Coming off the 17-16 Bowl win over TCU, the Spartans finished 2012 at 7-6 and now begin preparing for 2013.
No unit let Spartan Nation down more than the Offense in 2012, and they know it. The biggest issue the entire team faced in 2012 was the play of the Offensive Line, making their improvement a top focus of the off season. After getting off to a bland start, the Line play went south in a hurry after injuries to starters Fou Fonoti and later Travis Jackson. They steadied themselves somewhat towards the end of the year, but were far from good, and held the Offense back more than any other element of the unit.
The Line play wasn’t the only disappointment, however, as Wide Receiver drops plagued the Offense early in the year and then again for a chunk of the Bowl game. It took Coach D too long to identify his best lineup, in part because he looked to stick with some players longer than he probably should have. By the end of the year it was clear that Aaron Burbridge may well become a star, Bennie Fowler is finally healthy and rolling again, and that Keith Mumphrey arrived as the unit’s most reliable and possession based option. The Wide Receiver position looks for major upgrade in production next fall, though each starter needs to keep pace because there’s going to be pressure behind from Tony Lippett, DeAnthony Arnett, and other younger guys like Monty Mandaris.
Poor line play and balky Wide Outs didn’t help Andrew Maxwell get going in his first year under Center. His season was filled with flashes of brilliance, a couple notable comebacks, surprisingly few roll outs and even fewer Quarterback runs. Then of course there was his absence in the final drive against TCU. This season was very far from what the 4th year Junior expected, bringing many to question his development under this Coaching Staff, and quickly looking for answers.
Red-Shirt Freshmen Connor Cook got a look in the Bowl game early, which was planned. It wasn’t planned that Cook would have the ball in his hands on the final drive with the Spartans down two. But Maxwell and the Offense had struggled again all night, so Dantonio went with Cook since the unit looked livelier during his earlier drives that night. We all know the result was the game winning Field Goal, which instantly sparked a QB controversy late that Saturday night.
Cook’s performance, though admittedly limited, at least presents the idea for an open starting QB competition 2013. While it’s pretty hard to imagine a 5th year Senior will be supplanted by a Red-Shirt Sophomore or, younger (Tyler O’Connor of Damion Terry) guy, Maxwell’s struggle during the Bowl coupled with the Offense’s deep struggles have opened the door.
When you’re near the bottom of the country in scoring Offense, it’s hard to foresee too many positions truly “locked down” going into Spring. The same should be said for members of the Offensive Coaching Staff whose units widely underperformed. They’re now under a heightened level of scrutiny. And since the Quarterback is the most important spot on that side of the ball, if not the entire team, it’s fair to have an open competition on an annual basis. It would be a real surprise if Maxwell didn’t clearly separate himself from Cook and the Red Shirt Freshmen Tyler O’Connor. While Coach D has typically given the nod to the younger player if guys were competing were essentially tied for the top spot, it’s yet to have really been tested at the Quarterback position.
This unit needs to improve drastically in 2013, which is kind of tough to count on given the defections to the NFL of their best two players, Le’Veon Bell and Dion Sims. Still, significant improvement can result if they address their main issues up front.
One change in the backfield (the Tail Back to be determined) is probably going to be enough for this struggling unit to handle. MSU struggled in 2009 when there were a handful of backs competing for the job during a good chunk of that year. Hopefully it will be a thinner log jam this time around with a player or two separating themselves from the pack before Fall Camp. It’s going to be hard enough to replace Bell, but the overall running game can improve if the Offensive Line can bounce back. The 2013 Offense will only go as far as the Offensive Line lets them.
Pat Narduzzi led the 2012 Spartans to one of the best performances in school history, yet they only have 7 wins to show for it. They don’t put the margin of loss or total Touchdowns allowed in the final standings. You have to dig deeper to appreciate the full picture. This is the unit, despite the loss of Will Gholston, will again lead the Spartans in 2013.
Up front, the Spartans never really replaced All-American Jerel Worthy, and it hurt that Tyler Hoover was lost for the season early on. Hoover has been granted a rare sixth year of eligibility, so look for him to leave a stamp on the 2013 team along with Fou Fonoti on the opposite Line. Whereas the 2012 team lacked leadership in key spots, the 2013 team should not be lacking in that department with those two veterans, a Senior Andrew Maxwell, and of course Max Bullough.
The rising Senior Captain will make it his purpose that 2013 does not repeat the bitter taste of 2012. As good as the Defense performed in 2012, don’t look for them to even get a sniff of becoming “fat ‘n sassy” with Bullough leading things. It’s his time, his last year, and he’s ready for it. How he goes about demanding the urgency and focus from the whole locker room will play a significant role in how this team performs in 2013.
With so many other playmakers returning like Marcus Rush and Denicos Allen, you might think there’s not too many openings for new Spartan Dawgs. Yet, as stocked as the Defense is (take the Linebacker position for example), look for guys to rotate in and out, and for the Snarlin’ Narduzzis to be on the hunt to give up even fewer points in 2013.
Before getting too worried that Will Gholston is gone, remember that Shilique Calhoun is coming back, Damon Knox and Joel Heath should be ready, and that there’s probably a couple others ready to get after it if they earn their shot. A sign of this unit’s depth will be how little difference there is between a 2013 Gholstonless Defense and the couple of years before.
On the back end, MSU is loaded and stocked up to absorb the loss of Johnny Adams with future Sunday players Isaiah Lewis and Darqueze Dennard should lead with likely All-Big Ten (if not more) Senior years. Some of the depth built up will reveal itself as players like R.J. Williamson take on bigger roles, hopefully with far less of the bloated and empty swagger that Adams made a staple. And don’t forget about the 2012 class, which Coach D called his best backfield class to date.
The turnovers that were there in 2010 and 2011 need to return in 2013 to help what will again be a rebuilding Offense. With a Defense that should be rock solid from front to back, interior to the edge, these Spartan Dawgs are looking to take another step. In 2012 they tied with Notre Dame for giving up the least amount of Touchdowns to their opposition. In 2013, they’ll have a good chance to go it alone.
As much as the Offense was a disappointment in 2012, the Special Teams unit was also a letdown. This unit that was such a strength in the past years, most recently featuring current Texans’ Kick Returner Keshawn Martin, was mostly a flop in 2012.
As we discussed before 2012 kicked off, Dan Conroy was expected to be in positions to win games for the Spartans. Early and often in 2012, he turned out to be there since the Offense couldn’t find the End Zone often, and the Defense kept games competitive. But outside of the BW3 Bowl, Conroy came up short when needed most. And in many of the Spartans’ 6 losses, Field Goals missed by the 5th year Senior ended up being the numerical difference.
MSU should have a big summer in the kicking game if they want to get back near the top of the Big Ten in 2013. Next year’s Place Kicker battle looks like it will come between Kevin Muma, Mike Sadler (hey, if Brett Maher did it all at Nebraska, why can’t Sadler at least get a look), and Red Shirt Freshmen and mid-Michigan local Evan Fischer. Kevin Muma should have his best year as a Senior, and look for Mike Sadler to defend his All-Big Ten Punter ranking.
Nick Hill came into 2012 as the Spartans go-to kick returner. He was ready to step in for Martin returning punts too, but stumbled throughout the year. First he lost his confidence, then he lost the handle on each return job. It’s safe to assume each spot will be open for the likes of A.J. Sims, Jeremy Langford, Aaron Burbridge, and maybe a few others to get a good look at along with Hill. MSU will need much more out of its Special Teams in 2013 in order to have a big bounce back year. Though it will be hard to get back to the Martin days, 2012 lacked enough explosive plays needed from the Spartans’ return game, and entire Special Teams unit.
2012 will go down as one of the most frustrating “woulda-coulda-shoulda” seasons in school history. The roster was seemingly loaded with enough talent to overcome the hefty departures of Kirk Cousins, B.J. Cunningham, Trenton Robinson, and many more. It wasn’t. It was a group that barely made a Bowl Game, but has started off 2013 the right way with a late come from behind victory over TCU. The program foundation looked strong enough for MSU to solidify itself as a “Top 10” national program in 2012, but its instead been relegated back to a “not for prime time” status for now.
Fortunately, it’s all over now…for good. It’s time to leave 2012 in the past, atop the reasonably sized pile of Spartan seasons lost. 2013 is already off to a solid start, and the program under Mark Dantonio should be mature enough to have already learned from the mistakes of last year, ready to move forward without reliving them all off season long. We’ll begin to find out if this program is there a long seven months away.
High Point: The comeback late at Madison to beat Wisconsin 16-13 in OT. Though they followed it up with two close losses, the Maxwell led comeback over the rival Badgers was the biggest step towards qualifying this team for a Bowl game and eventually ending up 7-6.
Low Point: Creation of the term “Iowa Flat” and the inexplicably dull performance against an Iowa team that only beat Northern Illinois, Northern Iowa, and Minnesota in addition to MSU in 2012. This is arguably Dantonio’s worst loss as the Spartans’ Head Coach, never should’ve been a game of inches, and hopefully buried the resurrected Spartan Stadium “Woodshed” moniker in the dirt for good.
Turning Point: Tie between Fou Fonoti’s injury late during Notre Dame week, which derailed the Offensive Line at the worst time, and the quick whistle on a Kurtis Drummond fumble recovery against Ohio St. that would’ve essentially sealed the win and steadied the Spartans ship to 4-1 heading into October.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- No matter who the starting Quarterback is next year, the development of a backup must become a priority. MSU stunted its growth in 2012 by failing to provide any real game action for Andrew Maxwell in the prior two seasons while Kirk Cousins took hundreds of snaps he didn’t need to take. The same mistake should not and cannot be repeated.
- If the Offensive Line does not show significant improvement in the first four games next year leading into the Bye Week, a significant change needs to be made at that time like Brett Bielema made during the season for Wisconsin in 2012. The Spartans cannot afford anything but significant progress up front if they wish to compete for Championships during the middle portion of this decade.
- If the Spartans bounce back with a 10-win season in 2013, a lot of the damage sustained in 2012 will be smoothed over much the way the 49-7 Alabama ambush in the Citrus Bowl doesn’t look all that bad as we reflect back at the surrounding Alabama National Titles. Though all the carnage of 2012 won’t be swept away and forgotten, the great bulk of it could be put off in the distance if Dantonio can lead the Spartans back to the 10 win club.
- Most of the better teams in College Football next year won’t dominate a single game as much as Alabama owned the National Title game. I can think of dozens of College teams that should digest that for humility and keep it with them thorough out 2013 to avoid over celebrating or creating false hype. Go levy a 1st Half Knockout in the National Title Game, then you can go strut and yap all you want.
*Let me near all about it inside the Phalanx Forum and @JPSpartan