"Rodrick Williams Jr.'s 10-month old, 2-foot-long savannah monitor named "Kill" gets the RB some strange looks when they go for walks together."
Disclaimer: My previews of Big 10 teams are based on viewing of 2014 games of said teams plus extensive reading of local and national previews of that team. I might be wrong in my assessment any one team or any specific unit of that team. But that's clearly doubtful. (!!) No, on a serious note I enjoy people who comment who live locally to these teams or is an opposing fan - helps us get a better perspective so if you are one feel free to add to the discussion.
I also write this with the assumption Jake Rudock is the starting QB as the matrix of possibilities is too great trying to predict things with Shane Morris as a start.
Michigan State has enjoyed football success of late not seen since the early to mid 1960s. While the downfall of PSU and UM in that time has contributed, a slow buildup of a program has taken place under Scowl Dantonio independent of other teams issues, cresting with back to back 11+ win seasons and 2 major bowl victories. In many ways as we enter 2015 there has been a major role reversal in the Michigan and Michigan State programs... MSU brings a very experienced, highly ranked, talented team bursting with NFL draft picks while Michigan is a scrappy underdog program trying to find it's way. This was very much the pattern in reverse for decades. With an astouding 21 fifth year seniors on the roster (UM had 1 in Desmond Morgan until Rudock and Lyons showed up), a schedule that only has them leaving the state of Michigan once until November, a senior NFL calibar QB and a lot of strength in the trenches, I don't see 2015 as being the year Sparty takes a major step back. 2016 could be a different story. And no I have not been in the chorus of "just wait until next year, MSU can't keep this up" for the past 4 years.... but 2016 poses a lot of serious challenges namely the extremely well developed 2010 and 2011 classes fade away, a new QB must be broken in and most of MSU's very talented front 7 on defense disappears, along with their 2 best OL. But that's a 2016 problem - we still have to get through 2015.
The past two years Michigan State has had a great run of almost no key injuries (usually it's something like a 4th LB who gets hurt...one can speculate on why such a run of "good fortune"), and beating all the teams they should rather than getting upset as is the norm once or twice a year in most programs. Sparty No! has been replaced with an immense resiliency which is annoying to watch as an opposing fan.
"Sparty, No!" is dead. Seven years of sadness have been swallowed up by eight years of growth. Sure, there have still been disappointments, but from a quality standpoint, the job Dantonio has done has been stunning. He inherited a team that had ranked 75th in the F/+ rankings in 2006 and engineered the following run: 26th, 32nd, 31st, 31st, 14th, 20th, 12th, 11th
Dantonio's staff develops players well and he has a key eye for coaching talent. DC Narduzzi has gone on to Pitt but in his place are 2 guys who have been with Dantonio for over a decade so I don't expect much to change - the main place you might miss Narduzzi is in "in game" motivation.
MSU has built IMO a perfect defense for the QB challenged Big 10 - they play "break don't bend" and devote a ton of resources to stopping the run, which is now top ranked almost every year. They challenge the QB to make throws down the field - if you can do it, you can exploit them all day. (Baylor, Oregon, OSU) But if you don't have a QB who can throw a quality 18 yard out pattern repeatedly 15x a game to find the seams in the defense (which most Big 10 teams seem to lack) you are SOL. This defense style would be exposed a lot more in the Pac 12, Big 12, and SEC - where QB play is far superior to the Big 10 - but again perfect for the Big 10 and ACC where a lot of run based offenses with mediocre QBs reside.
Obviously finding Cook - who in the first few games of 2013 looked like a bottom end MAC QB - was a boon, and lost in the focus on the top flight defense has been the development of the OL the past 2 years. What was once MSU's worst unit annually in the first 2/3rds of Dantonio's era has been IMO the hidden success story of MSU football in 2013, 2014. Cook rarely gets sacked or hurried and as Hackenberg and Gardner know - that is a luxury in the NCAA game and let's you develop confidence and avoid mistakes. MSU did lose some skilled position talent to graduation (and a top notch corner) but has potentially 3 first round draft picks on their team, plus a bevy of later round picks including All American center Jack Allen. Both lines in 2015 could be among the nation's best so if you believe football is won in the trenches (and with a stable solid QB) you have to like the chances of MSU as a football team, even with some holes on their roster. Unided they stand.
MSU had a funny year - they beat almost no one of note in the regular season yet were contending for a playoff spot until OSU came into their house and ransacked it. As their Cotton Bowl ring showed their best regular season win was over a lost at sea Brady Hoke coached 5-7 disaster. Even throwing that game out their next "best" win was by 5 pts over a Nebraska team that lost by 400 to Wisconsin and was an Ameer Abdullah last second run away from being upset by FCS McNeese State... at home. Those were their 2 huge regular season wins.
The S&P+ rank for MSU's defense was a now normal for them #9 . The FEI suffered with a #40 rank, this was mostly due to the amount of big plays MSU gave up in the secondary last year. I call their style "break don't bend". You have to beat MSU mostly with big plays - it is very very difficult to put together a 12 play, 78 drive together against them. To that end MSU scored very well in all FEI measures expect "Explosive Drives - the percentage of each opponent offense's drives that average at least 10 yards per play.", where they ranked 87th. Contrast that to their "Methodical Drives - the percentage of each opponent offense's drives that run 10 or more plays." rank which was #1 in the country. Again it is very difficult to put a long sustainted drive up on this defense. Break, don't bend - you either get a 30-40 yard gain on MSU leading to a short drive, or your offense is stuffed in short order.
On a small tangent, MSU has avoided losses that plague most top 10 teams the past few years for a specific reason IMO. Most teams get upset when their offense has an off day and an opposing offense has the firepower to have a big day. Meanwhile MSU has rode a stellar 2013 and very good, not great 2014 defense to a series of wins over offensively challenged Big 10 teams. So when their offense has an off day the opposing offense cannot take advantage of it. A middle tier team in the Pac 12 can put 40 on you any day i.e. Cal or Arizona or USC ... so can middle tier Big 12s West Virginia, Texas Tech, or Oklahoma State. In the Big 10 the equivalents are Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, or Northwestern - not the stuff to make a defensive coordinator shake. So even days MSU offense is down the lack of ability of opposing offenses (and MSU's very good run stuff defense and lack of turnovers) makes it difficult to upset them. It's a powerful cocktail - you have to go back to 2010 and the big fart at Iowa to find the last real upset of a good MSU team by a team with inferior talent - that's impressive...unfortunately. (2012 MSU was not a good team and yes they got waxed by 2011 Nebraska and Notre Dame but those teams had as much or more talent than MSU)
After a play it safe offense in 2013 while MSU searched for a new QB and new RB, the training wheels came off in 2014 as the offense exploded to rank FEI 14th, S&P+ 10th. Along with OSU this was one of the 2 legit balanced offenses in the league. Wisconsin's 1 dimensional attack being the only other that really ranked in the top 40.
The strength of Michigan State's offense was its explosiveness. Lippett and Keith Mumphery combined to average 18.6 yards per catch, and primary running backs Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill combined to show jets in the open field, each averaging at least 5.5 yards per carry. Despite a slow tempo, the Spartans ranked 18th in the country with 75 gains of 20-plus yards.
Looking at the NCAA stats which look at nothing but total yards given up and gained to rank units, MSU's offense was 11th, and defense 8th.
What else was MSU good at?
- Rushing defense - #1 in the country
- Rushing offense - #19
- Scoring offense - #7
- Turnover margin - #2
- Kickoff returns - #15
- Team sacks - #8
- Sacks allowed - #4
- Tackles for loss allowed - #4
- Time of possession - #1
Unfortunately this is a very sound way to win a lot of football games. All 3 units contributed and in many ways it was a more explosive version of Tressel ball. Keep the ball (TOP #1 in the country), win the turnover battle (#2 in the country), dominate the lines (#8 in sacks and #4 in sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed), and take away 1 thing from opposing offenses (the run game). MSU rarely went backwards on any offensive play setting up easier 2nd downs. They dictated that you had to pass to beat them. Teams that could, did (or came close to it). But that was a minority of teams on their schedule.
The statistical weakness were few:
- Punt returns - #101
- Kickoff return defense - #95
- Punt return defense - #107
- Net punting - #98
- Passing yards allowed - #60
So aside from the passing defense, their main weaknesses were in the return game - both defending it and generating yards from it.
Individually the offense was led by good players at all the skill positions (Cook, Langford, Lippett) a top 30 ranked OL which was excellent in pass protect, with a quite good TE (Price) to boot. MSU could attack you in many ways, held the ball for long drives when needed, but could be explosive at other times, and didn't turn the ball over much at all.
The defense was the defense - a ferocious run stopping defense that creates lots of turnovers but could be exploited through the air if you had a valid QB. It dominated average to poor offenses and suffered vs elite offenses (the same offenses that would make any defense in the country suffer).
Oregon, Ohio State, and Baylor, three top-10 offenses, combined to average 7.9 yards per play and 45.3 points against the Spartans. Everybody else averaged only 4.1 and 14.4, respectively.
The loss of Dennard hurt at one corner and the general safety play took a step back from 2013's levels despite returning 2 veterans in Drummond / RJ Williamson and adding talented freshman Montae Nicholson. While the corners get all the attention by the media, from this set of eyes the real stress in that defense is the safeties. One is usually deep up in the box to contribute to run stuffing so these guys really must be assignment sound and able to read the game. When they screw up it's very apparent to the whole world because the scheme doesn't protect them. But it usually doesn't get to that vs 80% of MSU Big 10 opponents for reasons outlined earlier in this piece.
The kicking game was an adventure as Michael Geiger had a sophomore slump hitting only 14 of 22 kicks after going 15 of 16 as a freshman. Goofball (and Faux Pelini foe) Mike Sadler is gone from the punting game.
MSU had 4 candidates to leave to the league early post 2014 in QB Cook, OT Conklin (Kiper gave him a borderline 1st/2nd round grade), CB Waynes, and DE Calhoun. All but Waynes returned boosting MSU's prospects for 2015, boosting returning starters to 13ish (6 offense, 7 defense). Cook and Calhoun are part of a massive group of 21 fifth year seniors - a benefit to a program that redshirts nearly all but 2-3 players a class. This might change go forward as MSU's recruiting classes tick up and higher ceiling players enter the program but for now that is the system.
While most will point to road games vs OSU, Nebraska, Michigan and a home game vs Oregon to call MSU's schedule "tough" it is really not too bad at all. In fact they only leave the state of Michigan once until November - almost unheard of. That is due to a road game at Western and a road game in Ann Arbor. The crossovers are Purdue and Tommy Armstrong Jr led (and Abdullah/Gregory less) Nebraska - nothing too daunting. MSU will most likely be favored in all but 1 game this year - hard to call that daunting.
Western Michigan may catch the Spartans by surprise in game 1 as its in their stadium, they actually have a legit QB (something MSU rarely has faced the past 2 years), and a bad ass WR, and MSU may be peeking ahead to Oregon. That said, while I expect WMU to score (maybe in mid 20s) MSU should dominate the trenches in that game and their offense should roll over Western's D. Feels like a 42-24 type of game. A top 10 matchup with Mariotta less Oregon at home is game 2 - the trick here is will FCS transfer Vernon Adams be ready to play and will 3 weeks of camp be enough to have him ready to run Oregon's complex and fast paced offense. He is a talent for sure and MSU's secondary questions will be significant in this game if Oregon gets the right QB to exploit it. After that MSU has an easy month with Air Force (which only runs i.e. exactly what MSU is built to stop), CMU (a storied rival for MSU!!), Purdue, and Rutgers. Purdue was actually the only team to stress MSU's D much in Big 10 play last year (ex OSU) as their young QB Appleby was able to complete passes of >10 yards repeatedly (drawing oohs and aahs across the Big 10) and Purdue mimicked Oregon's playbook....without Oregon's speed. Starting Oct 17th the gauntlet finally ratchets up as trips to Ann Arbor, Lincoln, and Columbus beckon as does a visit from what could be a 8-10 win PSU. Maryland and Indiana will provide nice snacks in between.
MSU should have a top 5 defensive line nationally, and a top 10ish offensive line once again very good in pass protect especially. These units match up well with most any team in the nation - the question will be the development of the skill positions ex QB/TE on offense and the development of the secondary, especially corners on defense.
While their top 2 running backs left (Langford, Hill) when you have a good OL you can generally plug in a borderline NFL talent and do very well - UM did that for 4 decades. The WRs look to be more balanced this year as Lippett is gone but a lot of players with experience return. Josiah Price is a very good TE in Jake Butt's mold. Barring injury to Cook this looks to be another very good offense, anchored by the OL and QB with a young core of running backs and experienced set of WRs.
On defense the DL could be elite if former 5 star Lawrence Thomas builds on his last 3-4 games last year when the light bulb seemed to finally turn on. After being position switched all over the field Thomas was bulked up to be a DT in 2014 and now is being pushed out wide to replace the very reliable and underrated Marcus Rush. With Calhoun back, and Malik McDowell ready to take a sophmore jump after a quite good freshman campaign, and loads of depth at DT, the DL is stacked. LBs also are a veteran group - essentially the front 7 is (a) yet another Bullough @ MLB, (b) McDowell and (c) five 5th year seniors. The questions are all in the secondary as RJ Williamson looks to rebound from a meh year, Nicholson looks to make a jump after a very good freshman year, and MSU looks for answers at the corners. Of course Dantonio is a CB guru.
With special teams MSU obviously will be looking to improve in all facets - this was their main weakness in 2014. Geiger will need to rebound and Sadler replaced. MSU did bring in the country's #1 ranked punter, Jake Hartbarger.
Let's be clear - lots of production was lost with Lippett and Langford last year. Both players sort of came out of nowhere (an annoying theme with MSU). Lippett was a drop happy corner/wide receiver his first few years and then exploded as 2014 launched for 1200 yards. Langford was another position switch guy who was behind Riley Bullough of all people to begin 2013 at RB. He then took the reigns for a very productive 2 year reign including 1500 yards last year.
That said MSU has usually had a very stout running game in the Dantonio era with any # of backs. The gun branding one (Williams) is back off suspension and the MSU fanbase is high on a # of untested prospects like Madre London. MSU also plucked the #4 RB in the country out of Ohio in 2015 in Larry Scott. Expect more of a committee approach in 2015 at this position.
While Lippett (and Mumphrey are gone) there are a second tier of WRs such as Kings ("he's a playmaker!"), Burbridge, and Shelton. No matter how hard Kings tries to get kicked off the team Dantonio won't let him - he is a playmaker who gets the most YAC and is the 1 guy who actually seems a threat on an otherwise crappy punt return team. Burbridge has been an underachiever relative to his recruiting status but is generally "Darboh like". Shelton is a slot guy who seems to run 3 end arounds a game. There are other names like Troup and Madaris who will creep into the 2 deep and maybe some contribution will come from a true freshman - there are a lot of options there. Heck, even DeAnthony Arnett may get into the show this year after a surprise redshirt year in 2014. And Josiah Price (26 catches, 382 yards) is a very very good TE.
Throwing to all these guys is Connor Cook who many on the blog still seem to be in disbelief is not a 6th round draft choice. Its almost impossible to forecast Cook's ability at the NFL level since he has been protected in a very warm cocoon due to that OL for 2 years straight. Which won't happen in the NFL. When pressured he seems to do dumb thing but pressure rarely gets to him and really what he does in the NFL doesnt mean a damn thing for the 2015 NCAA season. He is not a high % completion guy (59%) but he has a big arm, throws very well on the move (IMO better than when in the pocket and his feet jiggle), and has no memory. He can throw 3 really stupid passes in a row and then throw 4 rockets 30 yards down the field. He seems to actually struggle more on the 7 yard swing pass than a 22 yard out pattern. He also has an amazing ability to have 90% of his INTs dropped the past 2 years... a very valuable commodity for a QB. Hence only 8 INTs last year despite 365 attempts. He is a big kid and mobile enough to cause you to at least respect the run - ask Delano Hill.
Not much proven behind Cook if an injury arises. Tyler O'Connor has not impressed me much in limited time on the field, while if you only took scrimmage stats of Damien Terry (which MSU loves to release) at face value he's the next Steve Young + Donovan McNabb + Russell Wilson in one. Reality would point to something less than that. Many expected one of these 2 QBs to get specific packages created for them last year when in reality Cook played just about the whole year except for massive blowouts early.
Anchoring this offense is possibly the best OL in Dantonio's era. A multiple All American center in Jack Allen, a potential first round tackle in 0 star Jack Conklin (who handled Bosa and Gregory - both 1st round picks incredibly well last year), along with 3 other dudes. One of those dudes is Jack's younger brother Brian who like Mason Cole for UM played - and played as well as you can ask for a true freshman. Another guy is Donavon Clark who has 19 starts. Kodi Kieler and his 7 starts seems likely to be the 5th guy. While 2 OL peeps from last year graduated, MSU generally doesnt just stick with 5 guys on the OL but rotates in 7-8 for depth purposes. So when 1 graduates they dont start from scratch with a new one. Obviously losing either Allen or Conklin to injury would be a big issue however.
MSU's defense lost one of its stars in CB Trae Waynes. DE Marcus Ruch was a warrior and played all 4 years, a very unheralded player IMO. S Drummond probably should have left for the NFL a year earlier - his stock was super high post 2013 Rose Bowl; last year he was exposed and fell from a projected 2nd/3rd rounder to an UDFA. Less big of a loss was MLB Taiwan Jones who is being replaced by the 185th Bullough brother.
Tangent warning: In a few generations I expect the entire MSU team to be Allens and Bulloughs. Riley is the 2nd to last Bullough in this generation and after his brother finishes off in a few years we'll be done with Bulloughs for 15 years or until this generation's kids are ready to enter MSU. Hopefully whatever Max was doing at MSU to get suspended doesn't hurt his ability to produce kids. (ohhhh low blow - had to throw one in, it's Sparty!)
Back to your regularly scheduled non snark: It's a tale of 2 defenses - the front 7 should be great, with tons of experience mixed with very talented youngsters while the back 4 is questionable.
Up front you have 5th year senior Calhoun at one DE, with 5th year senior Lawrence Thomas flashing out from DT to the other DE. No different then we are asking of Wormley potentially. Backup DE Demetrious Cooper has seemingly been the "next big thing" for 2 years now according to the hype. Inside you have McDowell who had a ton of playing time - he was undisciplined at times but you could see playmaking ability as well and any 18 year old playing in that pile of havoc impresses me. The other DT is going to be one of two 5th year seniors, Joel Heath or Damon Knox. Behind them are 5th year senior Ed Davis, and 5th year senior Darrien Harris bookmarking junior Riley Bullough. I guess we cannot assume Bullough will just be a machine at MLB but he too started flashing very good playmaking ability in the final few MSU games I watched last year.
The safeties should be ok with an extremely athletic and talented Montae Nicholson (who somehow Hoke stopped recruiting) making a freshman to sophmore jump (where talented players often surge), and RJ Williamson is solid if not spectacular. The corners are big question marks... MSU resorted to making Lippett a 2 way player late last year when sophomore Darian Hicks was destroyed by OSU and was sent to the bench. Hicks was in the mix for 1 spot this year but seems to be hit by mono so I wouldnt expect him to be back until late in the year with the associated weight loss, lack of reps. Heralded recruit Demetrious Cox - who was a S earlier in his MSU days - moves over to 1 corner, and any # of dudes from seniors to freshmen seem in play for the other corner. Senior Arjen Colquhoun and sophomore Vayante Copeland seem to be the clubhouse favorites to start.
This feels a lot like a carbon copy of the 2014 defense - it will be prone to exploitation through the air and ridiculously hard to run on. So you need a good QB to unlock it. Full stop. Maybe the holes in the secondary will be larger than in 2014 however as Waynes basically locked down half the field when not playing Baylor. But the pash rush could be even better than 2014's version as well.
Editor's note - somehow I've disrespected Mark Dantonio, MSU football, Spartan nation, and the entire cast of 300 with this preview. It shall forever be a chip on MSU's shoulder and go onto bulletin boards throughout East Lansing. I don't apologize.
(take these matchups with more of a grain of salt than usual because once you get past the month of September teams grow and evolve - well at least well coached teams.)
***Due to torches and pitchforks headed my way if I do the normal matchups and say Michigan might be at a disadvantage anywhere, I will let the viewers discuss the matchups in comments section. So I leave you with this:
UM rush off v MSU rush def - Adv: Harbaugh.
UM pass off v MSU pass def - Adv: Harbaugh.
MSU rush off v UM rush def - Adv: Harbaugh.
MSU pass off v UM pass def - Adv: Harbaugh.
A 3 sentence article, so no need to click the link.
Vegas has the over/under on wins at 7.5 (not too surprising), and has us as 3.5 point dogs to MSU. The Harbaugh effect is in full force, considering they beat us by 24 last year.
Looks like MSU's class jumped up in the rankings due to a couple recent commitments.
OSU is ranked #1 or #2 nationally, depending on the service, and we're rated 22, 25, and 29.
EDIT: Link to the stats. I could have sworn I posted it when I made the thread.
Seeing as it's that game week against our in-state (#2 overall) rival with an inferiority complex I thought I'd re-post a diary of mine from last year discussing our history of "Non-Alum Friends of the University" as Yost called you.
Remember, non-alums built Michigan Stadium while sparty needed direct state support. And no matter where you went to school, your support of Michigan doesn't go unnoticed. There are quite a few life things that can prevent people from attending their "fan" university, doesn't mean you can't support it. You can also remind them that we've won 6 of the last 9 in "their" sport.
Go Blue. Beat State
In case you're a barbarian and don't have a dvr, and missed most of the game, such as myself.
Wishes he tweeted message to all student athletes.
Lets all laugh at Sparty some more.