In the not too distant future “SOS” referred to the Jeckyl and Hyde team in East Lansing known for fast starts, highly entertaining games with Northwestern and a late-season swoon highlighted with brutal losses en route to a 5-7 just-short-of-a-bowl-trip season. Since Mark Dantonio’s arrival in 2007 the vibe and results are different. The Spartans are coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons – the only time that’s happened in program history – and have higher expectations this year. Not since the late 1980s has so much been expected out of the Spartans. Excitement is at a fever pitch in East Lansing. One question remains: Can Michigan State live up to the hype? Here are the props to track for the Spartans which, more than likely, will play a major role in the Spartans playing in a BCS Bowl or sputtering to a less exotic winter destination.
Michigan State wins: Over/Under 8.5
This is one of those numbers that, without analyzing it, seems like an error. The Spartans are, of course, ranked No. 13 in both the Associated Press Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll which points to more than an 8-4 season. Therefore, it would seem natural to play the over and expect to fill the piggy bank in January. As Lee Corso loves to say, Not so fast, my friend. This isn’t to say Michigan State won’t win nine or more games, just that it isn’t a shoe-in like you might think.
Gone are the following skill players from last year’s team: QB Kirk Cousins (4th round draft pick – Washington), RB Edwin Baker (7thround draft pick – San Diego), WR B.J. Cunningham (6th round draft pick – Miami), WR Keshawn Martin (4th round draft pick – Houston), WR Keith Nichol and TE Garrett Celek. Those are a lot of weapons and experience that can’t be replaced by simply plugging in last year’s backups.
What people do forget is new quarterback Andrew Maxwell was a 4-star recruit in 2009 and the 9th-ranked high school quarterback that season. Those same people also forget that while Baker came into last season as the lead back (as well as touting his goal of rushing for 2,000 yards), Le’Veon Bell quickly replaced him as the more reliable and feature back. That duo doesn’t make up for what seems like the loss of the entire first-team offense, but it’ll help.
The defense, even with the loss of DT Jerel Worthy, is expected to be filthy. And, as the motto goes, offenses win games but defenses win championships. That is why, even with so many question marks on the offensive side of the ball, the expectations of another Big Ten Championship Game berth are still in the air.
The schedule, due to the Big Ten’s top-to-bottom quality, is anything but a cakewalk. The primetime, Friday night opener against Boise State is the toughest opener for the Spartans since Nebraska came to Spartan Stadium in 1995. (That game, if you’re curious, was a 50-10 Cornhusker victory). Even Week 2 against Central Michigan will be tougher than normal because Michigan State is traveling to Mount Pleasant to face the Chippewas. While MSU should win it wasn’t that long ago that Central Michigan beat MSU in East Lansing. A night game in Week 3 against Notre Dame should be another classic Spartan-Irish battle. That’s three weeks and three could-go-either-way nonconference games for the Spartans.
The Big Ten slate has some soft spots (an early October game at Indiana and the conference finale at Minnesota) but everything else has a toss-up feel. The Spartans host Ohio State in the Big Ten opener on Sept. 29 as well as Iowa on Oct. 13 (the Indiana game is sandwiched in between). From there things get dicey and this is where the Big Ten Legends Division crown will be decided. October finishes with back-to-back road contests against Michigan and Wisconsin. November opens with a visit from Nebraska – the team that handed MSU its only regular season conference loss in 2011. After the bye the Spartans host Northwestern, a team known for putting on an entertaining show against the Spartans.
Rather than play best-case or worst-case scenario with the preseason schedule, let’s look at the most realistic case: The Spartans beat Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan while splitting with Boise State and Notre Dame. That 3-1 mark would mean the Spartans would need to finish with 6 or more Big Ten wins to hit the over on 8.5 wins.
History has shown the Spartans are likely to lose at Wisconsin. With games against the Urban Meyer-led Buckeyes, a trip to Michigan and a visit from Nebraska (this isn’t mentioning the Iowa Hawkeyes who always seem to overachieve when nothing is expected out of the club), it’s feasible the Spartans could be in big trouble. Then again, these same things were said last preseason when the Spartans had a four-game stretch of Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and at Nebraska. Somehow the Spartans went 3-1 in that stretch en route to the Legends Division title.
If the Spartans can hold serve at home this year – which would likely bolster the nonconference mark to 4-0 barring some big upset at Central Michigan – it would mean MSU would only have to win one conference road game – likely at Indiana or at Minnesota – to hit the over. The problem is this year’s home slate is the most difficult one in recent memory. No one should be shocked if Michigan State stumbles to a 7-5 record with a few close loses. Then again, the same can be said if the Spartans finish with just two regular season losses and are playing for the conference crown in Indianapolis once again.
The ultimate swing game is the game it should be: Oct. 20 at Michigan. Four-straight wins over “Big Brother” has the rivalry at an all-time high and expectations are arguably higher in Ann Arbor this season than in East Lansing. The winner of the intrastate rivalry has the inside track on a Big Ten title game berth and, for the Spartans, it could very well be the difference between eight or nine victories.
Le’Veon Bell All-Purpose Yards: Over/Under 1,499.5 yards, 14.5 touchdowns.
In last year’s share-time role Bell ran for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also added 267 receiving yards. Those 1,215 yards were a big reason the Spartans were likely a fourth-down stop against Wisconsin from playing in the Rose Bowl. Bell was dependable, rarely fumbling and seemingly always falling forward. He did all this behind an offensive line that took at least a third of the season to find any sort of consistency.
While Larry Caper will be more of the receiving back on third downs it doesn’t mean Bell will leave the field. Michigan State has used two running back sets frequently the last few years with great success. However, Caper’s quickness and hands will mean Bell’s best chance to hit the 1,500 number is to do his best Montee Ball impersonation and continue running between the tackles.
The gauntlet of big defenses (Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska) will make running tough but that’s why Bell’s success is so crucial. Bell is going to get the ball near the goal line and scoring seven points instead of three will make or break MSU’s season. If any offense will be capable of wearing down opposing defensive lines and winning with the “ground and pound” philosophy it’ll be the Spartans. Bell undoubtedly will be the main horse.
Combined Sacks and Tackles For Loss for William Gholston and Marcus Rush: Over/Under 9.5, 19.5
These are the numbers (with an added 0.5) the duo recorded in 2011. The world knows about Gholston and his mean streak – Denard Robinson helmet twist anyone? – but it should realize Rush is just as valuable as the other bookend edge rusher. With Worthy clogging up the middle Rush and Gholston were let loose to chase down opposing quarterbacks. It’ll be interesting to see if Tyler Hoover and Anthony Rashad White, both seniors, can be enough of a combined force in the middle to let Gholston and Rush do what they do best.
Here’s a prediction: While Gholston had more tackles (70 to 58), sacks (5 to 4) and tackles for loss (11 to 8) last year expect Rush to have the better numbers in 2012. This isn’t to say Gholston will take a step backward. It’s quite the opposite really. So much attention will be paid to Gholston (read opposing running backs staying in on that side of the backfield to protect the quarterback) that Rush will have fewer obstacles to hurdle. This is in addition to a tight end likely to be flanked on Gholston’s side of the field as well.
The Spartans have a solid secondary, but it, like all secondaries, looks much better when the front seven forces quick quarterback decisions. If Michigan State has BCS aspirations (trust me, the Spartans do) then Gholston and Rush will have to make big plays every Saturday.
Defensive Interceptions, Over/Under 17.5
If the Spartans top this number they’ll reach last year’s total of 18. Only Trenton Robinson’s four interceptions are missing from the roster. Isaiah Lewis (4), Johnny Adams (3), and Darqueze Dennard (3) are the secondary’s big guns while Kurtis Drummond (2) also has good hands for a safety. Those four make up the team’s starting secondary and had two thirds of MSU’s 2011 picks. Denzel Drose, who had a pick last season, is moving to the offensive side of the ball to play tight end. The only other interception went to starting MLB Max Bullough.
What should you take from the plethora of numbers thrown at you? The Spartan Dawgs – as the defensive unit has branded itself – is a group of ball hawks. Much of MSU’s defensive success came last year because when opposing teams realized running against MSU’s front seven was like running into a brick wall it decided to throw – and the secondary was ready. Throw in four-star safety Demetrious Cox, who will have a great chance to start and is the crown jewel of this recruiting class, and opposing quarterbacks should be fearful. Whether the Spartans can match last year’s interception total is uncertain, but it would be foolish to discard the possibility.
Number of Successful Game-Winning or Game-Saving Trick Plays, Over/Under 0.5
It all started with “Little Giants,” Michigan State’s fake field goal that resulted in a 34-31 overtime win against Notre Dame in 2010. Last year it was “Rocket,” the special Hail Mary play from Cousins to Nichol that beat Wisconsin in the pre-Big Ten Championship meeting. Mark Dantonio is no stranger to trick plays, but don’t confuse that for him being insanely aggressive. He’s never gone for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 28 yard line a la Bill Belichick against Peyton Manning’s Colts. Still, Dantonio seemingly knows when to push the SURPRISE! Button. With the conference’s number of heavyweights growing by the year it means a little luck is necessary for a program like Michigan State to reach 11 wins for a third straight season.
You can almost see the scene now: Dusk settling in on Michigan Stadium with the Wolverines leading the Spartans 20-17. With 90 seconds on the clock and facing a 4th-and-2 at Michigan’s 25 yard line Dantonio sends in his field goal unit. Except, not wanting to allow Denard Robinson the chance for “easy” heroics, Dantonio calls “Sandlot,” and kicker Dan Conroy ends up completing a first-down pass to tight end Dion Sims. A few plays later the Spartans score the game-winning touchdowns as Denard has too little time to lead a Michigan comeback. Will that scenario happen? Probably not. But the point is clear: Dantonio will pick and choose his spots and a play like the imaginary above-mentioned “Sandlot” is one that could determine whether the Spartans are Legends Division Champions or playing in the Outback Bowl.