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Monday, August 13, 2007

The Story

If you were looking for a brief summary of the last thirty years of Spartan football, 2006 was your lucky year. It had everything you could want: a bizarre upset and collapse all wrapped up in one package against Notre Dame, a 35-point comeback against Northwestern just when you thought they were dead, a crushing at the hands of Michigan, an incredible -- in the "this is too strange to possibly believe" sense -- talk radio meltdown by Mike Valenti, an unexpected victory over what seemed a quality opponent (Pittsburgh), and a complete and total rival-inspired meltdown that submarined both their season and their coach's career. 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.

You may recognize the above from previous efforts:
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.
And thus ends the John L Smith era. A pity, but his death spiral provided recompense in plenty. It started in 2005, when Michigan State planted the flag at Notre Dame Stadium.

There was the halftime meltdown against Ohio State.

There was the loser vigil at midfield after last year's implosion for the ages against Notre Dame.

There was the mini-brawl after the Illinois loss that, yes, involved a flag planting.

And then there was the grand bull-moose of ridiculous public display.

Yeah... about that. Unsurprisingly but much to the chagrin of everyone except Michigan State fans, John L is gone. Into his cowboy boots steps Mark Dantonio, formerly of Cincinnati and Ohio State. He is the antithesis of JLS: a defensive coordinator from a traditional power who is as exciting as toast. JLS spent his offseasons climbing Kilimanjaro or jumping out of planes; Dantonio's summer was highlighted by an appearance in Faith Magazine, which is unfortunately not a Georgie Michael fanzine but rather a bonafide religious magazine my mother gets. According to Faith, Dantonio has his priorities straight:
Faith is more important than winning to Michigan State University's head coach
If he turns out to be something less than Nick Saban, that's probably a good philosophy to take into the job. Dantonio now sets to the task of transforming Michigan State football into something that will require the construction of a new preview format, but with zero talent on defense and an offense that looks capable at best chances are Michigan State's '08 preview gets triple nested.


Last Year

Pass Eff
Even though Michigan State returned virtually all of its key actors from a breakout 2005, including terrifying quarterback Drew Stanton and nippy tailback Javon Ringer, production dipped significantly. Some of this was because the aforementioned stars missed significant portions of the year with injury, as did important sections of the offensive line, but even fully healthy versions of Michigan State struggled to recapture the cowboy bravado that led the Spartans to some gaudy numbers in 2004 and 2005.

If John L Smith was still around some speculation on the causes of this regression would be warranted. (Did the Big Ten catch on to counter draws and rolling pockets? Did Stanton just regress?) But he's out the door, so who cares? Dantonio's offense will be a run-heavy thing reminiscent of those grinding Ohio State teams pre-Smith. Past results will have little bearing on future performance.


Rating: 3. Redshirt junior Brian Hoyer is the guy and while he's no Drew Stanton there are some positive indicators on him. He was a four star guy to the gurus and was decent when pressed into action late last year as Stanton added to his already brimming collection of injuries. He played virtually all of Michigan State's final two games of the season and threw so often (111 attempts) that the acquired experience was closer to four games. Throw in 24 other attempts across three games where things got out of hand or Stanton got dinged up and Hoyer picked up a half-season's worth of experience in 2006. He's a new starter but not an entirely green one. Except in that obvious Michigan State way.

And, well... from what I've seen I think he's going to be at least okay. I have some explaining to do: he completed 57% of his passes last year (bad) and only managed 6 yards per attempt (also bad). An attempt: being thrown into your first serious action in the death throes of a dying regime will distort your numbers, especially when your receivers aren't any good and you're playing in front of a patchwork line. Hoyer's not going to wow anyone with his footspeed, but at his best he can be something similar to the traditional Michigan quarterback. With three years in college, a modicum of on-field experience, and a new offense that promises to put much of the heat on the run game, Hoyer should be a competent game manager in the mold of a John Stocco.

Tailback & Fullback

Rating: 4. It's the same cast of characters here: the elusive but flimsy Ringer (@ right), Christian Okoye-wannabe Jehuu Caulcrick, and meh AJ Jimmerson. If Ringer's limbs remain intact, he'll be the primary threat with Caulcrick acting as a short yardage battering ram and change of pace, although not a change of direction. Caulcrick is a more extreme version of Tony Hunt, faster and angrier and even less able to take his steamroll in another direction once it gets up to cruising speed. This was effective at times when the JLS offense managed to crease the line and give him a chance to get moving forward, most notably when he rumbled past the Notre Dame defense time and again in the aforementioned upset/collapse. However, he's a guy who absolutely needs a hole to be created and for that hole to be in the right spot. Against even decent run defenses, this did not happen:

Ohio State15450

That might be understandable, but seven carries for eight yards against Indiana? Five for eight against Minnesota? This is cherry-picking stats a little bit, but excise the nonconference schedule (rush defenses faced: #98 Idaho, #107 Pittsburgh, #61 Notre Dame; Caulcrick DNP versus EMU) and Caulcrick's YPC drops to a paltry 3.2. He's not much more than a third and short specialist.

Ringer, meanwhile, is a darting runner capable of juking someone out of his jock and getting to the corner. Across two seasons of intermittent productivity he has 1,314 yards at 6.3 yards per carry; if he can stay healthy and do that in, like, one season he'll be amongst the best backs in the country. A caveat: most of Ringer's production last year was against the above-discarded nonconference schedule. Twenty-five carries for 59 yards in the final three games of the season is something of a red flag, and on closer examination there's a similar lack of productivity against premiere foes going back a while. I still like him and think he's one of the most talented backs in the league, but there's a nonzero chance his pretty average is a mirage that evaporates in the heat of a full season's carries.

Jimmerson was a moderately well regarded recruit who redshirted and got spot playing time a year ago; as third backs go he's all right.

Wide Receiver & Tight Ends

Rating: 3. Massive turnover here. Matt Trannon's epic (as measured in length, not titanic deeds; think "Ishtar") career has finally clattered to its stone-handed conclusion; the erstwhile power forward plans on joining Greg Oden at AARP meetings this fall. Also gone are rangy JUCO transfer Kerry Reed, by far MSU's most effective receiver a year ago, and RB/WR/disastrous-trick-play-QB Jerramy Scott. Remaining players with experience are senior Terry Love (@ right), a slight and not particularly fast receiver comparable to Penn State's Deon Butler, and sophomore TJ Williams. Williams showed significant promise as a freshman with 25 catches for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns and will be the primary threat in the passing game if he's allowed on the field. That goes for Love, too. Neither projected starter started practice on time. Love has academic issues he's working to resolve; Williams is in "timeout*" until August 27th for unspecified team rules violations.

Devon Thomas and Deon Curry are the starters in their absence, but it's freshman Mark Dell who bears watching. Dell was well reviewed by the recruiting services and steps into a situation in which there is plenty of opportunity for playing time.

There's also tight end Kellen Davis, an all-catch no-block sort of tight end who doesn't do much in the way of catching. Davis' six reception, 61-yard outburst against Penn State in the finale doubled his numbers on the year. He finished with 12 catches for 125 yards.

*(perhaps the most positive indicator for Dantonio's future is that he seems to treat MSU's existing players like kindergarteners... wise move after last year's ongoing fiasco.)

Offensive Line

Rating: 3. Inexplicable guard Roland Martin -- #2 ranked his recruiting year and a starter as a redshirt sophomore -- is the anchor of a line that returns four of five starters. New center John Masters replaces All Big Ten honorable mention Kyle Cook; he's a senior who started three games last year. The line is experienced, with three seniors and two juniors, and has a modicum of talent in Martin and left tackle Mike Gyetvai, finally healthy after offseason surgery. It appears to be a strength.

A parade might not be called for, though. Rust-laden Gyetvai is no lock for the starting job; his replacement would probably be a dropoff. Michigan State finished 81st in sacks allowed despite having a mobile quarterback and rolling pockets much of the year and 65th in rush offense despite having a talented set of running backs and the aforementioned mobile quarterback. When Stanton went out against Minnesota, Gopher defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg shot up the ranks of the overrated by teeing off on Hoyer, racking up four sacks. Without Stanton providing an extra threat, the run game was totally abandoned in favor of Hoyerpalooza the last couple games of the year. Some skepticism is warranted, especially as Michigan State moves away from the JLS offense and picks up an entirely new set of angles to learn. Rocky times may be had at the start.


Last Year

Pass Eff
A vaguely average rush defense was for naught as the Spartans turned in their usual matador job in the secondary and once again established themselves one of the worst defenses in the country. Anyone with a semblance of an offense -- this preview excludes Illinois and Penn State from that category -- lit Michigan State up like whoah last year. One particularly ugly four game stretch tells the story: it's understandable, maybe, to give up 31 points to Manningham-led Michigan and 38 to Troy Smith's aerial fireworks. Those are two tough weeks. But when you march into subsequent games against Northwestern and Indiana and give up 38 and 46 points, respectively, you suck.

(Sidenote: Purdue is the exception here. They managed just 17 points against MSU... more fuel for the Painter Sucks fire? He did go 21 of 30 for 286 yards, two TD, and no INT, so not really. But it is an inexplicable lack of output given the quality of the defense faced and the quarterback yardage.)

Defensive Line

Rating: 1. The spring is a time for love, Dairy Queen openings, and relentlessly implausible optimism from coaches across the country. These previews are built on several principles, one of which is this: assume postive reports are 75% false; regard anything negative as the holiest gospel truth. With that in mind, I present Dantonio's take on the Spartan defensive tackles:
“We’re extremely thin at defensive tackle. It’s extremely tough to play inside as a true freshman, but we might not have a choice this fall. We might be forced to get the job done by freshman committee this fall.”
He's right to be wary. Both of last year's tackles were adequate players -- Clifton Ryan was probably the best defender State had -- who are now gone. In their stead are Justin Kershaw, a converted DE who managed two TFLs in extensive playing time last year, sophomore John Stipek (four tackles a year ago), senior JUCO Ogemdi Nwagbuo, and true freshmen. One of these freshmen, Ohioan Antonio Jeremiah, got positive reviews from the recruiting services; the rest are leftovers.

This position group is going to be terrible. Everyone is undersized. Both Kershaw and Stipek are trying to bulk up from 250 pounds a year ago and will be fortunate to play at an effective 270 or 275. If Kershaw tries to play at the 260 this Scout article projects him at things will be even worse. (The article says Kershaw should "start quickly," which is right if it means he'll get hurled five yards downfield faster than you can say "Mike Hart 200 yard day.") There's virtually no experience: with Kershaw moving in from end, only Nwagbuo has seen appreciable time. And there's no raw talent outside of Jeremiah. Spartan DTs are liable to get tossed around the field all year.

Things are less dire at end. Well, at one end. JUCO transfer Erwin Baldwin had one hilarious interception return touchdown, that in the totally fun MSU-ND game last year, and four sacks as part of six and a half TFLs. A significant but not implausible step forward would yield something approximating an average Big Ten defensive end. On the other side, juniors Brandon Long and Jonal Saint-Dic will attempt to hold off JUCO transfer Michael Jordan. Long and Saint-Dic's sell-by dates have expired. Both were mediocre recruits -- Long picked MSU over a selection of MAC schools, Saint-Dic was a lightly-regarded JUCO -- who couldn't bust into a crappy defensive line in two years of trying. Long retains a bit more upside as a true junior, but he'll be a vastly undersized defensive end if he starts. Either projects to be bad.

On the other hand, Jordan, a Spartan true believer from Grand Rapids Creston who didn't make the grade out of high school, is a major wildcard. He's listed at 6'6" and anywhere from 270 to 300 pounds and acquired four stars from Rivals, who rated him the #24 JUCO coming out last year. (By way of comparison, Austin Panter was #18.) He played both inside and outside in JUCO and figures to find his way to the field somewhere. He has the physical tools lacking elsewhere on the line; it remains to be seen if that will translate to Big Ten play.


Rating: 1. SirDarean Adams at right.

It's never a good sign when a starting safety leads the team in tackles, and it's especially nasty when said safety has, like, way more tackles than your middle linebacker, but that was the case last year: Otis Wiley's 94 tackles dwarfed Josh Thornhill's 68. Heck, if you combine Travis Key and Nehemiah Warrick's tackles -- reasonable since they platooned -- those guys come in at 87. Michigan State's two leading tacklers last year were essentially the starting safeties. This means the front seven is not getting its job done; part of that is the defensive line allowing blockers to get through; part of that is a subpar linebacking corps. With the graduation of SLB David Herron, the best player in the unit last year, things will get worse.

Don't believe me? Everything you need to know about the Spartan linebackers in three handy sentences:
Every college football team has one - a 200-pound starting linebacker with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, clinically diagnosed hyperactivity, classical piano skills and absolutely no interest in sports. On second thought, Jon Misch has to be the first. ... Misch was the surprise of spring ball, and he enters fall camp solidly entrenched as the starter at strong-side linebacker.
Every indicator indicates that Jon "Samurai" Misch is going to suck and suck hard. He was a two star recruit out of metro Detroit power Orchard Lake St Mary -- no reason he'd be overlooked like a guy from Houghton or Guatemala or something -- who was credited with a 4.7 40 at 195 pounds. That 40 has not improved:
The 6-foot-2 Misch - who gleefully weighed in Tuesday at an all-time high of 207 - runs the 40-yard dash in 4.89 seconds.
He had one other offer: Eastern Michigan. Now he's a starting linebacker at 200 pounds as a redshirt freshman. Not only that, a starting strongside linebacker! If he's not awful I'll eat my hat. Hidden upside: slight but real chance he flips out and gets a bunch of personal fouls for ninja kicking various people in the head.

Starters return at middle and weakside linebacker. Senior MLB Kaleb Thornhill has been pedestrian thus far in his career -- those 68 tackles are a weak number for his position. Add in a distinct lack of playmaking (just 2.5 TFLs and no sacks) and a picture of a heady, hard-nosed football player who just wants to play football he's a warrior comes into focus. Unfortunately, said football player is not good at the football and will struggle to do anything positive in front of the ragdolls at DT.

The other returner is WLB SirDarean Adams, though he was deployed as the "bandit" in JLS's 4-2-5 scheme and may have to get used to some new responsibilities. That remains speculation since no one, especially Adams, could ever figure out exactly what the bandit was supposed to do. The Spartans are either relying on Adams to be their big playmaker in the front seven or demoting him to second-string behind redshirt freshman Eric Gordon, depending on what day of the week it is. Adams has picked up a rep for being a freaky stud freak of an athlete whose on-field irresponsibility drives coaches mad; Gordon was actually a well-reviewed recruit who might have picked up a Michigan offer if he was patient but decided to end his recruitment early. Adams' demotion is universally regarded as just for show, so Gordon will have to wait. If Adams doesn't show up in the right places at the right time he might not wait long.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 2. The most reliably awful secondary this side of Northwestern has actually found a player or two. Safety Otis Wiley (@ right), as mentioned, led the team in tackles by a wide margin as a true sophomore. He also added 6.5 TFL and 10 pass breakups. He appears to be an All Big Ten safety this year. His partners on the Spartan's oft-tested last line of defense were JUCO transfer Nehemiah Warrick and Travis Key. Warrick received a considerable amount of spring hype that didn't translate to the field, where he had a few TFLs and 3 pass breakups in an unremarkable season. Key, a senior, also returns. Last year he split time with Warrick, picking up a sack, 3.5 TFL, and an interception to go with 45 tackles.

While safety is something of a strong point on the Michigan State defense (see also: "great moments in French military history"), corner remains a Keystone Kops operation. Michigan State's secondary managed three interceptions all of last year; two of those depart with Demond Williams, leaving Key's lonely pick as the only one wandering back to a Michigan State sideline this fall. Junior Kendall Davis-Clark and sophomore Ross Weaver are the projected starters. Davis-Clark managed to go all of last year without picking off a pass or even breaking one up; Weaver sat out the year with injury. There is a reason the Spartans finished the year 109th in pass efficiency defense, and these guys are a major part of it. The potential for improvement is here, but Michigan State is firmly ensconced in a I'll-believe-it-when-I-see it era at corner.

Special Teams

Rating: 3. Brett Swenson's successful freshman year might not have erased the terrible memories of whatever that Goss kid's name was -- seriously, folks, keep people named "Goss" away from your athletic programs -- but it was a Rivas-esque turnaround. A year after an epic special teams disaster, Swenson went 15 for 19. He projects as one of the Big Ten's better kickers.

Punter Brandon Fields finally graduates; it's MGoBlog policy not to speculate on unknown punters. Whoever the replacement is will probably not replicate Fields' performance: 19th in gross average at 43.2 yards per kick, helping Michigan State to 23rd in net punting.

The return game was dismal for Michigan State last year. Love, the primary punt returner, averaged under five yards an opportunity. Kickoff return man Demond Williams graduates; he was also awful. Maybe they'll unearth one of those undersized scat types or a JUCO jet engine like Deandra Cobb, but the current projection is below average.


Turnover Margin

The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.

2006Int + Fumb +Sacks +Int -Fumb -Sacks -
-0.08 (70th)8
121.33 (103rd)13
2.33 (81st)

MSU was -1 a year ago and has new systems on both sides of the ball. No conclusions can be drawn here.

Position Switch Starters

Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.

Justin Kershaw moves from defensive end to play undersized defensive tackle because the Spartans are desperate for anyone big enough to play the position. A major red flag for the defensive line. SirDarean Adams is technically no longer a "bandit," but, as mentioned, no one really knows what that was supposed to be anyway.

Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview

Just because.

The first sentence!
Is Michigan State a black hole for talented coaches?
John L Smith crashed and burned, sure, but what he had built was a pretty good Conference USA program, not the Big East power of today. Bobby Williams' only talent was looking like he was about to cry at all times (except when actually crying), and the man before him is Moneybags Nick Saban, who parlayed one good year at MSU into jobs at LSU, the Miami Dolphins, and Alabama. He can now buy large portions of Southeast Asia. One does not make a trend.

Flickr Says...

(and it says it succinctly)

An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

The line is experienced and not devoid of talent. Last year their results were skewed by injuries to key actors. They've got a deep, talented backfield and a quarterback who won't throw games away. But where is the upside on defense? Sure, if true freshman and undersized players everywhere combine to form some sort of Christmas Miracle Voltron it could avoid being totally terrible, but it would still be bad. The offense doesn't have the horsepower to keep up with most of the Big Ten thoroughbreds, but it's possible Michigan State squeezes out an undefeated nonconference schedule. Pitt's no good and if Notre Dame's offense is in disarray they could squeak by the Irish (and win for the sixth straight time at ND -- the one aspect of the MSU program I envy). In conference, though... 3-5 at best. 7-5.

Worst Case

There's no bottom here if the offensive line is weak. Hoyer's a pocket passer, unlike Crazy Legs Stanton, and if he's not protected he will die. If the offensive line also submarines the running game, both sides of the ball could be vastly below average. They'd still probably win three games somewhere along the line. 3-9.

Final Verdict

It's going to be a long, painful year for Michigan State. Dantonio's renowned for being a defensive strategist but he has nothing to work with here save Wiley and maybe a competent player here and there who will emerge as the season progresses. The defensive line projects to be Indiana bad, a 210 pound freshman who runs a 4.9 is the starting strongside linebacker, and there's little hope for competence at cornerback. Forget spinning straw into gold. If Dantonio can take these raw materials and make them merely bad it would be an accomplishment.

Things are brighter offensively. There's a real chance of competence here if Ringer and Gyetvai stay healthy. Hoyer's not likely to tear up defenses across the conference but he is a good bet to be average. Although the wide receivers are questionable they won't be asked to carry the offense like they were in previous years. Michigan State will be able to move the ball against most teams; the highs won't be as high with Dantonio's old school approach but the lows won't be as low, either. Anyone who can consistently stuff Ringer without committing an extra safety will make it very tough on the Spartans, but that won't be many teams outside of the big four. Adequacy is probable.

Still, adequacy opposite incompetence adds up to dismal results.

Probable win
9/8Bowling GreenProbable win
9/22@ Notre DameProbable loss
9/29@ WisconsinAuto-loss
10/20@ Ohio State
10/27@ Iowa
Probable loss
11/10@ PurdueProbable loss
11/17Penn State
Absent:Minnesota, Illinois

Whiffing on Minnesota and Illinois is a tough break; expect lots of tough breaks this year. I expect 2-2 out of conference, 2-6 in it, and a 4-8 year overall, though I'm tempted to consider Michigan State's inherent Michigan State-ness and predict one massive upset that gets them within a game of .500.

But... no. I think Dantonio could be a good hire if he uses his OSU contacts to rip away the B-level Ohio recruits that populate the rosters of Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota and etc etc etc, but he hasn't displayed the sort of tactical moxie that could rescue a team as talent-bereft as this one in three years at Cincinnati.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that you would tell Misch he is gonna suck right to his face. You have to saay it on the internet that he is gonna suck. If you told him he is gonna suck, he'd shove your hat down your throat