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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Story

If you were looking for a brief summary of the last thirty years of Spartan football, 2005 was your lucky year. It had everything you could want: a humiliating 35-point loss to Northwestern, heartbreak at the hands of Michigan, an incredible -- in the "this is too strange to possibly believe" sense -- special teams meltdown against an OSU team they should have beat, an unexpected victory over a quality opponent (Notre Dame), and a final collapse that prevented Michigan State from going to a bowl game -- one that involved a loss to Purdue and a 41-18 waxing at the hands of Minnesota. 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.

And if you are the type of MGoBlog reader I need to consider a restraining order against, you recognize the previous paragraph as a near-doppleganger of last year's Spartan intro:
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.
Ah, Michigan State, how my blogger self loves thee: not only was that the most accurate thing I've ever written, but I may never have to write a new Michigan State intro for as long as I live. Rotate in Rutgers, Lousiana Tech, Hawaii, or Central Michigan in the "humiliating loss" slot, occasionally move Michigan into the "unexpected victory" slot, find the most hilarious available collapse, lather, rinse, and repeat. In the rare event Michigan State finishes more than a couple games away from .500, simply blow it off as random chance and project a reversion to the mean the next year. Viola: preview.

Is there anything that could upset the natural balance of things? Yes. He wears number 5, but he can't kick or play defense.


Last Year: Outstanding both running and passing the ball. Fifth in total offense and eighteenth in scoring despite having no reliable field goal kicking. A balanced attack that finished in the top 20 in both rushing and passing. The good witch of the Michigan State team, and one that returns every skill position player save The Severely Average Jason Teague. The line? Er.


I pull the trigger until it goes "click."
Rating: 5. Last year Drew Stanton (AKA "The Jesus") made a remarkable transformation from a crazy-legged scrambler who happened to occasionally throw with great accuracy to a great quarterback, period. He is accurate in the pocket or on the run, in total command of the Spartan offense, and still capable of taking off when the situation demands it. The numbers show it: Stanton finished 10th nationally in passer efficiency. The win-loss... eh, not so much, but one can only do so much when you are playing opposite a defense as offensive as Michigan State's. If you require validation outside of his collegiate stats, Mel Kiper projects him as a top-five pick in next year's NFL draft.

By cutting down on Stanton's scrambling MSU managed to keep him mostly healthy in '06 after an injury-plagued '05 season that burned the words "Damon Dowdell" and "Lousiana Tech" deep into the nightmare psychoses of Spartan fans worldwide, but Stanton picked up some sort of nagging hand or arm injury late in the year that affected his performance. The candybones reputation he picked up after his first year starting may or may not be justified, but it goes without saying that the Spartans without a healthy Stanton are only a threat to John L. Smith's job security. Backup Brian Hoyer has gotten good reviews and was a mildly touted recruit a couple years ago. He's not Stanton, but he isn't Dowdell either.

Running Backs

The little crapper that could.
Rating: 5. Even though John L. Smith in his infinite weirdness gave then-freshman Javon Ringer the most unflattering nickname in the history of sport when he called Ringer "That Little Crapper" after one of his more impressive performances a year ago, Big Ten defenses would do well to Beware The Crapper. A combination of academic issues and a poorly-timed knee blowout scared off major programs, but the chance Michigan State took on Ringer looks to be paying off in spades. Despite splitting time with both The Severely Average Jason Teague and 230-pound bulldozer Jehuu Caulcrick, Ringer led the high-powered Spartan offense with 817 yards on just 122 carries. For those scoring at home, that's 6.7 yards per carry. Yes, there is a caveat: an awful lot of those yards came against the easily-befuddled defenses of Illinois, Nortwestern, and Indiana. But if you're going to downgrade his performance based on that you must also take into account his 4.8 YPC against Ohio State, the top run defense in the country last year. Ringer is for real. With an extra year of experience and the vast majority of Teague's carries he'll make a name for himself.

The backup running back is a bit of a surprise: redshirt freshman AJ Jimmerson. Jimmerson was one of the jewels of last year's recruiting class and was clearly the second option behind Ringer during the spring, passing Jehuu Caulcrick and running for 128 yards in the spring game. Jimmerson's a bigger back with the patience to set up his blocks, an effective but not dynamic runner.

The aforementioned Jehuu Caulcrick must be an atrocious linebacker, because his skills at running back are only middling. He's a load to bring down at 230-some pounds but does not have the bounce or change of direction to deal with defensive players who aren't blocked like they should be -- probably a major issue this year. His workload will be limited to short yardage for the most part.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Rating: 4. 6'6" man-beast Matt Trannon returns for his Brooks Bollinger "Didn't You Graduate In 1894?" Sendoff Tour. If anyone passes the look test on the Spartan team, it's Trannon, a mortal lock for Kirk Herbstreit's annual uncomfortable "These Guys Look Good In A Uniform" list. The problem is that Trannon's hulking monstrosity does not come attached to a pair of hands that can catch or a pair of feet that can elude. A perpetual disappointment for Spartan fans who see a 6'6" Spartan wideout and think Plaxico Burress, Trannon has one more chance to make good on his promise. Will he? Survey says no. He'll be all right, again, and leave the Spartans wondering what could have been.

Trannon is joined by a cast of fairly average thousands: sophomores Terry "Annoying Chris Berman Nickname Waiting To Happen" Love and Devin Thomas, seniors Jerramy Scott, Kyle Brown and Kerry Reed. All save Thomas had 28 or more catches a year ago. Scott led the way with 49. Add in redshirt sophomore Kellen Davis, a rangy pass catcher of the sort all the rage in the NFL at the moment, and you have a wide receiver corps with unmatched depth.

The catch is there's no guy at the top of the pyramid. Everyone is good but not great. As one RCMB message-boarder put it, State has "a bunch of .300 hitters with no homerun threat." Thomas is getting plugged by Smith as that threat, but has a lot of experience to make up on those in front of him. Keep an eye on him if he sees the field, as JLS will be banking on his ability making up for his inexperience.

Offensive Line

Rating: 2. Three consistently excellent performers from one of the nation's most underrated offensive lines depart, leaving this unit the only one that could prevent the Spartan offense from replicating their explosive performances over the past two years. One VHT recruit, Roland Martin, steps in at guard, but center and left tackle don't even have that small luxury. Every starter from the '04 line is gone and only the meh -- guard Kyle Cook and RT-turned-LT Mike Gyetvai -- return from '05.

Attempting to project the performance of players one's never seen at a postion that the layman can hardly comprehend anyway is a futile task, but, hell, let's guess. One of the brilliant bits about the JLS offense is that it doesn't demand stone-cold NFL killers to be effective. The passing game relies on rollouts and copious play action to keep the quarterback clean and quite frequently works from a two-back shotgun set, giving MSU a wide array of options in blitz pickups. The running game concentrates on hittin' em where they ain't. You don't have to drive your man off the ball, just engage him long enough for Ringer to dash past on whichever side looks more appealing.

So even a bad line won't kill the Spartan offense, but if I was a State fan I would no doubt go around telling people that I got into Michigan. I would also regard this article from the News ominously:
Michigan State might finally have a defense worthy of confidence.

The Spartans ended spring football practice Friday with a scrimmage at Spartan Stadium, and though no winner was declared, the defense could have claimed victory.

The defense created five turnovers and stifled the offense early.

As is discussed a few inches down, there is no hope for the Spartan defense. Any sign of a pulse from it against a Michigan State offense that should be excellent bodes ill for those Motor City Bowl dreams. Also foreboding: the line's performance against Ohio State once a couple starters were lost to injury. Stanton went from fairly comfortable to running for his life in no time flat; OSU collected around a half-dozen sacks.

The offensive line is the potential achilles' heel of the 2006 Spartans and its performance is the greatest variable in their upcoming season. Unfortunately for MSU, the early returns are not encouraging.


Last Year: Wretched; only saved from Illinois-level numbers by the offense. Yielded 5.0 yards per carry. Only Wisconsin and Illinois were worse. Allowed opponents to complete 63 percent of their passes. Only Illinois was worse. Finished above only -- you guessed it -- Illinois in defensive passer efficiency. Even though the defense had the advantage of playing opposite their ravenous, time-killing offense they finished 87th nationally in total yardage. This was good for fourth(!!!) in the conference.

The good news? Wristbands for everyone!
The defense swears it's better. They say the secondary is improved and that the new wristbands will cure all of the missed signals and coverage breakdowns.
Uh, yeah... about that.

Defensive Line

Rating: 1. Whether or not losing a bunch of starters on a crappy unit is a good thing or not is largely a philosophical question. Michigan State must get philosophical this year after losing Michael Bazemore, Brandon McKinney, and infamous-non-fumble-returner Domata Peko. In their place steps... well, someone. Probably.

Senior defensive end Clifton Ryan moves inside to tackle. He was listed at 302 a year ago and only gathered three sacks a year ago, so chances are he's moving to a more natural position. Except Ryan led the team with those three sacks... so maybe they need his mildly explosive (or at least extant) pass rush on the outside.

Redshirt junior Bobby Jones and JUCO transfer Ogemdi Nwagbuo will fill out the tackle rotation; both had some rough times during the spring and project to be crappy. The RCMB's scouting report on Nwagbuo is "huge but clueless."

Projected defensive end starters Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw are meaningless names to me. What we know: Long was a middling recruit out of Ohio a couple years ago and redshirted last year. He's a bit undersized -- or was when the weights on the MSU site were last updated -- at 230 pounds and plays at the "rush" position. He'll probably be mediocre at best and vulnerable to the run. Kershaw is a redshirt sophomore. Last year he had four tackles, one each against Kent State, Hawaii, Illinois, and Purdue. When Kershaw chose MSU, his other offers were from Kentucky, Indiana, Minnesota, and Cincinatti -- a fairly good list of the worst defenses in D-I. He'll probably be bad.

In sum: one experienced, decent player in Ryan, and then a vast wasteland of guys who haven't ever seen a meaningful snap and were panned by recruiting gurus. Sure, they could be better.


Rating: 3. What hope there is for the defense lies in this unit. All three starters return, and though they weren't great shakes a year ago there is a good bit of athleticism in the unit. "Bandit" linebacker SirDarean Adams and senior David Herron are both potential breakout stars if Ryan and whoever starts next to him can occupy blockers. Josh Thornhill is more pedestrian but is at least okay. One thing to watch for is the relative frequency of tackles from this unit. It is usually bad news when a safety is your leading tackler; it's worse when he has nearly 40 more than any linebacker. If Nehemiah Warrick ends up with a lot of tackles eight yards downfield like Eric Smith did a year ago, something has gone wrong with this unit. It must improve for the defense to go anywhere positive.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 1
Q: How do you know when your defensive backfield is in bad shape?

A: When a guy with a name "Cole Corey" is kicked off the team and this causes concern.

A familiar sight.
This projects as another disaster zone. JUCO transfer Nehemiah Warrick, Peter's cousin, is getting a lot of buzz at safety, but is unlikely to improve upon the performance of the departed Eric Smith, a third-round NFL draft pick. Even if he pans out he'll be taking a lot of angles on players the rest of the secondary has let free. I have yet to discover who the starter opposite Warrick will be. Cole Corey is gone for shenanigans. Greg Cooper, who started every game at safety a year ago, has been moved to corner. Could it be improbably named Otis Wiley? Sure. The bet here is they'll be bad.

Starting cornerbacks Cooper and Demond Williams were not impressive a year ago -- though Cooper was playing free safety, as mentioned -- but will probably improve some with age and experience. The Cooper move bespeaks a lot of insecurity in the secondary, though, as there is no obvious replacement for him at free safety. Either he was so bad at FS that he could not plausibly return or the alternatives at corner are so distasteful that a move was necessary. Neither alternative inspires confidence. Add in a pass rush that is not likely to be fierce and viola: a recipe for Spartan toast.

Special Teams

Kickers & Coverage

I don't think English has words to properly express precisely what happened when kicker Tom Goss stumbled onto the field last year. Let's try broken Spanish:


Michigan State made five of sixteen field goals a year ago; the team long was 32 yards. A point of reference for Michigan fans: this was Brabbs/Neinberg/Finley but worse.

So, yeah, if either kicker from last year wanders on the field to do anything other than fetch the tee the Spartans are in bad shape. There are two candidates to replace the incompetents. 6'6" Todd Boleski is getting hype from the newspapers but has not impressed message-board partisans, who hold out hope for incoming freshman Brett Swenson. If a suitable replacement can't be found, JLS is crazy enough to go for it constantly -- which might be a net benefit if you listen to game-theory nerds.

Punting appears to be a different matter if you accept the surface-level statistics -- senior Brandon Fields and his career average of 45.6 yards per kick, a Spartan and Big Ten record, return -- but not so fast, my friend. Hurray and break out the Ray Guy, right? No. Fields has a giant leg, but his tendency to bomb it deep often comes at the cost of a line-drive and an excellent opportunity for some tiny bastard to pad his return average. Prone to shanked or mishit punts, Fields' leg was good for a measly 75th nationwide in net punting.

One thing to watch for this season when the Spartans face dangerous returners like Ginn or Breaston: strange line-drive bounce punts. Fields employed them to middling effect two years ago against Michigan; the punts were indeed unreturnable but they were often extremely short. It seemed like a good idea at the time.


Non-Conference: Decent. Two tomato cans in Idaho and Eastern Michigan, one respectable opponent in Pitt, and the annual megaphone game against Notre Dame.

Conference: Fortunate. MSU misses Iowa and Wisconsin and gets two big swing games against Purdue and Minnesota at home. Trips to Ann Arbor and Happy Valley are the only intimidating road games.

We're Sure About

Stanton and Ringer. They're both great players in an offense that is perfectly suited to their talents.

We Have An Idea About

Defensive Line and Secondary. Sure, they could get better. Maybe. More likely they're going to be berry, berry bad.

We Have No Clue About

The Offensive Line. Three new starters. One returning starter, Kyle Cook, out with an injury during the spring. Possibly manhandled by the Spartan defensive line, which projects as awful. Critical for those Motor City dreams.

An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

The offensive line holds together after an initial shaky getting-to-know-you period and the offense hums along just like it did this year. The defense is not wretched, but it ain't good, either. Swenson is the kicking savior. That adds up to 9-3.

Worst Case

The spring practice was more indicative of the offensive line's ability than the defensive line's. Stanton scrambles for his life, Ringer's production drops, and the offense is average. The defense is just as brutal as expected, and a further series of hilarious Spartan mistakes loses a game or two. JLS goes 4-8 and gets some lovely parting gifts.

Final Verdict

Without a miracle from several players on the defensive side of the ball they're just going to suck. Where does the pass rush come from? You can excuse Long for not showing up a year ago as a 230 pound true freshman, but Kershaw is much bigger, had a year of experience, and got four garbage-time tackles despite the complete lack of production from the starters. MGoBlog has a cardinal rule of player projection: if you're not a true freshman and you're stuck behind a terrible player on a terrible defense, there is a 90% chance you are a terrible player. The coaches have nothing to lose by trying a kid out in that situation -- is the defense really going to get worse? -- so if you find yourself watching the carnage, you are in no position to correct it. There will be no pass rush; the secondary is going to remain impotent.

Offensively, the line is likely to take a major step back with only two returning starters and that half-disaster in the spring game. That should dampen Stanton and Ringer's production somewhat, but JLS has produced on offense everywhere he's ever been no matter the situation. He'll have to gameplan around it but the offense should still be very good, but not doors-blown-off.

Wins: Idaho, Eastern Michigan, Illinois, Indiana
Probable Wins: Minnesota, Northwestern
Tossups: Pitt, Penn State, Purdue
Probable Losses: Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame
No Chance: None

Round down a bit for inevitable Spartan collapse in one game, and you have 7-5.