitchell, Miami (1990).
Mark Dantonio (South Carolina ’79), 44-22 after five seasons with Michigan State. This five-year stretch has been among the most fruitful in program history. The former Michigan State assistant (1995-2000) was hired to replace John L. Smith, whose four-year career in East Lansing ended with three straight losing seasons. Dantonio’s impact was immediate, both on the field and off; beyond merely returning the Spartans to bowl play, he instilled a sense of discipline and toughness that was clearly lacking over Smith’s difficult tenure. Dantonio became a candidate for a big-time job due to his successful three-year stint as the head coach at Cincinnati (2004-6), where he finished with a record of 18-17, including a 7-5 mark in 2006. The Bearcats were bowl eligible in two of those three seasons; in 2004, Dantonio became the program’s first coach in 23 years to finish with a winning record in his first season: 7-5, plus a victory over Marshall in the Forth Worth Bowl. Though Dantonio’s six years as a Michigan State assistant certainly played a large role in his early success as a head coach, it was during his time as an Ohio State assistant that he made his name in the coaching ranks. Dantonio served three seasons as the Buckeyes defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel (2001-3) – the Buckeyes went 32-6 overall during this stretch – earning acclaim for his stingy defenses, most notably during a national title run in 2002. His connection to Tressel dates back to Youngstown State, where Dantonio served as an assistant from 1986-90. What must be reassuring to Michigan State fans is that Dantonio doesn’t coach with smoke and mirrors: he preached to his team a more traditional philosophy – scrapping Smith’s spread attack – illustrating an overall recommitment to the style of play that propelled the program to five straight non-losing seasons from 1995-1999. Slowly, steadily and quietly, he’s made Michigan State into a national contender.
Players to watch
Andrew Maxwell has been groomed for this leap since his redshirt freshman season, when Michigan State shifted Keith Nichol over to receiver and moved Maxwell into the backup spot, behind Kirk Cousins. Over the last two seasons, Maxwell has completed 29 of 51 attempts – including 18 of 26 last fall – for 294 yards and a score, cleaning up behind Cousins against weaklings in non-conference play and Indiana during Big Ten season. But it’s not about his on-field play over the last two years; as noted, it’s about the fact that Maxwell has been developed over three years in this system, learning every single aspect of this offense, and that he’s spent each of his three seasons on campus behind one of the great quarterbacks in program history.
In this case, I’m not expecting a first-year starter to struggle making the transition from his backup role. Physically, Maxwell can give this offense everything it needs under center – he can make every throw, from sideline to sideline, and is an even greater physical presence than his predecessor. Maxwell knows this system, having spent years digesting its nuts and bolts, and needs only game experience in a starting situation before fully translating his gifts into production. It’s just a matter of time: Maxwell needs snaps, needs to get rattled, needs to get pressured and needs to get his bell rung one good time on the pass rush – then he’ll be ready. I’m not worried about the Spartans’ change under center. Maxwell’s backup, redshirt freshman Connor Cook, spent the last half of spring drills with the first-team offense after Maxwell suffered a minor knee injury.
With Edwin Baker gone, M.S.U. will turn an even larger portion of the running game over to junior Le’Veon Bell (948 yards and 13 touchdowns), who has been extremely productive since breaking into the rotation as a freshman. Far, far more agile than his size might indicate – he’s built like a tight end – Bell will quietly, behind Montee Ball and Rex Burkhead, earn all-conference honors. One thing I’m excited to see is how effective Bell can be when given additional carries; while he led the team with 182 carries last fall, I imagine that he could be even more productive over the second half when fed 20-plus times per game. Senior Larry Caper’s role will return to tis 2009 level after he took a backseat over the last two years; Caper (116 yards) had 120 carries as a freshman but only 68 combined as a sophomore and junior. Rounding out the rotation are sophomores Nick Hill (113 yards) and Jeremy Langford.
This will be Michigan State’s best offensive line under Dantonio, even if the Spartans lost a four-year starter in left guard Joel Foreman. Despite losing Foreman, M.S.U. brings back seven linemen with starting experience; this has everything to do with last season’s injuries, which forced Dantonio and line coach Mark Staten to use four different starting lineups, including three different centers. But the injuries to the center position will yield dividends in 2012, when sophomore Travis Jackson returns in the middle and junior Blake Treadwell, who preceded Jackson at center before suffering a season-ending injury in September, moves into Foreman’s spot at left guard. That’s how it should play out, at least. But Treadwell could be pushed out of a starting role should M.S.U. decide to move junior Dan France inside from left tackle, or if redshirt freshman Jack Allen proves too good to keep out of the starting lineup.
France is the leader at left tackle heading into the season opener, though the Spartans could also turn to sophomore Skyler Burkland, who started the first three games of last fall on the right side before suffering his own season-ending injury. Burkland’s injury pushed senior Fou Fonoti into a starting role, one he held for the final 11 games of the year. In all, and while there are options, the Spartans’ starting line should have France and Fonoti at tackle, Jackson at center and Treadwell and senior Chris McDonald, the line’s most experience returning contributor, at guard. Already stout, the line becomes even more impressive when you consider two factors: one, the terrific depth, and two, the Spartans’ ability to use several linemen in different spots – France at tackle and guard, Allen at guard and center and so on. The line will keep Maxwell clean and open up holes for Bell, Caper and others. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Schedule your bathroom break, your run to the oven, your mad dash to the fridge accordingly: if you don’t, you’re going to miss one of the great defenses in the country – because it’ll often be run, run, pass, punt when the opposition goes up against William Gholston, Chris Norman, Johnny Adams and the rest of the Spartans’ defense. The only question is one of semantics: Are the Spartans strongest at end, at linebacker or in the secondary? Linebacker’s the answer, but that should not negate in any way, shape or form from just how strong M.S.U. is along each level. You look across the team and see drastic and dramatic improvement – team-wide improvement, and improvement beyond just the personnel – on both sides of the ball; most of all, however, you see clear progression in the work Dantonio and coordinator Pat Narduzzi have done rebuilding Michigan State’s defense.
The ends are terrific. Gholston (70 tackles, 16.0 for loss) exploded on the Big Ten’s scene as a sophomore, taking a huge step forward after an uneven freshman campaign, and enters his junior season as a heavy candidate for national accolades. While Gholston is on the larger size for an end, his partner on the other side, sophomore Marcus Rush (58 tackles, 12.0 for loss), is a more prototypically sized edge rusher. Gholston’s going to have a huge year, but I don’t think you should sleep on Rush, who was ahead of the curve as a redshirt freshman. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Shilique Calhoun and Joel Health, provide depth, and I’m intrigued by a third redshirt freshman, Lawrence Thomas, who rapidly grew out of his former spot at linebacker.
There will be some changes inside – there will be no Jerel Worthy, most notably. To help combat Worthy’s early entry into the N.F.L. Draft, M.S.U. moved senior Tyler Hoover, who missed all but one game of last season due to injury, inside from end. The Spartans will also have the services of former Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge, a New Jersey product who will battle Hoover for the starting role at nose tackle. Technically, Michigan State will replace Worthy with senior Anthony Rashad White (25 tackles), who moves over from nose tackle – White looks to carry his terrific performance against Georgia over to this season. I like this group’s upside: Hoover should be more effective inside, especially with his length as an asset against the pass, and White is a big, stocky interior linemen who should occupy blockers.
But the strength of this defense, as noted, lies at linebacker. All three starters return from a year ago: senior Chris Norman (76 tackles, 6.5 for loss) on the weak side, junior Max Bullough (89 tackles, 3.5 sacks) in the middle and junior Denicos Allen (83 tackles, 11.0 sacks) on the strong side. Quite simply, it doesn’t get much better than this. All three earned all-conference honors last fall, with Norman landing honorable mention honors and Bullough and Allen landing second-team accolades. What’s not to like? Nothing, that’s what, and there’s every reason to think that Allen and Bullough will be even better as second-year starters. Heading into last fall, you wondered how M.S.U. could replace multiple-year starters like Greg Jones and Eric Gordon; a year later, you wonder why you ever worried at all. This is a special, special group.
Every member of last year’s secondary two-deep returns minus free safety Trenton Robinson, who tied for the team lead in interceptions as a senior. M.S.U. will likely turn Robinson’s old spot over to sophomore Kurtis Drummond (17 tackles, 2 interceptions) – he did a nice job in a reserve role – though redshirt freshman R.J. Williamson could potentially move into the starting lineup at some point this fall should Drummond struggle. Drummond or Williamson will join a secondary that helped the Spartans finish last season ranked 11th nationally in yards allowed per game, 12th in yards allowed per attempt, 11th in completion percentage and 12th in interceptions.
The key pieces return. As at linebacker, I was concerned last summer about Michigan State’s ability to replace a few missing pieces in the secondary – yes, I missed on M.S.U. a year ago. No worries today, especially at cornerback: senior Johnny Adams (51 tackles, 3 interceptions) is an all-American and junior Darqueze Dennard (42 tackles, 3 interceptions), while the more likely to land attention from opposing quarterbacks, will hold down the fort on the field side. Rounding out the starting lineup is junior strong safety Isaiah Lewis (74 tackles, 4 interceptions), who is far too overlooked both in his own league and on a national level. Depth in the secondary isn’t outstanding, but cornerbacks like senior Mitchell White and redshirt freshmen Trae Waynes should be fine if called upon; Williamson and Jairus Jones – the clue in yesterday’s hint – are solid options at backup safety.
Remember last year’s defense? This group will be better. If there is a question mark, however, it’s Michigan State’s quest to replace Worthy in the middle. But I don’t think it’s a huge issue: the Spartans’ focus will instead shift out to end, and players like Gholston and Rush, who will demand attention, will make things easier inside for White, Hoover and Kittredge. The back seven, on the other hand, is absolutely fantastic. Defense wins championships; this is a defense that can lead M.S.U. to historic heights – it’s a defense to write home about.
Few teams have been more consistently strong on special teams over the last three years. This coming season will be no exception, especially if M.S.U. can find a way to replace Keshawn Martin’s game-breaking ability on punt returns. That’s an issue, but the Spartans’ pieces on special teams remain otherwise intact. Dan Conroy, the most accurate kicker in school history, returns for his senior season – he’s joined by one of the nation’s better kickoff specialists in junior Kevin Muma. Sophomore Mike Sadler is back at punter after doing a very nice job on directional kicks as a rookie. With Hill back on kick returns after a great freshman season, all M.S.U. needs to find is an answer on punts.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receivers In B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, M.S.U. lost the program’s all-time leading receiver and one of the more dangerous do-everything skill players in recent program memory – and as a combination last fall, the pair put together the most prolific season by a starting pairing in school history. The Spartans must also replace Nichol, the former quarterback who gave this offense steadiness as the third receiver, not to mention an historic grab against Wisconsin, and tight ends Brian Linthicum and Garrett Celek. These are some substantial losses: Michigan State must replace more than three-fourths of last season’s receptions and 82.5 percent of its receiving yards.
The one solace, in my mind, is that Maxwell has spent at least one full season working with the current crop of receivers – as part of the scout team, of course, but there might be more of a quarterback-receiver rapport than you’d otherwise see as a team breaks in a new cast of skill players. This theory doesn’t apply to sophomore Tony Lippett, who spent last season at cornerback, making five starts. But keep an eye on how quickly Maxwell can get on the same page with receivers like junior Bennie Fowler, sophomore Keith Mumphrey and a slew of redshirt freshman – because all worked together as part of Michigan State’s second-team offense last fall.
Mumphrey is one starter, at least until – or if, I suppose – Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett fully grasps this offense. Mumphrey, Arnett and Andre Sims are battling for snaps at flanker. On the other side, M.S.U. is currently listing Lippett and Fowler as co-starters; both are intriguing, Lippett for his size and obvious athleticism, Fowler for his potential to duplicate Martin’s do-everything ability in this offense. For Fowler, the biggest issue has been remaining healthy – he’s battled issues with his foot since arriving on campus, it seems. It’s freshmen elsewhere on the depth chart: true freshmen like Aaron Burbridge and Kyle Kerrick join holdovers like Juwan Caesar and A.J. Troup. Dion Sims (12 receptions 99 yards) takes over at tight end, giving M.S.U. a player who is athletic enough to make plays in the red zone and big enough to lend a hand in the running game.
Game(s) to watch
Getting Boise State in the season opener is a dream – and let me explain. While B.C.S. conference teams have long ragged on the Broncos, labeling them as pretenders, a team like Michigan State can flip the script. Instead of deriding Boise’s non-B.C.S. conference existence, the Spartans can instead point towards a win over Boise as rationale for an at-large B.C.S. bid, if push came to shove. And that game looks like a win for M.S.U., even if it doesn’t pay to bet against Chris Petersen and the Broncos. Come December, that would rank among the best non-conference wins on any team’s schedule. The Spartans’ conference hopes come down to a four-game stretch in October and November: Iowa, at Michigan, at Wisconsin and Nebraska. Obviously, a Legends team couldn’t lose to the Wolverines and Cornhuskers and still take home the division.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I know that there questions still unanswered at quarterback and receiver, where Michigan State breaks in a brand-new cast, but I love what this team can accomplish in Dantonio’s sixth season. To me, the concern over Maxwell’s move into the starting lineup are overblown: Dantonio and his staff have paved the way for this moment for three years, as noted, and few first-year quarterbacks will match his physical gifts or his familiarity with Michigan State’s system – and not many have the opportunity to move into such a friendly situation, what with the Spartans’ line, backfield and outstanding defense. And this defense: it is outstanding. It’ll be the best in a defense-heavy Big Ten, better than Nebraska, Ohio State or Michigan, and it’ll help carry this team while the offense finds its footing in September.
I just really like this team – I really like this program. Something has changed in East Lansing, from top to bottom and all points in between, and I think that the Spartans have passed the point where there’s any chance of a 2009-like downturn, when they dropped from nine wins to seven losses before this recent resurgence. There’s a word for these Spartans: steady. There are no overwhelming highs, no mentality-changing lows. Just a middle ground, one that prevents M.S.U. from getting overly rattled and one that keeps this team steadily aimed forward on each side of the ball. I just like this team’s mindset – it’s a mindset shared by precious few programs in college football.
I think that M.S.U. should be considered a dark horse title contender, though I’m not extremely confident in the Spartans’ ability to roll through the season without a single defeat. That could change if Maxwell and the receiver corps click, I suppose; while I like what the junior will do as the starter, I don’t think that the offense will have enough balance to survive the regular season unscathed. I do think, however, that the Spartans are strong enough, especially on defense, to notch another double-digit regular season and another Legends division title. Unlike last fall, I think that M.S.U. is the best team in the Big Ten. If all goes according to plan – if Maxwell has what it takes, if the defense is, as I think it will be, one of the five best in the country – this program is headed to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1987 season, the year of its last outright conference title.
Dream season Michigan State tops Michigan for a record fifth straight time, but that’s not all. M.S.U. also beats everyone else, including another win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. The Spartans play Oregon for the national title.
Nightmare season The Spartans can’t throw the ball effectively, which in turns negates the team’s strength as a running team. That limits the offense as a whole, which negates the Spartans’ defense. The end result is a seven-win regular season – which includes a loss to Michigan.
In case you were wondering
Where do Michigan State fans congregate? Begin with Spartan Tailgate, by leaps and bounds the best independent Michigan State Web site, and continue with Spartan Mag and Go Spartans. For additional coverage, check out Enlightened Spartan, Spartan Nation and The Only Colors. And don’t forget about Joe Rexrode’s blog over at the Lansing State Journal. A great group of options.
Michigan State’s all-name nominee LB TyQuan Hammock.
Through 118 teams 486,268.
Who is No. 6? The individual responsible for getting tomorrow’s university off the ground graduated from a university located about 15 hours away by car, if you pay close attention to your state’s posted speed limits.
Tags: Andrew Maxwell, Anthony Rashad White, Bennie Fowler, Big Ten, Chris McDonald, Chris Norman, Dan Conroy, Dan France, DeAnthony Arnett, Denicos Allen, Dion Sims, Isaiah Lewis, Johnny Adams, Keith Mumphrey, Larry Capers, Le'Veon Bell, Marcus Rush, Mark Dantonio, Max Bullough, Michigan State, Tony Lippett, Travis Jackson, Tyler Hoover, William Gholston
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