Michigan State has flourished thus far during their "make-or-break" month of October. An ugly win over Ohio State led to an impressive victory over Michigan. Then last Saturday night, Spartan fans prayers were answered when Michigan State's Hail Mary pass deflected into the hands of Keith Nichol, who crossed enough of the goal line to convince the replay official that he had scored the winning touchdown over Wisconsin.
To no one's surprise, the Spartans are led on offense by Kirk Cousins, who's completing two-thirds of his passes for 230 yards a game. Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham is averaging almost seven catches for 103 yards each game. Junior running back Edwin Baker hasn't been as dominant as he was last season, rushing for 434 yards and two touchdowns this season. Baker did rush for 167 yards against Michigan. Backup Le'Veon Bell has picked up some of the load, and some people think he should be starting ahead of Baker. In fact, on the final drive, it was Bell who caught that 3rd and 7 pass to keep the game winning drive alive.
Defensively, sophomore linebacker Denicos Allen is worth keeping an eye on this Saturday. This season, he has 11 tackles for loss, including six sacks. All told, the Spartans rank in the top ten in all of the major defensive categories: rushing defense, passing defense, total defense, scoring defense. The Spartans are for real. Another sophomore, middle linebacker Max Bullough is the Spartans leading tackler. And a third sophomore, safety Isaiah Lewis leads the team with four interceptions. Note that I mentioned three sophomores...the Spartans are going to be good on defense for a while.
Michigan State broke through last season to capture a share of the 2010 Big Ten title. The Spartans caught the attention of the college football world by calling for a fake field goal in overtime to beat Notre Dame. Moments after the game ended, head coach Mark Dantonio headed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a mild heart attack, causing him to miss the next two games. Did his physical discomfort influence his decision to end the game at that point? Dantonio denied it, but it did launch the Spartans into prominence. The Spartans rose in the polls, reaching as high as #5 before suffering a blowout loss at Iowa. But with only two BCS berths to share amongst the three co-champions, Michigan State found themselves the odd-team out and went to the Capital One Bowl. But a three-loss Alabama team manhandled the Spartans in a 49-7 loss.
October will be the make or break month for the 2011 Spartans. Michigan State opens the month at Ohio State, where the remaining four of the Tattoo Five will be concluding their suspension. After a bye week, the Spartans face their in-state rival Michigan and then Wisconsin at home before heading to Lincoln to face the Huskers. The winner of this game should get the inside track to be the Big Ten's West Division (no, we will not use those confusing "L" terms here) champion to advance to Indianapolis.
For Michigan State, everything begins with senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who became the first Spartan quarterback to defeat Michigan in back-to-back seasons since the 1960's. But late last season, he got banged up late in the season, and his numbers dropped as a result. He's thrown for 5,815 yards in his career with 41 touchdown and 20 interceptions. He's a prototypical pro-style passer who isn't a threat to run. He also is an impressive leader, as anyone who caught his speech at Big Ten Media Days can attest.
Junior running back Edwin Baker returns after rushing for 1,201 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, earning all-Big Ten honors in the process. At 5'9" and 208 pounds, Baker earned the nickname of "Rock" with his powerful rushing style. He's backed up by elusive junior Larry Caper, who'll see time as a third down back. A hand injury limited him to just 144 yards in 2010, but in 2009, he ran for 468 yards. Sophomore Le'Veon Bell is a thumper at 6'2" and 237 pounds, who accounted for 605 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Spartans like to run the ball to set up Cousins to pass, and last season, the Spartans' running game went AWOL in their losses to Iowa (31 yards rushing) and Alabama (MINUS 48 yards).
The Spartans will need to find a replacement for Mark Dell, last year's leading receiver with 51. Look for redshirt freshman Tony Lippett to push for playing time behind senior receiver Keith Nichol, a former quarterback who started his college career at Oklahoma. Lippett generated some buzz last fall in practice, then impressed in the spring game. Nichol caught 22 passes for 262 yards in an injury-hampered 2010 season. Senior B.J. Cunningham is a big (6'2", 223 lb.) receiver and the Spartans' leading returning receiver, catching 50 passes last season for 611 yards and nine touchdowns. Senior Keshawn Martin is a quick, small receiver (5'11", 185 lbs.) who caught 32 passes for 394 yards and 1 touchdown. In this lineup, I don't see a favorite target for Cousins emerging from this pack, but a decent group of receivers for him to work with.
Only two starters return up front: junior right guard Chris McDonald and senior left guard Joel Foreman. Foreman has started 36 games in his career, earning second team all-Big Ten honors last season. He missed time this offseason recovering from wrist and ankle injuries. To fill some of the holes up front, defensive linemen Dan France and Blake Treadwell switched to the offense. This is a group that will need to answer a lot of questions before Jared Crick and Cameron Meredith have a chance to go trick-or-treating in the Spartans' backfield in October.
Three starters return up front on the Spartans' defensive line, and with seven of the top eight returning this season, some reserves switched to the offensive line to fill holes there. Junior tackle Jerel Worthy was a freshman all-American in 2009, and seems headed to be a first round NFL draft pick after this season. Sophomore defensive end William Gholston (brother of former Ohio State star Vernon) should move into the starting lineup. The Spartans were fairly stout against the run (Alabama's production in the Capital One Bowl being the exception), and this year, they should be even stronger up front.
The situation is reversed at linebacker, where the Spartans need to replace all-American Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, a second team all-Big Ten selection last season. Junior Chris Norman totaled 59 tackles last season, which is second amongst returning Spartans. Look for sophomore Max Bullough to take over in the middle; at 6'3" and 240 pounds, he had 23 tackles last season as a true freshman. Look for the Spartans to use 5' 10" sophomore Denicos Allen as a "star" linebacker, which should be similar to Eric Hagg's "Peso" role.
In the secondary, watch out for junior cornerback Johnny Adams, who will be the Spartans best pass defender. He's a solid defender who doesn't make mistakes. Senior free safety Trenton Robinson is the Spartans' leading returning tackler and a steady presence in the secondary. Sophomore Darqueze Dennard was a spot starter at cornerback last season until a knee injury cut his season short. And there is some speculation that Tony Lippett may play both ways and take some snaps at cornerback as well.
The matchup between the Huskers and Spartans looks like it'll come down to the battle in the trenches. Michigan State's offensive line has quite a few questions that'll need to be answered in September. Otherwise, the Spartans likely won't match up well against the Blackshirts, who love to destroy pro-style quarterbacks who aren't a threat to run. But likewise, Nebraska's offensive line needs to handle a stout Spartan defensive front, as there may be some yards to be found at the next level... if the Huskers can get there.
Michigan State's 11-2 record was impressive, but perhaps misleading. They won three close games and were remarkably healthy, with starters only missing 7 games last season. With all five road games against bowl teams, the Spartans could be a better team but finish with a worse record.