Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Enemy of My Enemy | by Kevin

After a longer-than-anticipated hiatus from fall opposition previews (see the links for entries on Nevada and Michigan), I am moving forward with a familiar, frustrating foe.

If Michigan State were the fat bearded guy from "Lost," the hatch code would read "Notre Dame." That's a confusing way of saying MSU has our number. Davie never beat them. Ty did OK, with the help of Bobby Williams and a spectacular last-second play from Arnaz Battle. The Weis Era has been closer to Davie's in this respect. In 2005, the Spartans jumped out to an early lead, relinquished it, then kicked off a flag-planting ceremony with an overtime victory. 2006 looked to be more of the same, but a Terrail Lambert pick-six led to an Irish victory (and ended all speculation as to John L. Smith's sanity). Coach Mark Dantonio's 2007 and 2008 teams have easily handled ND, winning 31-14 and 23-7.

Though late losses to Penn State and Georgia took some of the gloss off a successful 2008 season, the Spartans finished with a top-25 ranking for the first time since the 1999 season. After losing their starting quarterback and an All-American-caliber tailback, where should the Spartans stand in 2009?

The battle to replace the moderately successful Brian Hoyer (he had 33 touchdowns and 23 interceptions as a starter and led State to back-to-back bowl appearances) features Sophomores Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins. Both are west Michigan products (Nichol went to Lowell; Cousins to Holland Christian). Nichol started at Oklahoma, but transferred after one season, losing the starting job to He Who Defeated God Himself for the Heisman Trophy. Nichol is bigger (about 6'2", 215 lbs) and was the higher-rated recruit; Cousins has more experience in the MSU offense after serving as Hoyer's backup last year. At the end of spring practice, Michigan State coaches had still not committed to either -- or even the idea that one or the other would exclusively hold the job.

Either quarterback should benefit from more reliable receiver play. Blair White returns from a 43-reception, 659-yard campaign in 2008, as does Mark Dell, who had over 200 receiving yards against Cal before battling injuries.

Commenter and MSU fan witless chum correctly pointed out that I forgot about the Tight Ends. Here is his take on State's TEs: "The one thing you don't mention that's a big strength is TE. Charlie Gantt played very well last year and Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum looks very good. Garrett Celek is a good backup (whose brother played for Dantonio at Cincy and plays for Philly, now) and true freshman Dion Sims is supposed to be a physical freak."

Few teams this year must replace an offensive player as prolific as Javon Ringer. I liked Ringer as much as any opposing player (NB: because Moss was kicked out of Florida State before the 1996 Orange Bowl, he does not count here). At 5'9" and 200 pounds, logic would not predict a "workhorse" label for Ringer. But Ringer played each game like he just found out his girlfriend cheated on him. In 2008, he ran for 201 yards against Notre Dame, then 198 against Indiana the following week. A more enjoyable performance was the 194 yards and 2 touchdowns he tallied against Michigan. For the season, Ringer finished with 1,637 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. Despite questions about his size, he was drafted in the 5th round by the Tennessee Titans. I think they might enjoy this anti-LenDale.

In his place, Michigan State may turn to a pair of incoming recruits, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper, who were part of a recent surge in blue-chippers coming to East Lansing. listed Baker with dimensions similar to Ringer's (5'10", 204 pounds), yet with 4.40 speed. Even adjusting for the typical self-reporting hyperbole, Baker sounds like a back who could do some damage in Dantonio's power running system. Caper sounds similarly dangerous, at 5'10", 215, with a 4.41 40. Freshman running backs have found instant success at other programs in the past -- Jahvid Best, Jacquizz Rodgers, CJ Spiller, and Brandon Minor are part of a long recent list -- and Michigan State's commitment to the running game could provide a springboard for these two talented prospects.

For that to happen, MSU will need improved offensive line play. Last season, even with Ringer on board, Michigan State ran for only 130 yards per game. They must replace their starting right tackle and right guard. Left guard Joel Foreman returns after a Freshman All-American performance in 2008, as does Senior center Joel Nitchman the reliable Senior left tackle Rocco Cironi. The improvement of this group should dictate Michigan State's success or failure this season.

Dantonio, who coached under Nick Saban for five seasons and served as Ohio State's defensive coordinator for three years, should be expected to field an impressive defensive unit. The Spartans have yielded 21 points to Notre Dame in two seasons, and this year's maturing defense should temper some of last season's inconsistency (they surrendered 38 points to Cal, 45 to OSU, and 49 to Penn State).

Returning to the Michigan State defense this season are tackle Oren Wilson, defensive end Trevor Anderson, and linebackers Eric Gordon and Greg Jones. Highly recruited Freshman Chris Norman will battle Senior Brandon Denson for playing time at outside linebacker. Middle linebacker Jones is the star of this defense; with 78 tackles in 2008, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Here's a shocker: he played one of his best games of 2008 (nine tackles, one for a loss) against Notre Dame.

MSU's secondary is deep and experienced. Nine players -- corners Ross Weaver, Jeremy Ware, Chris Rucker, and Johnny Adams; and safeties Kendell Davis-Clark, Marcus Hyde, Dan Fortener, Trenton Robinson, and Ashton Henderson -- have game experience for the Spartans. Weaver, Rucker, and Fortener are returning starters.

On special teams, Michigan State will again be solid. Brett Swenson returns at kicker, and Aaron Bates is back at punter.

Some experts predict a big season for Michigan State. Phil Steele calls this Dantonio's "best team yet." Athlon slots the Spartans at 20th in their preseason ranking, while Lindy's Magazine predicts another top-25 finish (24th). And includes Michigan State as one of its teams on the cusp of the top 25. State will need reliable quarterback play from the new starter and instant production from Ringer's Freshman replacement, but a solid defense could make their early games -- including against Notre Dame -- interesting. I am encouraged by the early season placement of this game, which should work in ND's favor.

Of course, the one factor that seems to play the biggest role in the Michigan State series cannot be properly analyzed in this space. Put simply, Michigan State has been the tougher, hungrier team, and that's why they've beaten Notre Dame. I like Michigan State. Michigan State is a good program, with a promising young coach, and they hate Michigan as much as we do. But it's time to stop losing to them. This should be a good opportunity to turn the tide.