Outback Bowl 2012: 5 Things Michigan State Needs to Improve on in 2012
If it were not for the video game-esque Alamo Bowl, the 2012 Outback Bowl might have been remembered as the best game of the 2011 postseason.
Michigan State's 33-30 3OT victory over Georgia had just about everything you could ask for: a safety, a punt return for a touchdown, big plays, career-defining clutch drives and a blocked kick to seal it for Sparty.
Despite being harassed by a prototypical lighting-fast SEC defense all game long and throwing three interceptions, Spartans QB Kirk Cousins stepped up in the biggest moment. He led Michigan State on a game-tying 10-play, 85-yard drive with less than two minutes to play to force the extra session. After the Spartans took a three-point lead in the third OT, Michigan State blocked a tying field goal attempt to win the Outback Bowl and all the Bloomin' Onions that go with it.
The careers of Cousins as well as other stars B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol were capped with the first Spartan bowl win of the Mark Dantonio era. Even better, it came against a tough SEC opponent in a time when the SEC is king of college football.
Michigan State finished off its second consecutive 11-win season and came up just short of a second straight Big Ten Title after a thrilling conference championship game a few weeks ago.
But it is never too soon to look ahead, and the Spartans and their fans have plenty to be optimistic about heading into 2012. In order to maintain their newfound Big Ten prominence and perhaps even take the next step on a national level, there are a few things the Spartans must accomplish next season.
No. 1: Return Focus to the Running Game
Coming into 2011, it was a forgone conclusion that Edwin Baker would build on his huge sophomore season and be the driving force behind a powerful Spartans rushing attack.
Instead, Baker regressed, finishing the season with only 665 rushing yards.
Sophomore Le'Veon Bell broke out and became the featured back for Michigan State, ending the year just shy of 1,000 yards rushing.
However, what was thought to be a strength for Michigan State coming into 2011 ended up being arguably the team's weakest unit. The Spartans were second to last in the Big Ten in rushing YPG and near the bottom of the conference in rushing touchdowns.
Sparty will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and a brand new receiving corps in 2012. With the return of Baker, Bell and Larry Caper, it will be imperative for the Spartans to once against rank among the Big Ten's elite in terms of running the football.
No. 2: Develop the Next Spartan Aerial Assault
While it is never a good thing to lose the school's all-time leading passer, as Michigan State will do when it suits up without Kirk Cousins next season, the Spartans will be in good hands with Andrew Maxwell.
The soon-to-be redshirt junior stands 6'3", 208 lbs and has an extremely strong arm. He looked very solid in limited action this year.
Maxwell will have all new targets to throw to next year, with young receivers Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett stepping in for the departed B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol.
The Spartans' arsenal of talented weapons in the passing game will not be easy to replace, but with a stronger running game and one of the nation's top defenses, the truth is that the passing attack needs to only be serviceable for the Spartans to have success in 2012.
No. 3: Take the Defense to the Next Level
I know what you are thinking.
How can the Spartans possibly take their defense to the next level?
They already led the Big Ten in almost every major defensive category in 2011. They had an eye-popping 44 sacks and 18 interceptions on the season. The 273 total YPG the Spartans gave up was good enough for fifth-best in the entire nation, and all four teams they trailed were in the SEC. The defensive line was so dominant that at least two of their linemen (Jerel Worthy and William Gholston) look like they could start for any NFL team right now.
But this defense can be even better.
Worthy is a junior and will have a decision to make about whether or not to turn pro; almost every other defensive starter will return next year, though. The defensive backfield will remain largely in tact, as will Max Bullough and the rest of the linebacking corps.
The Spartans have a chance to have not only the best defense in the Big Ten but the best defense in the country. Alabama has had mediocre (at best) quarterback play this season, but the Tide have shown that a strong defense can carry a team to a spot in the National Championship Game. The Michigan State defense has a chance to be that scary in 2012, especially if Mr. Worthy tells the NFL to hold on for a year.
No. 4: No Let-Down Games in 2012
Unlike every other major professional or collegiate sport, there are no second chances in college football (unless you are Alabama).
For better or worse, if you lose a game, you lose a shot at a national or even conference title. In 2010, the Spartans cost themselves a Rose Bowl berth by no-showing a game in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes. This season, it was a road game at Nebraska that derailed the Spartans.
Now, as things worked out, Michigan State still qualified for the Big Ten championship.
However, you can make the argument that both the Iowa and Nebraska showdowns were very winnable games for Sparty.
Specifically, there was no excuse for blowouts in each of those instances. As the first Wisconsin game of the year and the Outback Bowl showed, the Spartans are capable of winning close games with clutch performances. In 2012 it is imperative for Michigan State to not have any let-downs and give themselves a chance to eek out those kinds of battles.
No. 5: Expect Greatness and Play Accordingly
Over the past two seasons, the Spartans have notched 22 victories. They have won four straight games over arch-rival Michigan and two of their last three against Wisconsin.
They have finally broken through with a major bowl victory against a high-powered SEC team. In 2011 the Spartans had a defense surpassed only by a few programs in the country, including both participants in next week's National Championship Game.
Michigan State is no longer a "nice story" or the Cinderella of the conference. The program is becoming a Big Ten powerhouse that's capable of playing (and beating) anyone. Despite having the 44th-ranked recruiting class in 2012 (according to Rivals), Michigan State has shown an ability for player development and defying these sorts of rankings under Dantonio and his coaching staff.
Challenging for Big Ten championships should not only be expected from this program going forward—it should be demanded. Without the previously mentioned slip-ups in games against Nebraska and Iowa, Michigan State would be in the National Championship conversation.
These types of expectations may seem unrealistic, but dreams do not become reality without that kind of belief. For the Spartans and their fans, the future is brighter than ever.
The team needs only to go out and take it.