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Monday, July 11, 2005

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The Story

If you were looking for a brief summary of the last thirty years of Spartan football, 2004 was your lucky year. It had everything you could want: a loss to Rutgers, heartbreak at the hands of Michigan, two totally unexpected crushings of quality opponents (51-17 over Minnesota and 49-14 over Wisconsin), and a final collapse that prevented Michigan State from going to a bowl game--one that involved giving up 37 points to one of the worst offenses in the nation and a late-game implosion against Hawaii. It had just the right mix of burgeoning hope with soul-mangling incompetence, the right mix of surprising success with surprising failure, the right mix of Duffy Daughterty with Bobby Williams. Michigan State's porridge is never too hot, never too cold, always just mediocre. On a micro level MSU is completely unpredictable week-to-week. On a macro level it's always Same Old Spartans.

So MOTS from the SOS this year? Probably. John L. Smith's offense transitioned to the Big Ten with a bang, finishing tenth in the country in both rushing yards and total offense despite missing Crazy Legs Drew Stanton for portions of seven games. When Michigan State had Stanton they had you dead to rights. When they didn't, it was roadkill time.

The vast, huge, enormous problem is the defense. It gave up seventeen points to Michigan in six minutes. It gave up thirty-seven points to Penn State. Converted running back Jaren Hayes is the team's best corner. The defensive line is thin and fat at the same time. There are hardly enough linebackers for a two-deep. There are few defenses in the Big Ten this side of Illinois that look as flimsy.

Still, I have a simple system by which I rate Big Ten players: how much do I fear this particular person? Stanton is #1 on my list this year. That's got to count for something.

Unit By Unit

Rating: 4. Whenever Drew Stanton takes off down the field next year, he'll be scaring the crap out of everyone. Opponents will worry that Stanton will chew their defense to shreds. Spartans will worry that Stanton won't get up after the play is over. Last year's backups are gone, either to graduation (Damon Dowdell) or DUI (Stephen Reaves), and the remaining quarterbacks--redshirt freshman Brian Hoyer and 'greenshirt' freshman Dominic Natale--got absolutely ripped by Tourette's-stricken coach John L. Smith after spring practices.

The injury angle on Stanton is a little overblown, but last year he was in and out of the lineup because of three separate injuries, not one nagging one. That has to be alarming to Spartan fans, especially because Stanton is going to take a lot more hits than quarterbacks that stick to throwing. In all Stanton missed portions of seven games. If Stanton remains healthy, however, Spartan opponents will have their hands full. He is an unparalleled dual threat and the best quarterback in the Big Ten. What? Henne Tate you crazy!

Seriously. Stanton's arm isn't far off the two quarterbacks generally considered to be head and shoulders above the Big Ten pack. He completed almost 64% of his passes last year. His yards per attempt and passer efficiency don't stand up to Henne and Tate's numbers, but how much of that is on Michigan State's inconsistent and big-play-deficient wide receiving corps? mgoblog thinks most of it. Tate and Henne had Hinkel, Solomon, Edwards, and Avant at their disposal. Stanton had a ragtag bunch (more on them later) of trash-talkin', pass-droppin', bomb-makin' fools.

What Stanton gives you that Tate and Henne don't is crazy goddamn legs. Stanton rushed for 687 yards last year, averaging 7.2(!) yards per carry. His mobility was also a major reason that Michigan State yielded only four sacks all year. Stanton's ability to throw on the run makes his rollouts a deadly weapon. Linebackers tasked with defending him are often caught in no man's land; by the time they make a decision it's the wrong one. Stanton will rush for 1,000 yards this year and pass for 2,500... (you know the drill) if healthy.

How can I give this unit a four, then? No depth. MSU was terrible without Stanton last year save for a few long Cobb runs in the Michigan game and they'll be worse this year should Stanton go down, which is a pick-'em.

Running Back
Rating: 4. It doesn't feel right giving this group a four but it's impossible to argue with the numbers. Michigan State finished tenth in the country in rushing yards and that wasn't all because of their quarterbacks. Michigan State had three running backs finish with better than 4.5 yards a carry: Jason Teague had 4.6, Jehuu Caulcrick 5.5, and departed senior Deandra Cobb 7.6(!).

The Spartans will miss Cobb, who had the ability to go "meep meep" and severely confound the plans of Wile E. Coyote defenses around the conference. If not for Braylon Edwards and the greatest comeback in Michigan history, Cobb's ability to hit lightspeed would have led the Spartans to a precious victory over Michigan last year. Neither Jason Teague nor Jehuu Caulcrick has that game-breaking ability. In fact, mgoblog wouldn't be entirely surprised to see Caulcrick shift to linebacker (a position he briefly played last fall) if the two incoming recruits are ready to play immediately.

Those two incoming recruits are Ohio's Javon Ringer and Missouri's AJ Jimmerson, though there is a possibility that Ringer may not qualify at the moment, which would be a major loss. Ringer tore his ACL midway through his senior year, which caused several major programs, including Ohio State, to back off of him.The Spartans continued to pursue him and were rewarded. Many Ohio high school football watchers considered Ringer to be a major steal for MSU. Jimmerson wasn't quite as highly regarded, but is a pounding back in the Caulcrick style who, should Ringer not qualify, will see immediate playing time.

Wide Recievers & Tight Ends
Rating: 3.
The Spartans have a slew of wide receivers who have performed well intermittently but don't have a standout that defenses have to focus on. Basketball moonlighter Matt Trannon has the physical tools to be a star at 6'6", 225, but runs sloppy routes and has hands that can be kindly described as inconsistent. Kyle Brown, Terry Love, Aaron Alexander, and Jerramy Scott are all thoroughly all right but none are particularly inspiring. Brown has the most athletic ability but hasn't emerged as a go-to receiver despite not exactly being overshadowed by anyone on the team at the moment. Love specialized in unexpected critical third down catches but is smallish and not particularly elusive. When defenses become more aware of him his effectiveness will plateau.

Agim Shabaj was declared academically ineligible but probably won't be missed partiuclarly much. Redshirt freshman Carl Grimes, who nearly signed with Florida State, can fill Shabaj's role as a slot receiver who can grab screens and pick up yards after the catch on crossing routes. Maybe Grimes will actually, you know, catch the ball before trash talking the opposition. Losing mouthy tight end Eric Knott is addition by subtraction. Projected replacement Kellen Freeman-Davis is an excellent receiver and isn't on the sexual offenders registry.

Altogether this set of receivers has a number of guys who would make effective #2 or #3 wideouts but no one other than Trannon who can really strike fear into a defense, but Trannon has been plagued by mental mistakes his entire career. If the prospect of a major NFL paycheck lights a fire under him he could emerge into a nightmare for opposing defenses but the mistakes and cement hands aren't going to disappear overnight. Everybody else is uninspiring, guys who are decent cogs but not threats. The unit, taken as a whole, is average.

Offensive Line
Rating: 4.
When you end up tenth in the country in rushing and yield eight sacks all year, the offensive line is doing something right. RT Sean Poole and RG William Whitticker have graduated but the entire left side of the line returns. C Chris Morris is probably the second-best center in the Big Ten behind Greg Eslinger of Minnesota, and both LG Kyle Cook and LT Stefon Wheeler played well last year. Several players are competing for the open jobs on the right side of the line.

The Spartan offensive line doesn't have quite as much pass protection to do as most teams given the frequency of rollouts and the elusiveness of Stanton, but they were extremely effective at engaging blockers and keeping them off the running backs until they crossed the line of scrimmage last year. Morris, Cook, and Wheeler all returning bodes well; that side of the line's effectiveness in the run game should shift defensive attention there and take some of the burden from the new starters.

Defensive Line
Rating: 1. The defensive tackles are overweight or unproven. Neither Brandon McKinney or juco transfer Domata Peko had much impact last year, amassing a mere three TFLs between them. You can get away with that kind of production as a defensive tackle if you're part of a defense that is stiff against the run, but Michigan State was certainly not that, yielding 4.5 yards per carry in conference. Only Illinois and Indiana were worse--not the kind of company you want to keep. Behind the two projected starters is very, very little. Sophomore Joe Toth has six tackles, and that's it. JUCO transfer Bobby Jones may have to step in immediately spelling Peko and McKinney.

The defensive ends are slightly deeper but little better on the surface. Clifton Ryan was expected to be the star of the line last year, but a nagging quadriceps injury hampered him all season. Ryan finished with only 2.5 sacks. Redshirt freshman Justin Kershaw, sophomore Nick Smith, and junior Michael Bazemore will battle for the other defensive end spot. Whoever doesn't win the job will at least provide the Spartans with a quality two-deep at defensive end. Watch out for Kershaw.

Rating: 2. Michigan State runs one of those 4-2-5 defenses with one guy who's a sort of a really strong safety with a cool name like "Apache" or "Hawk" or "Bazooka Rambo-man"--in Michigan State's case he's the "Bandit." The bandit position is covered in this section.

This is another area at which Michigan State is horrifically thin. Junior "whip" linebacker David Herron and sophomore middle linebacker Caleb Thornhill are the only players who saw anything more than token duty at linebacker. Freshman Hugh D'Imperio--one of the prizes of last year's recruiting class--was kicked off the team for an off-field incident. Herron is the guy who has to step forward this year. He's a proverbial 'playmaker' and the only one on the entire Spartan defense except (potentially) Clifton Ryan.

The bandit appears to be former safety Eric Smith, who has been racking up tackles and blowing coverages the past few years. He screwed up the angle on Ted Ginn's slant that beat the Spartans, and though mgoblog can't prove it, I am pretty sure that John L. Smith called for Braylon Edwards to be double covered over the top late in last year's Michigan game, because he's not totally insane--no matter how many recruits he slaps. Eric Smith was nowhere to be found, however. Maybe he'll thrive without extensive deep coverage responsibilities, but Smith is awfully slight to be taking on the (increasingly few) Big Ten teams that can break out a thudding ground game.

Thornhill did okay backing up Ronald Stanley as a freshman but isn't particularly athletic. He's the kind of guy who could be the third, unnoticed piece of a good linebacking corps if the other two guys drew a lot of attention--unfortunately that describes his situation in no way whatsoever. He'll rack up a lot of tackles, but too many of them will be six to eight yards downfield.

No one outside of the MSU coaching staff has any idea if the backups will have a clue. The only one with a modicum of hype is sophomore 'bandit' SirDarean Adams, who came to MSU with much athleticism but hasn't translated it to the field just yet. Any injury in this position group will be a major worry, and even without any the Spartan's can't expect much in the way of big plays from this group. If the don't screw up and occasionally make a play in the backfield, that would be a huge win.

Defensive Backs
Rating: 1. I don't see how this position group can be anything other than a total disaster; Jaren Hayes looks to be Michigan State's #1 corner next year. Michigan State fans can't be happy about that. No one in the secondary cracks six feet tall since Smith was moved to bandit. FS Greg Cooper was toasted regularly last year and senior Ashton Watson, the starter at corner opposite Hayes, has hardly played despite having only converted running backs and toastmaster Roderick Maples in front of him. Sophomore SS Cole Cooper has almost zero experience.

Anyone covering anything would be great here, at least until freshman Kendall Davis gets acclimated. Davis is fast, rather large, and athletic, which means he beats everyone currently starting on all three counts. If he has a clue he'll be seeing extensive time immediately and maybe even starting halfway through the year. This position group needs help from a heavy pass rush. Without it, expect a repeat of last year's poke-eyes-out-with-stick performance.

Return Game
Rating: 2.
Without Cobb and Shabaj MSU doesn't appear to have anyone who can serve as a threat returning kicks. If Ringer makes it to campus he is reputed to have the speed to be dangerous, but there is a lot more to returning kicks than just being really fast. Unless you're Ted Ginn. And you probably aren't. No one currently in the wide receiver corps or the defensive backfield has shown an ability to duplicate Cobb's numbers. Michigan State will likely take a step back here.

Rating: 3.
Punter Brandon Fields has a monster leg but is inconsistent and has a tendency to hit returnable line drives. If he could just kick 45-yard fair catches (something well within his leg's, er, reach) he would easily be the conference's best punter and a Ray Guy finalist. As it is, he will occasionally be brilliant and occasionally shank one out of bounds after 15 yards or set someone like Ginn up for a touchdown.

Michigan State will break in a new kicker this year after Dave Rayner's departure. It is official mgoblog policy to not wildly speculate on the fortunes of kickers who have never seen the field, because I am just not (quite) that arrogant.


State's nonconference schedule features a terrible Kent State team, a Timmah Chang-less Hawaii squad (in East Lansing) and Notre Dame. That should be 2-0 and then... the ND matchup, which is critical to MSU's season. It's a swing game that looks like a shootout. Notre Dame's shallow defensive backfield will be extensively tested and should be beaten repeatedly, but the same can be said for Michigan State.

In the Big Ten the Spartans miss Wisconsin and Iowa. Missing Iowa is extremely fortunate as Drew Tate and the Hawkeye linebacking corps are terrible matchups for the Spartans and that would have been a very tough game to come out of with a win. Wisconsin, eh, not so much, but you never really want to face a team you utterly humiliated the very next year. Things generally don't go as swimmingly.

Michigan comes to East Lansing fresh off a ridiculous win last year in a game that promises to be a bloody affair. Many Michigan fans immediately wrote off that game after the Wolverines' fortunate escape last year; Michigan never plays well in East Lansing and is incapable of stopping mobile quarterbacks. But with defensive line coach Steve Stripling defecting from the Spartans to the Wolverines, Michigan will have a very good idea what goes into the Spartan offense, and without Cobb that counter draw won't be as effective.

Keys to the Season

For God's Sake Keep Stanton Healthy. John L. Smith has crafted a devastating ground game around the multitalented junior but no one on the roster behind him has taken a competitive snap and Smith specifically lambasted Stanton's backups after Spring practice. The dropoff from Stanton to one of his backups would be vast and terrible, especially because neither Brian Hoyer nor Dominic Natale seems to be much of a run threat, and Michigan State's offense depended heavily upon the threat of Stanton or backup Damon Dowdell taking off from the multitude of rollouts and bootlegs the Spartans run.

Beat Michigan. State fans have to be hopeful after taking Michigan to the brink last year. Describing Michigan's escape as "miraculous" doesn't do it justice. Now they have Michigan at home with Stanton poised like a dagger ready to enter the Wolverine hearts at their weakest point: running quarterbacks. A loss in East Lansing would put John L. Smith at 0-3 heading into Ann Arbor next year with the hangman's noose at the ready.

Banzai blitz. A pass rush is absolutely required. The defensive backfield is going to be a disaster; sitting back and playing conservatively will eat up time on the clock and merely extend the time the defense is on the field. A passive MSU will be playing a bend-and-then-break defense. The right way to play in MSU's situation is to freak out and blitz from everywhere constantly. Big plays will be given up, but MSU has to trust that the offense can get it back. Blitzing will at least put the opposing offenses in some distress.


Worst case: Stanton goes down, and none of the backup quarterbacks is much of a running threat, forcing JLS to scrap large portions of his offensive game plan. The defense plays exactly like it's expected to. Michigan State implodes impressively, finishing 4-7 and driving the RCMB to the brink of suicide basketball season.

Best case: Stanton stays healthy. Someone, anyone, emerges as a reliable midrange receiver and Trannon puts brain together with 6'6" 230 to become the second coming of (ugh) Plaxico Burress and starts ripping jump balls down like he's Braylon Edwards. The defense... well, it doesn't do so bad stopping the run. And Ryan lives up to expectations, covering the defensive backfield a little. The defense still cracks a few times at inopportune moments, but it's good enough for 8-3 and a bowl that doesn't say "Motor City" anywhere in it.

mgoblog says... You predict whether a quarterback with an injury history who runs around constantly will stay healthy, and I'll tell you how Michigan State's offense does. If he manages to remain upright the entire season, MSU will have a decent to good year. A healthy Stanton will be neck and neck with Drew Tate and Chad Henne for the title of Best Quarterback in the Big Ten, and he will have a slew of targets to throw to this year. One or two of them will emerge into threats. The running game got Jason Teague, who mgoblog secretly considers to be severely average, 4.6 yards per carry--its scheme and execution are impressive to behold as long as the threat of old Crazy Legs is there. As long as he is (and the bet here is that he make it through the season mostly okay), Michigan State's offense will be a nasty problem.

The defense will be another story. Ryan and Kershaw may provide some pass rush but the defensive tackles are shallow and unimpressive, the linebackers are mediocre, and the secondary is foul. Michigan State will have to win shootouts against teams with decent offenses. They'll end up slightly better than last year, finishing 7-4 and 4-4 in the Big Ten, looking to nuke the hell out of some poor sap bowl opponent who won't know what the Stanton is coming.