MnB B1G Preview: Gimme Three Steps

Yeah. Let's not do that this time around. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

First of all, let's just get this out of the way: Michigan State is for real. If you are still clinging to the ghosts of John L. Smith and Bobby Williams like Ricky Bobby running around the race track his underwear while yelping at for salvation via Tom Cruise, well...that analogy probably speaks for itself. It makes you look foolish, and foolishness on the heels of four straight losses is not even foolishness anymore: its blind, hollow arrogance for its own sake. The "Little Brother" thing was kind of amusing at first, fine, but its validity has been pulverized to a fine powder on the football field the last four years. It is okay to give credit to whom is due (trust me, you'll be okay). In any case, this sort of rhetoric is better left to the various seedy message boards of the Internet. Not only that, this silly jingoism detracts from, in my opinion, the mission of this blog (as well as every other self-respecting college football blog out there). The point is to provide useful commentary, analysis, and discussion of our favorite team, and saying "HALOL LITTLE BROTHER" doesn't really bring much to the table.

More importantly, this type of thing is made even more ridiculous insofar as it has nothing to do with the upcoming season and the game on October 20th in Ann Arbor. Outside of this heated in-state rivalry--and, yes, it is a rivalry, Michigan fan who is pretending not to care even a little bit--the Spartans have acquitted themselves well against the rest of the Big Ten. After going 6-7 in 2009, the Spartans went on to go a combined 22-5 in 2010 and 2011, including a bowl win against a strong Georgia team. That is nothing to scoff at, even if you happen to be looking at the numbers through maize and blue colored lenses.

Just to put it in perspective, Michigan football has not notched back-to-back 11+ win seasons since...Fielding Yost. I know, it's a little hard to believe (although this tidbit does carry a few caveats*). What MSU has accomplished the past two seasons would be considered impressive for any program in the Big Ten, and, dare I say it, practically any major program in the country.

There are many reasons for this, but there is one that stands out most clearly: the defense. If you, the skeptical Michigan fan, need to be convinced that this is somehow ephemeral or a blip on the radar, revisit some of the defensive tape from the Spartans' last two seasons--the Michigan games would be a good place to start--and recognize that that could not be further from the truth.

*Okay, for the caveats. First of all, Bo and Lloyd both rattled off multiple double digit win streaks, as we all know. Bo won: 11, 10, 10, and 10 from '71-'74; 10, 10, and 10 from '76-'78; and 10 and 11, respectively, in '85 and '86. Similarly, Lloyd won: 12, 10, and 10 from '97-'99 and 10 in both '02 and '03. We're still talking about Michigan here, fergodsakes. Although my 11+ win barometer was somewhat arbitrary, it was to prove a point re: MSU's status in the B1G vis-a-vis Michigan's historical record.

Additionally, we have to remember that up until recently, teams played 1--or even 2--fewer regular season games than they do now, not to mention the fact that some great teams during Bo's time didn't get to go to bowl games because the profligate bowl structure that exists today was not extant back then. For instance, after winning 11 games in 1971, Bo's 10-1 '72 team did not have the chance to participate in a bowl game (a loss to Ohio State led to the Buckeyes getting that year's Rose Bowl berth).

ANYWAY, this was the longest, most quibbling footnote ever, but I just wanted to clear that up before moving on.

So, defense. It's pretty neat, a concept with which we were all reintroduced to in 2011. I think that it's fairly obvious that Michigan State's success the past two seasons can be explained largely as a result of a defensive renaissance in East Lansing, which is saying something since MSU's all-time passing leader just moved on to the NFL.

In spite of offensive football's hold on the average fan's interest and focus, it still stands to reason that quality defense is the trademark of any team with lofty aspirations (and the accompanying results to prove it). While it may be irritating to do so, just look at the SEC. This past season's LSU and Alabama teams fielded offenses with spectacular talents and impressive production to match--in spite of our negative impressions of the head-to-head match-ups in Tuscaloosa and NOLA--but their defenses unquestionably carried the day.

Think back to Florida under Urban Meyer. The 2006 team will probably be remembered most by the average fan for Chris Leak (and a freshman Tim Tebow), but that team accomplished what it did because that defense was ferocious. Fast forward to 2007: Tim Tebow wins the Heisman but the Gators lose four games, including an "upset" at the hands of Michigan. For an explanation, you need not look further than the defense, one that lost a significant amount of talent from the year before and was thus very green and very average, particularly against the pass. Fast forward again to 2008. Tebow is still pretty good, to say the least, but doesn't win the Heisman...the Gators win another title anyway, holding an Oklahoma offense that had been putting up insane numbers all year to a mere 14 points. The defense was back, and so it was no surprise to see the Gators bring him a crystal football for the second time in three years.

As such, it's no surprise to see the Spartans rack up wins in the manner that they have the past two seasons, which I would imagine have been two of the most impressive defensive performances in MSU history. Keeping in mind that the Spartans had to take on Wisconsin's offensive juggernaut twice, the 2011 defense was, by all manners of reckoning, truly elite. All of the following rankings are national (via cfbstats.com):

  • MSU was 10th in scoring defense, giving up 18.4 ppg
  • 9th in rushing defense
  • Tied for 12th in interceptions
  • 11th in passing defense
  • 6th in total defense (behind only Alabama, LSU, FSU, Georgia, and South Carolina)
  • 3rd in sacks
  • Tied for 3rd (with LSU) in TFLs
And these are only the basic, non-advanced stats that anybody can digest without parsing; I'm sure the advanced stats also speak well to MSU's defensive prowess last season.

Suffice it to say, this is not the scatterbrained operation that we saw under John L. Smith. Given his background at Louisville, it's not surprising that those teams were far more successful on offense than defense, and I can't think of a better example of this than the 2004 game.

In the same vein, MSU has almost always, even in down years, had solid to pretty good skill players on offense. The same can't necessarily be said for the defensive side of the ball, which is in my mind why this turnaround is so noteworthy and indicative of real change in the program's philosophical infrastructure. You don't necessarily need the "best " players out of high school to put up points, but it's much harder to do it on defense, especially if your leadership is just plain bad at coaching it. This is clearly not the case under Dantonio and Narduzzi. The fact that Narduzzi was fielding a HC job offer this offseason further underscores the fact that this isn't the MSU of old. When other schools want to promote your coordinators for a HC job, you're definitely doing something right (without question another characteristic common among elite football programs).

So, what does this all mean for 2012? There are a few questions that basically sum up how to think about MSU's prospects:
  • How will Andrew Maxwell take to the QB1 role?
  • Who will replace Cunningham, Martin, and Linthicum as the primary receiving targets?
  • Will the offensive line--which took a not insignificant amount of criticism last year, especially early on--continue to improve/how much will the additional year of experience mean?
  • And, lastly: how do you go about accounting for the loss of both guys on the DL's interior, namely Jerel Worthy (who at times made it seem like MSU was fielding 6 linemen)?
Of course, there are more questions about the offense, which is to be expected. MSU brings back almost everybody on defense, whereas the Spartans lose their signal caller and basically all of their receiving production. Personally, I think Maxwell should do just fine (although that's admittedly mostly conjecture). Will he duplicate Cousins's 2011 production? Probably not, but with Le'Veon Bell back, what should be an improved OL, and a group of talented--if inexperienced--receiving talent waiting in the wings, I think the offense will be probably be fine.

On defense, the Spartans return the entire LB corps, a talented and experienced group. Max Bullough, Chris Norman, and Denicos Allen are probably the best group in the Big Ten, although Penn State has a strong group as usual, we all know about Michigan's significant improvements there, and, somewhat surprisingly, Northwestern looks like it should have a pretty strong group as well.

Although Denard didn't typically didn't have any sort of time to pass due to the pass rush/blitz, it didn't seem like Michigan's receivers were getting much separation anyway. Well, MSU returns both corners, Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, in addition to SS Isaiah Lewis (who, if you remember, made the game-sealing pick 6 against Michigan).

Up front, Marcus Rush--the best last name for a defensive end ever, by the way--and William Gholston return. Now, say what you want about the personal fouls and all that, but these are very good players. Despite Gholston getting seemingly all of the hype here, Rush is a very good player in his own right. Gholston, on the other hand, is an elite talent and athlete, and should be primed for a huge junior year. His game could go for a little more consistency, but he should be better in this respect as a junior.

The defense will once again be very good, but I think that the loss of Jerel Worthy and, in turn, how MSU replaces him this season, will go a long way toward a win in the Michigan game and potentially another Legends division title. As such, I think the interior of the DL is the most important piece of the puzzle for this 2012 MSU team. I don't need to remind you of the snap-jumping terror that Worthy wrought on Michigan (and it wasn't just last year, either). He was a 2nd round pick for a reason.

Anthony Rashad White appears to be Worthy's replacement. Like Worthy, he is enormous, standing at 6'2'' 320. He is a senior, however he has only notched four starts to date. MSU also looks to replace Kevin Pickelman at the other spot on the interior, and 6th-year senior/converted end Tyler Hoover looks to be the guy getting the call from the bullpen. He has played a decent bit, and is listed at 6'7'' 295. That weight is probably fine, but anytime I see a 6'7'' DT, I immediately think back to Pat Massey. If I had to pick out a weak link in this D, Hoover is probably it...but, we'll find out come fall, I suppose.

Unfortunately for Michigan, these losses don't necessarily mean that Michigan will have a field day running the ball, especially coming only a year after Michigan put up a mere 86 yards on 36 carries against the Spartans. Sure, a few less snaps might get jumped, and it will be difficult to replace the sheer presence and play-making ability of a guy like Worthy. With that said, Michigan is not, as we all know, a power running, between-the-tackles type team. Additionally, with the departure of Rimington winner Dave Molk, and what currently looks like a pretty shaky two-deep at center, Borges and Co. might not be able to capitalize on this departure as much as we might think considering that the back seven will probably be even better than last year.

However, Michigan will absolutely need to have some level of success in the ground game between the tackles. It just has to happen, no matter how much Denard has improved in the passing game. Again, this isn't the MSU defense of old. I admit to having been somewhat skeptical of the quality of MSU's linebacking corps going into last season. However, once the season started, I was extremely impressed by the speed and sideline to sideline agility of Denicos Allen, and Bullough and Norman both had outstanding years. It says a lot that Greg Jones's departure did not end up being a huge deal.

This is probably a good time to bring up this trusty statistic re: the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, a TV commentator favorite over the years:
In 38 of the past 41 games, the team that ran for more yards won the game.

This year, like last year, should prove to be no different.
---
Like the Alabama game, Al Borges will certainly earn his paycheck with a clever gameplan for this year's matchup against a game Spartan defense. Of course, a lot depends on Denard...I don't need to tell you that. MSU's gameplan last year was so efficient yet startlingly simple such that it revealed how far Denard still had to go in his quest to being a true dual-threat quarterback. Time after time, Narduzzi simply brought two backers up the middle, banking on the fact that Denard would either tuck it and get snowed under the rush or make a split second decision resulting in a mistake. Unfortunately for Denard, this was not a bad strategy, as Michigan really got nothing going after the first drive. Of course, the defensive gameplan was a little more nuanced than that, but they still did not seem to be doing anything too crazy. Hopefully, with a full year in the offense under his belt and another offseason working on mechanics, hot routes, and other miscellaneous quarterbacking points of interest, Denard will be prepared to handle what the Spartan defense will throw at him.

In any case, I expect another close, competitive game this year. It's very easy to fall into the comfortable trap of thinking that homefield advantage will be the difference. Playing in the Big House will certainly help, but it was obviously not enough to propel Michigan to victory in either 2008 or 2010. As sad as it is to say, there is no scientific correlation between pre-game Oberons consumed and victory on the gridiron. Try as you might, this has no real effect on Michigan's run defense; still try, though!

A Michigan win will go through MSU's defense, plain and simple. Points are nice. In a way, this is a good thing. It makes things easy--well, easier--to understand and digest. The nice thing about defense, unlike offense, is that it is pretty easy to know when you are watching a quality defensive operation. An offense can make hay with a few superb players, and as such it's no wonder why almost all successful programs at lower levels of the FBS find it easier to build from offense first. Defense, on the other hand, requires a collective effort and culture that goes beyond individual talent (although you certainly need talent to field a great defense). It's cut and dry. You stop them or you don't. You make the tackle or the ball carrier slips free. A corner passes a receiver off to a safety, who in turn either attempts to remember mid-play what the actual future date from Back to the Future was or he, you know, covers the guy.

The MSU defense might be a little bend but don't break-ier this season due to the Worthy (and to a lesser extent, Pickelman) loss, but this will be another very good unit. Given the aforementioned national rankings, MSU is right up there with the best defensive units in college football. They're not quite Alabama or LSU, but they're not as far behind as you might think, and they're definitely on par with the defenses at Georgia, South Carolina, FSU, etc.

If Michigan can finally break the streak this season, it's going to have to go through the MSU defense, and probably on the ground. Simple in theory, difficult in practice. And yet, I wouldn't have it any other way.
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