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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Michigan State

General Tenor: Ha, ha, you're Michigan State.
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.
This was followed by an excerpt from the previous year's preview, which was nearly identical save the niggling details of the season and this assertion:
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. Voila: preview.
Voila: review.

Next year's dilemma: which hilarious collapse? Michigan State managed to blow a million-point lead and the last shreds of Mike Valenti's sanity versus Notre Dame, but they also lost to Illinois.

We do have a slam-dunk for the unexpected victory: Michigan State's NCAA-record comeback versus Northwestern, which provided one of the year's most surprisingly poignant moments. When the final seconds ticked off the clock and the Spartans spilled onto the field, the uncomprehending joy on the faces of JLS and his (soon to be ex-) charges was pure.

Quarterback Misstep #1: Drew Stanton came in for a tongue-bathing.
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.
What happened here? State's offense collapsed after the Notre Dame game -- during the Notre Dame game -- and hardly emerged for the rest of the season. Injuries to Matt Trannon, Javon Ringer, and several offensive linemen didn't help but Stanton, like the other QB named Drew in the conference, looked like a shadow of his former self. He morphed from an object of terror to one of pity.

Ah-ha! Potential source of offensive ineptititude:
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.
MSU finished 82nd in sacks allowed and couldn't run effectively on anyone except Notre Dame once Ringer went down.

Like predicting that there will be embarassing pictures of Britney Spears.I projected the Spartan defense to be bad at football. Defensive line:
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.
Linebackers were adjudged "meh" and I didn't get off any rippin' one liners. Secondary:
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.
I also reiterated this slam-dunk in the "Final Verdict" section:
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.
104th in sacks, 110th in pass efficiency defense, 88th in total defense, 99th in scoring defense. (Note decency in rush D: 55th, though that could be an artifact of the pass defense.)

Final Verdict on the Final Verdict. My actual prediction, 7-5, turned out to be excessively optimistic. But I do want to point out this worst case scenario:
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.
So I didn't foresee a loss to Illinois or Michigan State getting its collapse to the finish in ASAP this year, but come on... not bad, eh?


General Tenor: I dunno.
So what will happen? I abdicate. I've spent hours combing stories, previews, player profiles, statistics, tarot cards, &c and have come up with nothing definitive. The OL could be great! It could be awful. The WRs could be great! They could be awful. The defense should rebound! Or maybe not. You'll get nothing definitive out of me on this team ready for mocking at season's end. Wisconsin will either be good or bad. If they are not, they will be average. Bold!
You could argue that we still don't know all that much about Wisconsin. The Badgers' best win is over Penn State. They played one ranked team, Michigan, and lost that game by two touchdowns.

I should have considered the Fat Wisconsin RB Factor. PJ Hill was the Big Ten's breakout star, but though I projected him as the starter I also dismissed him out of hand:
More disturbing than the tolerance shown for Stanley's behavior was that shown his totally inept running -- please don't pay attention to his approximately five yards a carry last year, as almost all of his carries were against the BGSUs and Hawaiis of the schedule -- as it indicates that his plodding, fall-over-at-slight-contact style was the best option left the Badgers when the ball didn't go to Calhoun. You can probably write off junior Jamil Walker and senior Dywon Rowan as a result. That leaves redshirt freshman PJ Hill as your projected starter. Hill seems to have Stanley's temper -- in February he was arrested for wielding a bat outside of a Wisconsin dorm -- and size at 235 pounds, but Wisconsin has to hope that he has something other than his talent-like substance. I have my doubts despite the puff-job coming from the coaches and media, as Bielema is talking about having four or five guys who are in competition for the job. Running backs are sort of like quarterbacks with greater amplitude: if you say you have five, you don't really have any.
This might have been wrong. It also might have been Wisconsin's typically crooshing offensive line paving vast lanes against the overmatched front sevens of the Big Ten. Against Michigan, Hill was swallowed alive, though he's far from alone there. In any case he warranted better than the "2" he got.

Er. And you were again? Travis Beckum didn't even get mentioned. No tight end did.

About that fat guy thing. On the OL:
Chalk it up to excessive Badger-related optimism, but this line seems like it'll transition smoothly enough to a new generation of impossibly huge guys paving the way for oft-overrated running backs. It will be rough at the start -- it has to, especially with the Thomas injury -- and thus the "3" rating, but I would look at it more as a 2-progressing-to-4 by year's end.
This was exactly right. The Wisconsin offensive line was largely responsible for UW's ugly offensive output against a selection of nonconference tomato cans and the Badgers' total inability to go forward against Michigan, but after the Michigan game Thomas, et al., figured things out and started battering opponents into goo.

Why? My personal hero, Wisconsin offensive line coach Bob Palcic:
Besides, how can you go wrong when you've got this guy...
Bob Dole. Bob Dole! BOB DOLE! ... is apparently UW's new offensive line coach. In yet another article about recruiting and text messaging, this passage made my day:
[Text messaging is] bad news for coaches like Bob Palcic, the newest hire on Bielema's first staff. Palcic, who was hired Monday to coach the Badgers' offensive line, said he barely knows how to use a cell phone, much less text messaging.

"If they do eliminate text messaging, that will be a positive for Bob Palcic," he said, "because I'm still just a guy who likes to talk to people on the telephone."
Bob Palcic's teaching the offensive linemen. Bob Palcic's going to the store. Bob Palcic's trying to mash the tiny buttons on a cell phone to tell some punk kid to have a good time tonight. Bob Palcic fought in 'Nam! Bob Palcic has a purple heart... Bob Palcic doesn't need this bullshit! your offensive line coach? Bob Palcic fought in 'Nam!
Yes, that is three levels of blockquote nesting. But it's worth it.

Another omission. Virtually, anyway. Jack Ikegwuonu was mentioned here:
Cornerback Brett Bell graduates, leaving the position in the hands of two true sophomores, Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu, who struggled a year ago.
That was all the mention a guy who ended the year on the extremely prestigious MGoBlog first team All Big Ten list. There were two main reasons Wisconsin finished the year #1 in pass efficiency defense:
  • Incompetent opponent quarterbacks.
  • Ikegwuonu.
A remarkable turnaround. Bret Bielema may be a bit of a meathead, but everywhere he's ever been has had a kickass defense save Wisconsin's 2005 unit, which struggled through a ton of injuries and finished an ugly 92nd. This year? #2. Schedule blah blah, sure, but that's a huge improvement and another notch on Bielema's belt.

Final Verdict on the Final Verdict. I projected 9-3 because of a weak schedule but didn't fully comprehend exactly how weak it would be. I think Wisconsin is about the team I thought they'd be save for a much better secondary than I gave them credit for and plus Travis Beckum. This...
The pain of losing Calhoun will be immense
... wasn't the best assertion, though. Middling to good. Bob Palcic fought in Nam!