The Spartans open 2012 by hosting one of the most unique programs in America on Friday night, the Boise St. Broncos.
Long gone is the “Red Shirt Connection” of Kirk Cousins to B.J. Cunningham, and we may not see a Green and White combination that prolific for quite some time. The additional loss of Keith Nichol, Brian Linthicum, Joel Foreman, and others on the Offense has essentially cleared the slate for a complete transition to the Andrew Maxwell (Rs.-Jr. QB) era.
The first order of business for this unit is to hit the ground running. Michigan St.’s overall ground numbers from last season were disappointing. Whether they lacked because of injury, inconsistency, or some other reason, the Spartans cannot afford to be as anemic on the ground this year if they’re to nurture Andrew Maxwell’s control of the Offense smoothly.
There were signs of improvement late in the season, however, against the better competition of Wisconsin and Georgia. Much is therefore expected of their ground game that now features Le’Veon Bell (Jr. RB), Niko Palazeti (Rs.-So. RB), Larry Caper (Sr. RB), and a couple others. More important than that group’s chemistry and effort, the Offensive Line must take a step forward.
This line has been projected as the deepest under Mark Dantonio, but until their play is established on the field again, it’s reasonable to carry over some doubt. One of the lasting memories from the Spartans Crimson Tide Bowl beating a couple years back was Andrew Maxwell running for his life and being knocked out of the game, after Kirk Cousins suffered an identical fate. The last thing the Offense needs while breaking Maxwell in is an early wave of breakdowns that leave him running for his health.
Assuming Maxwell gets time to throw, he’s got to develop favorite targets. That will take some time. While the Receiver battle is wide open, Maxwell’s on-field chemistry with each individual might end up playing the biggest role in separating who gets the most balls their way in that playing group.
While the development of a go-to Receiver is important, it’s also time for the Spartans’ most explosive mismatch to step forward and dominate. Dion Sims (Rs.-Jr. TE) is arguably the most physically talented Tight End in Spartan history. And surely he’s noticed that Tight End is now a premium position at the next level (reference the New England Patriots for example). The time is now for Sims. He’s been around the Offense long enough to grasp the concepts, and has shown flashes of brilliance over his first years in the program.
Starting Friday night, Spartan Nation is looking for him to take ownership of his success and lead from the front. He needs to tie together all the natural advantages he has at the position (speed, size, agility) to become the impact player the entire league knows he can be. The Offense truly needs Sims’ best to be at their best in 2012.
Boise St. isn’t known as a Defensive super power, and may return only a few starters on that side of the ball, but they haven’t built their record (6 straight wins over BCS member opponents) playing only on Offense. Friday night will give us an idea of the starting point for this Spartan Offense, which should rely most on line play and the running game to get going early on.
The last time we saw the Spartan Dawgs (I also like to call them the Snarlin’ Narduzzis) they were in the Georgia Backfield for another TFL (Tackle for Loss). People down south and around the rest of the country now expect the Spartan D to bring that tempo all the time. We’ve heard all off season how good Will Gohlston (Jr. DE), Johnny Adams (Rs.-Sr. CB), and Max Bullough (Jr. LB) might play this year. We’ve been reminded of the speed of Denicos Allen (Rs.-Jr. LB), the absence of Jerel Worthy, and the depth of the MSU Secondary. But don’t sleep on Marcus Rush (Rs.-So. DE).
With so much made (and deserved) of the matchup challenge that is Gohlston, the focus has often slid to the interior lineman gap that MSU must fill. Many might have forgotten about Rush too much, though he was a Freshmen All-American in 2011. Coach D told Spartan Nation earlier this week that he can “see him picking up exactly where he left off” in 2012.
Dantonio described Rush as a guy who gets himself ready to play each week, and features a quick body and good hands, while running extremely well. All that added up to a whole lot of production from the guy with the last name that best matches his position on the field. Look for Rush to hang serious numbers this year coming off the opposite edge as Gohlston. He’s in an ideal spot to take advantage of matchups and make serious noise in the backfield.
With so much expected of these hungry Spartan Dawgs, you’ve gotta expect some howling enthusiasm out of this deep and motivated group. They’ve no doubt been reminded of the sour taste leftover from Russell Wilson’s Hail Marys of Indy, and their rosy opportunity lost. This unit should therefore come out with the intent to send a message to College Football that Indy was an aberration, and the Bulldog domination after the Halftime in the Big Bloomin’ Onion was the real deal Spartan Dawgs.
As good as this unit looks on paper, Boise St. has made history by making Defenses look fooled, slow, and quite normal. Since BSU changed the world of College Football for good on New Year’s evening 2007 (a David toppling the Goliath of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl), the Broncos have continued to make noise and inspire BCS change. Most of that noise has come from the Offensive side of the ball, so any expectation that Michigan St. will just crush the Kellen Mooreless Broncos attack could be erased rather early Friday night. This Defense can become dominant, even at some point on Friday night, but it should not look much like they’re beating up on a weaker directional opponent.
The kicking reputation at MSU remains among the best in the country with alumni like Morten Andersen around waiting on Canton to call, and Punter-slash-B1G Trophy namesake Brandon Fields having just inked a big money extension in Miami. Spartan kicking standards remain very high.
Placekicking should remain strength as Dan Conroy (Rs.-Sr. K) returns for his third and final year as the man. With the Offense rebooting to Maxwell’s programming, it wouldn’t be farfetched to see Conroy called on to step up like Brett Swenson did in 2008. Conroy is seasoned and experienced now, and will likely be tested seriously sometime during the first month or so.
Kevin Muma (Rs.-Jr. K) returns to handle Kickoffs, and should find a meaningful benefit from the spot of the kick being up 5 yards, as Coach Dantonio said earlier this off season. With a Defense as strong as the Spartans looks to be, Muma and the kick coverage unit need only avoid the big mistake and big play to complete their part of the puzzle.
Mike Sadler (Rs.-So.) returns with the goal of becoming the best punter in the Big Ten Conference. His reliability and precision deserve your attention because Punting and Defense go hand in hand so often under the strategy of Mark Dantonio. Look for Sadler to try any pin Offenses deep in their own end so the Spartan Dawgs will have a good chance to hunt.
The Kick and Punt return game remains anchored by Nick Hill (Rs.-So.), who ran the ball back with an explosive edge that’s sure to be refined in his second year doing the gig. The problem he may face though is that the kicking rules in College Football have undergone a major change. Kickoffs have been moved forward 5 yards, and Touchbacks out 5 yards to the 25. Taking both into account, you’ve got an equation that could decrease Hill’s chances to break a big one coming off of a kicking tee.
Safe to say the Spartans have to win Friday night to reserve any realistic shot to play for a National Title next January in Miami. But before you chuckle at how ridiculous that statement may sound out loud, take an honest look at the complete MSU schedule and their legitimate chances to win each game as it stands today. Then ask yourself what would happen if they either ran the table or had only 1 loss to go with 12 wins and a Big Ten Championship.
Friday night should mean more to Spartan Football than just another opening game. It’s not. MSU has the national stage to make as loud an opening statement to the country as they’d like. Unlike their siblings in Ann Arbor, they get to do it at home with an opponent ripe to be taken from their major personnel transition and the environment of Spartan Stadium at night.
If MSU can dominate the Broncos and win by more than 2 scores (far from an easy task), the momentum gained from the end of the Outback Bowl nearly 8 months ago will pick right back up, with even more steam. In an ideal Green setting, the Offense would score more than 3 TDs, the Defense would smother Boise St. to 10 points or less, and the national perception of Michigan St. would crystallize over night, for good, to that of an established top 10 team with a real shot to play for Championships once again (sorry, ESPN).
Though life after Kellen Moore may never be the same for Boise St., the Bronco program doesn’t look ready to instantly wilt away. The Spartans should have their hands full for most of 60 minutes. We know they “all count one,” but some games simply mean more than others. Because of the national opponent and national stage this opener has, Friday night is the most important season opener around here in more than a generation. The light is so Green for MSU to build on the momentum they snatched from Georgia last time out, and drop this program into another gear to start off 2012.
2012 Big Ten Predictions
Michigan St. 11-1 Big Ten Championship
It might not look obvious early, but as they’ve done in past years under Dantonio, the team will improve all year. If their bye week was a few weeks sooner, they’d be an even heavier favorite to return to Indy.
Wisconsin 11-1 Leaders Division Champions
A stacked backfield, light road schedule, and even lighter competition in the Leaders’ Division (see Penn St. and Ohio St.) should help Brett Bielema’s season of transition to new coordinators and signal callers.
Ohio St. 8-4
If the Bucks knew they’d be hit with a Bowl ban, they surely would’ve tried to opt out of the Gator Bowl last year, and Urban Meyer’s Columbus beginning would be in even greater focus. Ohio St. won’t be down for long.
Things look better early thanks to an easier first four games, but then it gets real. The Huskers could lose up to 6 Big Ten games. They won’t lose them all, but will collectively admit playing in the Big Ten Conference is a lot tougher than they predicted before they joined the league.
The Hawks should send a big thank you schedule maker. The favorable slate should keep them competitive deep in the “M, N, Iowa” Legends Division. More turmoil in the running game should be cancelled out by the Senior Quarterbacking of James Vandenberg. Iowa should land in a warm Bowl location once again.
Seems like they’re everyone’s darling Dark Horse of the Big Ten this year. Danny Hope’s rotten luck has to swing around at some point, doesn’t it? They have to catch some breaks, but a lot of the foundational work Hope’s done in West Lafayette will finally show up on more than just one Saturday this year.
After building off a massive collapse by Notre Dame early last fall, Brady Hoke overachieved and was basically gifted a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech that still has the Hokies gobbling today. This year reality sets in, and the Michigan schedule is going to hurt. Last year’s record looked a bit inflated, this year’s might look a bit deflated.
Everyone in the Big Ten hopes Jerry Kill’s health can hold up better to the rigors of the Big Ten this time around. MarQueis Gray is a dangerous talent that just might steal a game or two this year. But Kill’s second squad is still a ways off depth wise from running with the best of the league.
Some worry that the Illini are content to slide back to the middle or back end of the Big Ten in both Football and Basketball for a while. The move to new Head Coach Tim Beckman seems to support that contention.
This year may make you wonder why they clipped Bill Lynch to replace him with Kevin Wilson. He probably won’t look any more ready to be a Head Coach in the Big Ten that he did last year.
They have no business fielding a team this year, and fans around the country may well crown them as the most unpopular team in the history of College Football. They can’t boo Joe Pa or any others involved in the Sandusky scandal, but can boo this year’s Lions and probably will a good bit.
Notre Dame 7-5
Roster turmoil should be big a concern, and the entire year could fall apart early if they forget to pack their game for Ireland. The Domers must atone for the collapse at Ann Arbor last year with an upset of the Wolverines to have a decent 2012. But the schedule and circumstances of this season could be far too much for Brian Kelly to survive.
* Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum, or @JPSpartan