Friday, September 22, 2006

This is Why They Play the Games | by Jay

I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen tomorrow night, and it really doesn't have much to do with the weather (forecasted thunderstorms, all night long). Not only is our own Irish team an unmitigated enigma, but outside of two scrimmage games, the 3-0 Spartans have really only played one semi-worthy opponent, beating a 2-1 Pittsburgh (who in turn beat Virginia, who was also crushed by GT last night; and Cincinnati, 1-2, lone win against E. Kentucky). The Spartan '06 resume is relatively blank at this point. Michigan State is a tough team with good players, but we really don't know how good or how tough. Much like last year: how could the team we saw in ND stadium end up going 5-6? Although this year MSU is averaging 39.9 points per game, you have to wonder, are those muscles for real, Sparty?

In our positional preview, the Spartans graded out third among opponents in across-the-board talent, behind Michigan and Southern Cal, and just ahead of Georgia Tech. You can familiarize yourself with the starters here.

We all know about Drew Stanton. Against Pitt, he threw for 198 yards and ran for another 112. Javon Ringer chipped in another 166 yards (on 15 carries) and all told, the Spartans racked up 335 yards on the ground and 533 yards overall. In that game, they tried to pass some in the first quarter, ran into some trouble (punt/punt/interception), then switched gears and just decided to grind it out against Pitt's smallish defensive line, going on a run of 38 unanswered points. As SpartanBlog put it:

All in all it was a solid effort by Michigan State, who played as well over the the final three quarters as they played poorly during the first. And credit has to go to the coaching staff for making adjustments on both sides of the ball which allowed the Spartans to take advantage of their size and strength and grind down the undersized Pitt offensive and defensive lines.
Here is a highlight reel of the Pitt game. (And if you're interested, here are some more Sparty highlight reels against E. Michigan and Idaho.)

Five Questions We'll Have the Answers To Come Tomorrow Night

1. So we've got Stanton, who's probably the best QB on our slate this year, and ol' crazylegs has some wheels. Will we try to contain him and force him to throw, or will we try and get pressure up the middle (something we could be able to do against the interior Spartan linemen) and flush him from the pocket? Unlike Reggie Ball, Stanton has shown tremendous ability to throw on the run. One advantage we have this year in preparing for him is the speedy QB Demetrius Jones running the scout offense this week.

2. Depending on the answer to (1), will we play mostly nickel against Michigan State to counter Stanton's arm and the fleet of Spartan receivers, or do we need to stay in a 4-3 to ward against Ringer and the running game? Last year, we played almost exclusively 4-3 against the Spartans (out of personnel limitations), and didn't defend the run (161, 4.47/ypc) nor the pass (327 yards) very well.

3. On offense, we've harped on the inept Irish ground attack thus far. Should the Irish try to establish a running game against the Spartan front 7? The defensive line is relatively inexperienced, but the linebackers are huge (MLB Thornhill: 240lb, OLB Herron: 245lb). Or should we come right out and start picking on the weak link of the Spartan defense, the cornerbacks? (Cooper is a converted free safety, and while Williams is a returning starter, he pretty much stunk it up last year.)

4. A micro-level question for our offensive line: will we see a change in blocking schemes and protection help come tomorrow night? Let's hope so. We've seen a number of times where Morton and/or Carlson slide over to help Sam Young, but Young's actually been fairly solid in holding his own. Given the exposure in the interior of the line against Michigan, is it time to mix things up?

5. Finally, how is the team coping after the Michigan meltdown? Did we go in the tank, or will we rebound? Charlie alluded to (or are we inferring?) the team's attitude post-UM in his presser yesterday:
Well, we went out in full pads every day this week...I wanted to make sure the pace of the practice on Thursday was up. And the pace of the practice was up, and I feel a little bit better this week than I did last Thursday.

There are no signs of people just going out there and going through the motions. There is no evidence of that, and trust me, I’ve been looking for it all week; because if there had been evidence of that, there would have been repercussions.
This team had more hype and more preseason attention than just about any Irish squad in recent memory, and that over-inflated balloon was rudely popped by the Wolverines. Not to get all Freud on you, but it seems to me this team can go one of two ways: they can curl up in a ball and write off the season, or they can process the beatdown, and use it as a springboard. We'll find out which direction they're heading tomorrow night.

The Nice Department

• A couple of good sidebars on the '66 game from the MSU official site, here and here.

• We've linked this before, but here's a great page on the '66 game.

• A bunch of links on the MSU preview page, including player interviews and the post-practice session with c-dub. Be sure to check out the video retrospective on the '66 game -- it's terrific.

• East Lansing PD is girding itself for the post-game revelry. (Seen here in all its glory.) On my two roadies to State while in school, Lansing seemed pretty sleepy. We never had as much of a problem with chippy fans or the fuzz as we did in say, Ann Arbor (I'm still trying to get the tear gas out of my eyes from the night before the '91 game). Looks like the sparty students have stepped it up lately. Irish roadtrippers, be sure to bring your officially-licensed Notre Dame Brick and join in the post-game fun.