Spartans Stumble, but Survive Youngstown St. 28-6 in the 2011 Season Opener
On a steamy night to start the Labor Day weekend, Spartan Football got the 2011 season off to a winning start with a 28-6 victory over Division 1-AA Youngstown St. Without the talent and depth to legitimately compete with a pre-season Top 20 team that was coming off an 11 win season, the Penguins had little chance to run with the thoroughbred Spartans for all 4 Quarters. They did, however, give a very solid effort, and kept it interesting for much longer than the Spartan Nation expected.
Credit Youngstown St. for a strong start and the better effort level in the 1st Half. They dominated the time of possession (despite a missed INT by the Referee replay booth) early by utilizing a mix of â€œno huddle,â€ dink and dunk, and effective play calling. But at the end of the 1st Quarter, YSU ended up with a goose egg on the scoreboard, which did not bode well for any chance at an unthinkable upset.
The Spartans didnâ€™t get anything going in Quarter 1 either though, tallying only 24 yards of Offense (-7 on the ground) during a brief 3:47 of ball possession. They came out relatively sloppy, in all phases of the game, and stayed that way for much more of the night than the Mark Dantonio coaching staff found acceptable.
The Spartan Offense began to make a little progress in the 2nd as The BBC (Running Back Firm of Leâ€™Veon Bell (So.), Edwin Baker (Jr.), and Larry Caper (Jr.) got their season going with effective carries from each back. After Captain Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB) helped settled down the newly assembled Offensive Line a bit, he found his favorite and most reliable target in B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR) a couple of times on the Spartansâ€™ first Touchdown drive of 2011. From there, the momentum appeared to shift, and Spartans looked energized to take over.
After the Spartan Defense forced YSU to punt on the next series, the dangerous return threat that is Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) surprisingly bobbled and then fumbled the punt back to the Penguins. A 62-yard YSU drive ensued, and Kurt Hess (So. QB) found Jelani Berassa (So. WR) for 6 points, to set the Penguins up for a PAT to tie. After a low snap, the try was blocked by MSUâ€™s Jerel Worthy (Jr. DT). YSU would be stuck on 6 points for the rest of the night.
That play seemed to be the additional inspiration needed for the Spartans to tighten up their ship for good as the next drive featured a fine 55-yard play-action pass from Cousins to B.J. Cunnigham (Rs.-Sr. WR). That connection was followed up by the power running of Leâ€™Veon Bell all the way to End Zone to put the Spartans up 14-6.
From there, the Spartans methodically, albeit slowly, began to tame the respectable YSU attack. The Penguins appeared to lose the last of their steam towards the end of the 1st half by missing a 39-yard Field Goal try that they really had to have to hold out any hope of staying close for much longer.
After a bank of temporary stadium lights went dark for the last couple of minutes of the half, it perhaps provided a fitting ending for a Spartansâ€™ 1st Half that featured far too many penalties, missed tackles, mishandled snaps, and missed assignments for Mark Dantonio to be pleased with.
Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have become quite the 2nd Half team, and tonight kind of followed suit. The Spartans played better, but far from their best. MSU increased the effort level from the kick, and by the end of the 3rd Quarter were somewhat comfortably ahead by 15 after Cousins connected again with B. J. Cunningham for a TD on the Spartansâ€™ second drive.
Cunningham would go on to tie the Spartansâ€™ all-time receptions total during a career night (9 catches, 130 yards, 1 TD), and set himself up for an outstanding Senior campaign. When you credit Cunningham for his record breaking achievement, you cannot do so with recognizing the benefit heâ€™s enjoyed by taking the â€™07 season to Red-Shirt. Thatâ€™s a lesson that a lot of Spartans will also benefit from in the coming seasons of the Dantonio era.
Well before Leâ€™Veon Bellâ€™s second TD run with 7:09 left (to put MSU up 28-6), the Spartans stuck to the basics on both Offense and Defense in order to ensure theyâ€™d get out of the night with the win, with better health, and without showing much of their playbook to future opponents.
In their first game without the tackling machine that was Greg Jones, and his proficient Linebacking partner Eric Gordon, the Spartans didnâ€™t look as efficient with tackling throughout most of the night. Max Bullough (So. LB), however, had a very strong first effort as the emerging leader of the Defense with 15 credited tackles on a night when the Defense struggled to come together, yet limited the Penguins to only 6 points.
Another thing Mark Dantonio was looking for out of his teamâ€™s first effort of 2011 was a low number of penalties. Spartan Nation largely remembers Coach Dâ€™s first ever game as Head Coach (55-18 over UAB) for the six straight TDs out of the gate. But Dantonio cited earlier this week that the most impressive stat to him that day was the Spartans taking only 3 penalties all game. He could not say the same thing after this effort though as the Spartans struggled to 7 penalties for 50 yards, taking 2 of them on 3rd downs.
In the end, MSU got the win, looked to come out relatively healthy, and hopefully played through all of the evident first game jitters and stumbles. YSU collected their check, gave a consistent and solid effort, and can take away a lot of good out of their season opener today. It wasnâ€™t very pretty though, and they didnâ€™t accomplish near all they wanted to (ex. giving Andrew Maxwell (Rs.-So. QB) significant playing time). Coach Dantonioâ€™s facial expression throughout most of the evening clearly said enough, but the Spartansâ€™ issues tonight are also very correctable during the coming weeks.
On to Florida Atlantic, with plenty of room to tighten up the 2011 Spartan ship, and a Head Coach who was not happy at all about his teamâ€™s opening performance. It should be quite a week on the Spartan practice field, and a very interesting 2011 Spartan Football season.
The Outlook Moving Forward
The Spartan Offense may be more loaded at the skill positions than itâ€™s ever been before. Outside an uncertain Offensive Line (which should be solidified during the coming weeks), the Spartans feature some of the Big Tenâ€™s top performers at each skill position. Today was hardly a sniff of what should be an explosive and dominant unit.
Kirk Cousins leads this Offense, and leads this program as a reigning three-time Captain. Cousins did what was necessary tonight, kept his unit relatively organized, and put together a nice stat line (18/22, 221 yards, 1 TD) that was again highlighted by just a few mistakes, and zero turnovers.
One mistake, however, that must be corrected, was Cousinsâ€™ taking a needless sack on the first drive of the 3rd Quarter. That shouldnâ€™t happen against a Division 1-AA opponent for Kirk Cousins. Yet, Cousins poise and ability to manage the Offenseâ€™s flow help to illustrate just how good a College Quarterback he has become going into what should be a monster Senior season. Itâ€™s hard to tell too much more against a Division 1-AA team. Cousins already knows that his first big test of the year will come on a redemption trip to South Bend in exactly 15 days.
Against a Youngstown St., you canâ€™t reasonably evaluate every position on the field. For example, the size advantage of the Offensive Line essentially prohibits a confident conclusion that the O-Line will be just fine against the best opponents on the Spartansâ€™ schedule. MSU averaged 225 yards rushing in their first six games of 2010, but only 89.7 yards per game over the final seven. The BBC remains the engine that runs this Offense, and will need to be more consistent in the seasonâ€™s biggest games. That should become a reality by the end of 2011. To kick things off in 2011, the unit ran for 155 yards, 3 TDs, and even added 37 yards through the air. Bell, Baker, and Caper showed health, some improved burst, a little polish, and even introduced their new junior associate, Nick Hill. Good things are sure to come on the ground here in 2011.
One of the most important goals of the season opener was to get Andrew Maxwell (Rs.-So QB) valuable game experience. Maxwell didnâ€™t see enough time in 2010, and it is nearly critical that he get enough legitimate playing time early in 2011. A good argument can be made that as soon as MSU gets up more than 2 scores (> 16 pts.), Maxwell should go in until the lead is cut back down. Unfortunately today, that didnâ€™t happen until the last few minutes of the 4th Quarter, and Maxwell thus missed valuable potential snaps that he cannot get back. Maxwell has appears to have all the pedigree, moxie, and talent to become an excellent College Quarterback. Hereâ€™s hoping he sees a good bit of time next week against Florida Atlantic.
This Defense is good, and this Defense is young. That bodes well for the future, and for the Spartans hopes of playing their best ball at the end of the year. With only 3 Seniors listed anywhere on the Defensive Depth Chart, Spartan Nation should be excited about the potential to have a dominant Defense in Green and White as this unit matures.
The development of this Spartan Defense starts up front. As Coach D told Spartan Nation earlier this week, the Spartans must develop a regular pass rush from the front four. They cannot affect the Quarterback solely from blitzing, as has exclusively been the case in the very recent past.
MSU is solid and thick through the middle with the space eater Anthony White (Jr. NT), and potential NFL 1st rounder Jerel Worthy (Rs.-Jr. DT). The Spartans now feels they have the speed and power off the edges to get to into the backfield on passing downs.
William Gholston (So. DE) looked healthy and fast tonight, and knows heâ€™s currently the highest ranking recruit of the Mark Dantonio era. This should be a fun season to watch a much stronger and powerful Gholston try to develop into Quarterback terror. Itâ€™s hard to expect something like that to happen without its ups and downs, but the true Sophomore wonâ€™t have to do it alone with the likes of a battle tested Tyler Hoover (Jr. DE), Marcus Rush (Rs.-Fr. DE), and Denzel Drone (So. DE). Itâ€™s more than reasonable to expect more pass rush production out of this now deeper and more experienced unit. If they cannot develop a regular pass rush from up front, the Spartans cannot become one of the top Defenses in the Big Ten conference.
A large part of their progress this season will hinge again on the communication between the players on the field. As the communication improved in 2010, the Defensive performance went from relatively average to a Big Ten Championship level. Max Bullough (So. LB) is now the leader of the operation. If any Spartan Line Backer was ever groomed to command an MSU Defense, itâ€™s this Spartan Sophomore who probably comes complete with the strongest bloodlines and pedigree to play this position in the history of the school (see his Father, Uncle, Grandfather, etc.).
Thereâ€™s no reason to doubt that Bullough will make a pretty seamless transition as the new leader of the Defense (and probably one day, the entire team). Though it will be impossible to replace the Energizer Bunny that was Greg Jones (All-American â€™09, â€™10, and future College Football Hall of Famer), Spartan Nation couldnâ€™t hope for hand to take the Green baton than Max Bullough. His leadership and development could be the determining factor of how well the Defense performs in 2011.
Bulloughâ€™s statement was clear tonight as he made 15 tackles, easily an all-time high in his young career, and already tied Jonesâ€™ career best of 15. Though itâ€™s early, Bullough appears to have the ability to pull a Defense along with him, to raise their level of play as a unit. He will be a force in the Big Ten before long.
On the back end, look for Johnny Adams to progress towards a 1st team All-Big Ten level (though probably robbed of a 1st Quarter INT tonight). We all know Johnny Adams has ball skills and speed, but now Adams also has experience to raise his game. Adams had the unique experience of taking a Red-Shirt in 2009 after playing quite a bit as a Freshmen in 2008. Players that Red-Shirt ultimately gain an edge, and tend to enjoy those benefits in their last two seasons of play (see Cousins, Cunningham, etc.). Adams has the goods to be an All-Conference player these next two seasons, but must get better immediately at executing the fundamental tackle and learning to manage his emotions and focus a bit better on the field.
The Spartan Special teams will never be better than they were in 2010. That unit made more special plays in one year than most programs make in a decade. Just about everything they tried worked, produced the play of the week, and even the play of the entire College Football season. Thatâ€™s a nearly impossible feat to repeat, and tonight was not a good start. In fact, Mark Dantonio said bluntly after the game that MSU played â€œlosing footballâ€ in the Special Teams.
This unit should still be very strong, however, and feature one of the countryâ€™s better returning units led, by Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR). Though historically a bit of a slow starter, you can already make a pretty good argument that Martin is among the best returner in school history (despite the fumbled punt today). Thereâ€™s no reason to expect anything less than an outstanding Senior campaign from this unique talent that the Dantonio staff discovered for the class of 2008, but he wonâ€™t be without support. Spartan Nation alread got a look at Bennie Fowler (Rs.-So) in 2010, and should soon get a better look at Nick Hill (Rs.-Fr.), along with the reliable Larry Caper, as this season plays on.
The kick coverage unit should be something to watch as well in 2011. Donâ€™t expect many big runs to occur against a Spartan coverage unit that will feature some of the teamâ€™s best players and best athletes (ex. Bullough and Adams).
The Spartans also return experience to the kicking game with Kevin Muma (So.) expected to handle kick offs again, and Dan Conroy (Jr. PK) returning to build on an outstanding first yearâ€™s effort kicking Field Goals. Despite his badly missed â€œduck hook-whiffâ€ in the 4th, Conroyâ€™s only missed 2 FG tries in his career thus far, and is one of the better clutch kickers in the Big Ten.
One of the prized recruits of the Dantonio era is Punter Mike Sadler (Rs.Fr. P). Spartan Nation has heard a lot about Sadler already, who was a national recruit at the position. It was nice to see him get a chance to show what he can do on whatâ€™s arguably the most important play in football (the punt). Punting in game pressure and on a practice field are not the same thing, however, but expect Sadler to comfortably fill the big shoes of the departed Aaron Bates.
Special Teams was the unit of 2010, and was probably more responsible for the Spartansâ€™ 2010 Big Ten title than any other unit on the team. The team around them is more experienced and deeper in 2011, which shouldnâ€™t put as much pressure on Special Teams to pull off trick plays, timely blocks, and game changing returns. That being said, itâ€™s safe to assume that Spartan Special Teams will rank amongst the best in the Big Ten once again this year, and that this night was simply an aberration of their play to come.
This is most talented Spartan team in decades, though they didnâ€™t necessarily show it all game tonight. Look through the roster and youâ€™ll find a mix of talent and athleticism that really doesnâ€™t have many holes. I count around 25 players listed on the roster that should get a legitimate shot to play on Sundays. While that could leave Spartan Nation fearing a somekind of over confident letdown, barring a bad mix of chemistry (which is not nearly the case at this time), toxic entitlement, or bad rash of injuries, 2011 should be a very good follow up to the Special Spartans of 2010.
MSU didnâ€™t play its best tonight, but it didnâ€™t have to. And if you think it showed even a couple of ounces of what itâ€™s got in the bag on either side of the ball, relax. They most surely didnâ€™t. Just remember how many games Ohio St. won quite ugly during the Tressel era, and in their past 6 seasons of Big Ten dominance. That doesnâ€™t excuse sloppy play, but it should provide a better perspective.
PS. Hereâ€™s hoping the Labor Day Friday opening game becomes a new Spartan Football tradition
2011 Football Predicted Finish
Itâ€™s once again prediction time. The past three seasons of Big Ten play have been as competitive as weâ€™ve seen in the modern era. Though it will be hard to maintain that pace in 2011, the additions of Nebraska, two separate divisions, and a league Championship Game, should all keep the Conference race humming at a pretty good pace.
Michigan St. 10-2 Too many weapons and too much development from the D over the season
Nebraska 9-3 Easiest non-conf schedule in the league should help, but the Big 10 isnâ€™t easy
Iowa 9-3 If their new QB and RB come along, they can win the division
Northwestern 8-4 More talent, more depth, but playing in the tougher division
Michigan 5-7 Might see a slight step back before moving forward again, prepare for excuses
Minnesota 2-10 After the Brewster debacle, the Gophers must fight to find a new identity
Ohio St. 9-3 Payback win over Wisconsin will essentially make their year
Wisconsin 9-3 Back to back night-road games will be tough, but IL and PSU could be too
Illinois 7-5 Lost some playmakers to the NFL, but still have a few around
Purdue 7-5 Despite their continuing injury run, progress is there, coaching is competent
Penn St. 6-6 QB uncertainty and the toughest schedule should lead to many ups and downs
Indiana 3-9 Were not as bad as their last few records, but not that close to competitive yet
Notre Dame 7-5 Kelly might need to split the UM and MSU games, at least, or it could get heated
Conference Champion: Michigan State
Without purposely trying to set MSU up possible for a Rose Bowl trip (like a stereotypical â€œhomerâ€ hack), I predicted an inspired Ohio St. in the title game (as long as theyâ€™re eligible) because of a revenge win over Wisconsin. And since Iowa and Nebraska should come up a win or two short, I see MSU with a shot at revenge against Ohio St. for the Rose Bowl trip the Buckeyes stole from the Spartans in 2010. Given that scenario, I expect the Spartans to be in the Rose Bowl on New Yearâ€™s Day, 2012.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thoughtâ€¦)
1. Iâ€™d love to see the 2011 Spartans pay another special tribute to one the programâ€™s all-time great, # 95 Bubba Smith. As many of us looked at old photos of Bubba after his untimely passing, we were struck by the terrific looking pictures of Bubba in those classic Spartan uniforms. Those uniforms included all black cleats.
Black cleats on a football team are workmanlike and blue collar. They suggest the opponent is in for a long day of relentless conflict up and down the gridiron. White cleats, on the other hand, and most any color combination between, suggest more flash, and not substance.
That combination was anything but the game of Bubba Smith and the great Spartans of the 50s and 60s. Hopefully Spartan football can pay a small tribute to one of its all time greats by bringing back the black cleats to Spartan Stadium.
2. Once the â€œU2 grassâ€ can handle it, the â€œBlock Sâ€ should go back to the center of Spartan Stadium, but from this point forward be in the new-customized Michigan State Spartans font.
3. Arthur Rayâ€™s (Rs.-Sr.) start at Left Guard was an awesome way to Stand up to Cancer, authentic inspiration to the entire Spartan Nation
*Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum