Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Behind the enemy line with - the Spartans

Not too early to get a glimpse at our enemy in the Outback. Mike from The Little Brother has graciously accepted my questions about Michigan State football. In exchange I was kind enough to answer his. It's quid pro quo bowl style. So pass the bloomin onion and let's get started.

1. In our last meeting, the 2009 Capital One Bowl, Georgia saw a well prepared Michigan State Spartan team that featured Javon Ringer. Who should Dawg fans be reading up on for this year's Outback Bowl?

-- Wide receivers B.J Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Cunningham ranks 12th nationally in yards receiving and seventh in touchdown receptions with 12 – nine of which have come in the past four weeks. He also is first in Michigan State history in yards receiving and receptions, and second in touchdowns. All season he has been the go-to wide receiver for Kirk Cousins on third downs or for big plays.

Martin is a dynamic player whenever he touches the ball, in punt returns, catching a pass, running the ball, or running the wildcat. He has scored a touchdown on a pass, catch, run, kirk return and punt return in his career. This season, he has 62 catches – one more than he had in his career entering 2011. His ability to accelerate to full speed in seemingly one stride is incredible and he makes a lot of people miss with his shiftiness.

These two have been responsible for a large percentage of big plays this year and are sure to have their moments in the Outback Bowl, too.

2. Georgia's players seem pretty satisfied with the season, even after a disappointing loss in the conference championship game. What is the morale of the Spartans after losing their championship game?

-- To have a Rose Bowl-caliber team not playing in Pasadena for the second year in a row was hard for both fans and players, but the hangover last much longer for fans. Cousins still was wrestling with disappointment a couple days later -- and the loss hit the seniors hardest, of course -- but based on the things players said via Twitter, the response was overwhelmingly a sense of “we will be back.” Cousins gained a quality perspective that this program has come a long way when you are upset about being ranked in the top 15, and the pride of a great season set in over the disappointment of the loss.

It didn’t take long for the team to turn its sights toward Georgia and what they can do in the Outback Bowl, opposed to the hypotheticals. Accepting the reality that is a great matchup with Georgia certainly contributed to that attitude – this is one of the best bowl matchups of the season.

3. I noticed that Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker's rushing attempts are practically equal. Are they interchangeable threats at running back? How does MSU use them to complement each other and keep the chains moving?

-- Mark Dantonio lists three “co-starters” at running back (Baker, Bell and Larry Caper) and has maintained the hot back will start for MSU – which carries over into his in-game use of backs. Baker and Bell are the clear-cut top two, while Caper sees occasional time as a third-down back for his pass-catching ability.

They complement each other well, but are different beasts. Baker is the smaller back, but runs with a great amount of power, always keeps his feet moving and really looks for contact. Bell is a big back, at 6-foot-2, 237 pounds, and breaks through tackles well as such, but he runs like a smaller player with a good spin move and quick cuts.  

Though relatively interchangeable, Bell has been rolling lately and has started four consecutive games, rushing for 613 yards on 106 attempts in the past seven games compared to Baker’s 236 yards on 76 carries. Bell also has proven himself a reliable receiving option and has 30 catches, resulting in Dantonio to line him up in the backfield in a four-receiver set and sending him in motion as a fifth receiver.

Bell likely will start against Georgia, and Baker will be used to give him a rest for a play or two every now and then.

4. Also, Cousins has had another terrific year at quarterback with a 65% completion percentage. Is the Spartan passing attack a lot of short and intermediary routes or can it get vertical too?

--Cousins is an incredibly efficient quarterback, first off, but the offense does feature a lot of short and intermediate routes. Cunningham is a target on a lot of slant routes, especially on situations like third-and-five. Martin catches a lot of quick passes in the flat and on bubble screens, which also contributes to the high completion percentage. Most other receiving threats – Keith Nichol, Brian Linthicum and Le’Veon Bell – catch shorter passes as well.

But, in the past five weeks, this offense has opened up in the passing game and looks to go vertical much more. The Spartans average 38.6 point in the past five weeks and Cousins is averaging 265 yards per game in that stretch. Cunningham is a proven downfield threat, and really gets up high to get the ball over defenders and Martin has emerged as a legitimate deep threat this season.

Expect to see the MSU offense look to run the ball early, then work off play action and go downfield to Cunningham and Martin. It is a run-based offense that looks to establish the run and then build the pass accordingly.

5. Dawg fans are pretty proud of their defense this season, but Michigan State's is right up there statistically as well. Is there a weakness at all on this defense or should we just hope for a game of field position?

I don’t expect a game of field position, both teams certainly possess the offensive firepower to score points. As long as Georgia doesn’t end up with Montee Ball on the field somehow, the MSU defense is very solid. The biggest weakness, apart from the occasional blown coverage, is in a level of physical play that is, at times, too much. This MSU defense is a smash-mouth and hard-nosed bunch, and they want to hit and hit hard. But, they are penalized quite a bit. Cornerback Johnny Adams tends to get called for at least one pass interference penalty in each game and Jerel Worthy jumps offsides from time to time as well.
Also, defensive tackles Kevin Pickelman and Jonathan Strayhorn are out for the bowl game, leaving Worthy and Anthony Rashad White to play a lot of snaps without the usual breaks. That will be something to watch through the game is how they might wear down.

Other than that, Spartans fans feel the same about their defense as Georgia fans. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is as aggressive as anyone in the nation and loves to blitz. He uses linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen constantly to get pressure on the quarterback, as well as bringing Adams off the edge. 

Despite being ranked highest against the run, I see this defense as built to stop the pass. The defensive backs cover well one-on-one, so Narduzzi leaves them in man coverage often, while a defensive line featuring an All-American in Worthy and 6-foot-7 monster Will Gholston consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. 

I think the top defenses and the styles of play are what make this bowl matchup some intriguing and should lead to an outstanding game.


Bernie said...

Great info. Thanks for doing this guys.

Bernie said...

Who is Montee Ball?

Bernie said...

Montee Ball is the Wisconsin running back -- one of the Heisman Trophy candidates. He scored four touchdowns against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Bernie said...

He was second on my informal, uncounted Heisman ballot. And I can assure you Mike, we don't have a Montee Ball unfortunately.