Has any team underachieved worse than Michigan State in the past decade? Ever since Nick Saban left for LSU in 1999, the Spartans have slowly declined to a bad team and, as some would say, the laughing stock of the conference.
Like the several past seasons, 2006 started out great for the Spartans. John L. Smith had his team 3-0 going into the game against Notre Dame. With a 31-14 halftime lead it looked like Michigan State was about to make a statement, but then it all came crumbling down in that spectacular John L. Smith train wreck fashion we've all come to expect. The Irish rallied for a 40-37 win and the Michigan State mid-season collapse got an early start. The Spartans went on to lose seven of their last eight games. Their lone win was a furious comeback against Northwestern in which Michigan State scored 38 unanswered points in the final 22 minutes of the game to pull out the 41-38 win.
For the third year in a row, the Spartans failed to qualify for a bowl game. John L. Smith was fired at the end of the season after a close loss at Penn State. This season Michigan State welcomes Mark Dantonio back to the staff. Dantonio served as defensive back coach under Nick Saban. From there he served as defensive coordinator at Ohio State for three years including their National Championship year of 2002. Dontonio became the head coach at the University of Cincinnati in 2004 and took the Bearcats to two bowl games in his three years there. He brought his offensive and defensive coordinators from UC with him to MSU. A strong disciplinarian, it's anticipated Dontonio will restore order and class to Michigan State if nothing else.
The MSU offense last year was meh. They finished #48 in the NCAA in total offense and #52 in scoring offense. Smith liked to run a spread offensive attack which in the Big Ten is like trying to drill a hole through a block of wood with a screw driver. Dantonio promises to return Michigan State to a more power running pro-style offense with fullbacks and stuff, but it may take a year or two for him to get the right personnel in place and fully implement his scheme.
It was especially hard for the offense in 2006 because preseason Heisman candidate Drew Stanton suffered several nagging injuries that kept him off the field and limited his ability when he was on it. Brian Hoyer started the final game against Penn State and set a school record with 61 pass attempts. On the year he completed a respectable 57% of his passes with a 4-3 TD/INT ration. Having played in 13 games the past two years, Hoyer is the most experienced quarterback on the roster and clearly owns the starting quarterback job. He won't rip off a 25 QB keeper on the option play like Stanton, but he's shifty enough to roll out of the pocket to avoid the rush and make a play with his very strong arm. It will be tough for him to live up to the Stanton standard, but he's good enough that MSU will have bigger problems to deal with.
Can you believe it's been five years since the Spartans had a 1000 yard rusher? With Dantonio's run-first offense that figures to change this year, and Javon Ringer figures to be the man to do it. He was the leading team rusher last year with 497 yards despite missing four games with a knee injury. Senior Jehuu Caulcrick provides depth should Ringer falter or need a breather. Caulcrick managed 426 yards and 6 TD in 2006. John L. Smith did away with the fullback position in his spread attack. The blocking back returns this year, and 275 lb. Dwayne Holmes moves over from tight end to fill it. Big Ten linebackers beware.
It's a good year to abandon the spread offense and go back to a running attack. Michigan State has to replace their three top receivers from last year. Reed, Trannon, and Scott were highly skilled, but they dropped a lot of passes last year. It's time for TJ Williams and Terry Love to step up. Williams is a speedy senior with the ability to stretch the field. Love is one of those savy senior veterans, but a bit small at 5'10" and 173 lbs. Overall the talent level is down with the receivers, but if they can cut down on the dropped passes they could be pretty good.
The offensive line suffered several injuries last year forcing a lot of shuffling around. They still managed 4.0 ypc, but they gave up 28 sacks. They have to replace C/LG Kyle Cook who was an All Big Ten honorable mention a year ago, but everyone else returns. LT Mike Gyetvai is a question mark. He suffered a nerve injury in his arm and had to undergo surgery in the off season that kept him out of spring practice. The group as a whole is a very experienced one with probably three seniors and two juniors in the starting five. If they can stay healthy they should be a solid unit.
If the offense was meh last year, the defense was less than meh. Take a look at their conference rankings.
6th in Rush Defense
10th in Defense Pass Efficiency
9th in Pass Defense
8th in Total Defense
10th in Scoring Defense
10th in Sacks
John L. Smith employed a 4-2-5 defense that utilized a linebacker-safety hybrid position. Dantonio plans to go back to a traditional 4-3 style defense that emphasizes toughness and discipline.
The defensive line is a major concern for the Spartans. They have to replace defensive tackles Cliff Ryan and David Stanton leaving them thin in the middle. Justin Kershaw will move in the middle from defensive end. At 260 lbs. he's a bit undersized to play DT in the Big Ten. Ok, he's really undersized. Taking his spot at defensive end will be junior Brandon Long. Long played linebacker last year and only weighs 245 lbs. So there you have two undersized guys learning new positions. Ervin Baldwin returns at the other defensive end spot. He's a junior college transfer who earned the starting spot last year. The coaches are high on him so he's probably their best player on the line. But this line has a lot of questions and not many answers. Expect teams to run on them with ease.
Kaleb Thornhill returns at middle linebacker. He's their best pure linebacker, but he has been battling knee and shoulder problems ever since last season. SirDarean Adams will start at weakside linebacker. Adams played the linebacker-safety hybrid "Bandit" position last year. As you would expect, he's a bit small for linebacker, but makes up for it with great speed. MSU will do a lot of things with him in coverage and use his speed to utilize him as a blitzer. The other OLB spot is a competition between sophomore Andrew Hawken and redshirt freshman Jon Misch.
Warrick and Wiley return at the safety spots. This could be good or bad. Wiley led the team in tackles last year, but neither guy had an interception and they were one half of a terrible pass defense. Kendell Davis-Clark started three games at corner last year as a sophomore. Ross Weaver has the other corner spot locked down. He played in nine games as a true freshman. He sat out last year with ankle problems but had a very good spring.
Michigan State special teams were nothing to write home about last year. Freshman kicker Brett Swenson was a bright spot hitting 15-of-19 field goals. They have to replace punter Brandon Fields who averaged 37.2 yards net punting. Freshman Aaron Bates figures to be the replacement. The punt and kick return games ranked #73 and #91 respectively, and this year they have to replace kickoff returner Desmond Williams. Terry Love comes back to return punts, but last year he averaged a very anemic 4.9 yards per return. In three years at Cincinnati Dantonio never had very good special teams so the trend looks to continue here.
The first half doesn't look bad. They get Pitt at home and then they play Notre Dame on the road. The Irish should have a down year, but it's always unpredictable when these two get together. The conference schedule features games at Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa, and Purdue. Home games include Michigan and Penn State. They miss out on playing Minnesota and Illinois, two teams predicted to finish in the middle to bottom of the conference.
Plant a flag at mid field if...
Brian Hoyer becomes the next Drew Stanton. The offensive line stays healthy. The wide receivers, like, catch the ball. The defensive line bulks up and stops the run. The linebackers get tough and tackle. The new cornerbacks cover better than the old ones. And the return game gets it going. The Spartans pull off wins against Pitt, Notre Dame, Iowa, and Purdue. No way they beat Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State. Best case scenario the Spartans can go 8-4 with a bid to the Alamo or Outback bowl.
Ask John L. if he wants his job back if...
The offensive line struggles forcing Hoyer to run for his life. The wide receivers continue their stone-handed ways. The defensive line and linebackers get run over like a manhole on Broadway. The defensive backs don't improve over the group last year. The special teams continue their pathetic ways. Worst case the Spartans lose to Pitt, Notre Dame, Iowa, and Purdue on top of the sure losses I mentioned before. It's very possible that Michigan State could go 4-8 and fail to make a bowl game for the fourth year in a row.
Mark Dantonio will get this team turned around, but it isn't going to happen this year. He's trying to introduce new schemes on offense and defense with the players he didn't recruit. The offensive and defensive lines are suspect, and in the Big Ten that usually means you get ran over without running anyone over yourself. A new quarterback and receivers make it impossible to know what to expect in the passing game, but if Dantonio is serious about using a power running game they should have some kind of offense with Ringer and Caulcrick. The defensive front seven is too small to compete in the Big Ten and two new cornerbacks on an already suspect secondary would make me worry. Just like 2004 and 2005, MSU will go into the final game of the year against Penn State sitting on five wins. And just like those years, the Nittany Lions will deny the Spartans another bowl bid. I see Michigan State finishing the year 5-7.