2008 BSD Big Ten Previews - Michigan State Spartans

2007 Recap

2007 Record: 7-6 (3-5)

Spartan fans took a "wait and see" attitude into the 2007 season. They hadn't been to a bowl game since 2003, but there was reason for optimism as John L. Smith had finally slapped himself right out of town. Mark Dantonio took over and promised a return to the power running game of old. They started out 4-0 thanks to a couple cupcakes, a close win over Pitt, and a blowout win over the hapless Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

But once the conference slate came around it was a different story. The Spartans lost by three points in Madison and lost in overtime to Northwestern the following week. An impressive win over Indiana was followed up by a seven point loss to Ohio State. After back-to-back losses to Iowa and Michigan their impressive 4-0 start had become a 5-5 record and the Spartans were once again in danger of missing a bowl game.

A 48-31 win at Purdue ensured bowl eligibility, but in the final week of the season was when Michigan State pulled off their biggest win coming back from a 24-7 deficit to beat Penn State and lock up a bowl invitation. I don't know if Michigan State was more happy to go to a bowl game or take home the Land Grant Trophy, but we as Penn State fans must never forget this.

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Though the 3-5 conference record looks bad, Sparty wasn't that far off from an amazing season. They lost by a field goal at Wisconsin and a touchdown in Columbus. They lost to hated rival Michigan by just four points. Overtime losses to Northwestern and Iowa could have easily been wins with a few breaks. Like the Penn State teams of the earlier part of this decade, this team was just a few players away from being a major contender.

Of course Michigan State blew it in the bowl game like most Big Ten teams do these days. Sparty found himself playing in the Champ Sports Bowl against a 10-3 Boston College team that had been ranked #2 in the country just a few weeks earlier. Brian Hoyer did his best Anthony Morelli impersonation turning the ball over five times in the loss. But nonetheless it was a good season for State just to get back to a winning record and go to a bowl game. This season expectations are higher as the Sparty faithful are eagerly hoping to compete for their first Big Ten title in decades.

 

Offense Preview

Offense Returns: QB - Brian Hoyer, RB - Javon Ringer, WR - Mark Dell, WR - Deon Curry, C - Joel Nitchman, LG - Roland Martin, RT - Jesse Miller
Offense Loses: RB - Jehuu Caulcrick, WR - Devin Thomas, TE - Kellen Davis, LT - Pete Clifford, RG - Mike Gyetvai, C - John Masters (6 starts), LG - Kenny Shane (9 starts)

Overview

True to his promise, Dantonio returned Sparty to the power running game of old. On the powerful legs of Javon RInger and Jehuu Caulcrick they averaged nearly 200 yards rushing per game and averaged over 33 points per game, good enough for third and second in the conference respectfully. And the passing game wasn't too shabby either. Veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer saw his attempts per game dramatically decrease, but he still threw for 2700 yards and 20 TD to just 11 INT with four of those interceptions coming in the bowl game alone.

Hoyer is a solid quarterback with good mechanics and a strong arm, but with so many tight losses you have to start questioning his mental toughness and ability to deliver in the clutch. Put him in a position where he has to throw and he usually lays an egg. Perhaps the Penn State game was his coming out party, but then we also said that about Morelli in the 2007 Outback Bowl.

Caulcrick waddles his big butt out of town and takes his school record 21 touchdowns in a season with him leaving the running back duties to Javon Ringer who tallied 1447 yards and 6 TD a year ago. If not for Beanie Wells, many people would consider Ringer to be the best running back in the league. But the big question will be if Ringer can handle the load himself. For a player that has suffered two major knee injuries in his career this is not a sure thing. Dantonio has a few young guys he may try to work in there, but none of them have considerable playing experience so for now it looks like Ringer is going to get 25-30 carries per game.

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Javon Ringer

Tom Bradley is glad to see wide receiver Devin Thomas and tight end Kellen Davis are gone as Penn State had no answer for stopping these two guys last year. Thomas may have been the best wide receiver in the league last year and MSU is going to have a tough time replacing him. Mark Dell will try to step up his performance as a true freshman when he caught 20 balls for 220 yards and 2 touchdowns. But without Thomas and Davis he's the man defensive coordinators will be keying on, so don't be surprised if he falls into the dreaded sophomore slump. Two guys who may step up and make an impact are freshmen Fred Smith and B.J. Cunningham. There is physical talent there, but any time you lose a second round draft pick you are bound to take a step back.

The offensive line loses a few guys, but thanks to several injuries over the past two years just about everyone left has a lot of playing experience. They are a big offensive line as you would expect from a power running team. But the big question for them will be staying healthy and building chemistry. MSU coaches admit they are thin on the offensive line, and if some of the incoming freshmen are forced into the lineup it could bring Dantonio's running game to a grinding stop.

 

Defense Preview

Defense Returns: DE - Justin Kershaw, LB - Eric Gordon, LB - Greg Jones, CB - Kendell Davis-Clark, CB - Chris Rucker, SS - Otis Wiley
Defense Loses: DE- Jonal Saint-Dic, DT - Ervin Baldwin, DT - Ogemdi Nwagbuo, LB - Kaleb Thornbill, SS - Nehemiah Warrick, FS - Travis Key

Overview

The 2007 Michigan State defense was respectable allowing just 125 yards on the ground and 218 yards through the air. But Sparty struggled to keep teams out of the endzone giving up nearly 27 points per game, eighth in the conference.

The defensive line is undergoing a nearly complete reconstruction. Only DE Justin Kershaw returns as a starter. Jonal Saint-Dic, Ervin Baldwin, and Ogemdi Nwagbuo combined for 19.5 sacks and 37.5 TFL. Saint-Dic in particular was a major play maker forcing eight fumbles alone. Replacing them will be a sophomore with 5.5 tackles to his name and a couple of guys who transferred over from Cincinnati when Dantonio left the Bearcats. Trevor Anderson was pretty impressive in the spring, but if I were a Spartan fan I would be worried about this unit.

Talk is that Michigan State wants to move promising sophomore linebacker Greg Jones to middle linebacker. Jones started the last seven games of 2007 and ended up leading the team in tackles by the end of the season. His moves leaves an opening on the strong side where Dantonio will have to choose between a junior walk on Brandon Densin and senior Ryan Allison, a former wide receiver. Call me crazy, but strongside linebacker may be a weak spot on this defense. But weakside linebacker should be just fine Eric Gordon returning after starting 10 games as a redshirt freshman and recording 62 tackles last year.

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Greg Jones

The secondary loses both safeties, but MSU returns a lot of depth behind them. Otis Wiley was an All Big Ten honorable mention in 2006, but struggled to understand the coverages last year and lost his job. They switched him to strong safety this spring and reports out of East Lansing are that he understands the defense now. Call me a skeptic. Travis Key is gone and Sparty will turn to Roderick Jenrette, a junior that has been patiently waiting his turn, to play free safety. Davis-Clark is a serviceable cornerback, and Chris Rucker had the look of a developing shutdown corner before an injury ended his season after eight games. Overall, the secondary should improve over last year due to all the experience.

 

Special Teams

Punter Aaron Bates returns, but MSU may want to look at someone else after finishing tenth in the league last year in net punting. The punt return team was abysmal last year, so losing Terry Love as a return man may be a blessing. The kickoff return game was sensational last year leading the league, but Devin Thomas was handling those duties last year and now he's gone. Kicker Brett Swenson is adequate, but not overly impressive hitting just 3-of-7 from beyond 40 yards last year.

 

The Schedule

 

Date Opponent BSD Outlook
Aug 30 @ California Probable Loss
Sept 6 Eastern Michigan Probable Win
Sept 13 Florida Atlantic Probable Win
Sept 20 Notre Dame Toss Up
Sept 27 @ Indiana Probable Win
Oct 4

Iowa

Toss Up
Oct 11 @ Northwestern Toss Up
Oct 18 Ohio State Probable Loss
Oct 25 @ Michigan Toss Up
Nov 1 Wisconsin Probable Loss
Nov 8 Purdue Toss Up
Nov 15 Bye
Nov 22 @ Penn State Probable Loss

Missing: Illinois and Minnesota

BSD Difficulty Rating: 8 out of 10. The opener at Cal is a ballsy move in this age of scheduling record padding marshmallows to start the season. The Bears are usually fast starters that falter later in the season so that should be a tough challenge. Notre Dame should be greatly improved on offense and could be another game where you want to bet on the over.

The conference schedule can't get much tougher. Though they should be better than Northwestern, these two teams have played some of the wildest games in recent years and you never know who is going to win in this series. Late October features a brutal three game stretch where Ohio State ane Wisconsin come to East Lansing with a game at Ann Arbor scheduled in between. And of course there is the season finale with Penn State. Last year Devin Thomas nearly won that game single handedly, but now he's gone. And this year the game is in Happy Valley.

 

BSD's Outlook

On paper it looks like Sparty should improve this year. They lost a lot of close games last year that could have gone either way. Hoyer and Ringer make for a solid backfield duo and the back half of the defense should be pretty good. But there are questions that Dantonio will have to answer.

Caulcrick was their short yardage running back last year with enough power to overcome the shortfalls of the offensive line. It's yet to be seen if Ringer can fill that role. We'll also find out of Ringer can handle the full time running back duties. If not then MSU will need someone to step up and help out, and right now it's not clear who that will be.

The weakness of this team will be in the trenches. The offensive line loses four key members and injuries have prevented them from building continuity the past few years. The defensive line is going through a complete reconstruction and I would expect them to be less than dominant. Teams that run well and can stop the run will have success against the Spartans.

Starting the season 3-1 is likely, but 2-2 is possible.  The Spartans should be good enough to fall into that mushy middle of the conference, but they're not yet good enough to compete for the title. Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State should be too strong, and I think they'll lose another one somewhere along the way. BSD predicts Michigan State will go 7-5 with a trip to the Motor City Bowl. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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