Yesterday was indeed a beautiful day for football, the perfect way to open the 2009 college season.
After days of unseasonably cool and rainy weather, the sun shone down on East Lansing as Michigan State prepared to open their 2009 campaign.
It was a special day, memorable for the football, and my first game in Spartan Stadium as a proud alum.
After a tailgate—during which I could barely contain my excitement over the upcoming game—I made my way down to Adams Field to take in the spectacle of the real Best Damn Band in the Land.
After joining my fellow Spartans in a rousing rendition of the fight song, the band was off on their weekly march to the stadium, their first one of the year. Cross the Red Cedar River with a perfectly in-time high step and horn swing, hang a left at Sparty, and you're there.
Spartan Stadium, football heaven for followers of the Gospel of Mark Dantonio.
This was by no means a titanic season-opening clash. It lacked the sexiness of Alabama versus Virginia Tech, and didn't have the BCS-busting implications of Oregon against Boise State. It was important for other reasons, though—it gave the Spartan faithful their first glimpse at the new-look Green and White.
They did not fail to deliver.
Kirk Cousins, the young quarterback out of Holland, Michigan tasked with starting the opener, showed some nerves at the start. He soon settled down and began delivering accurate throws all over the field, connecting with B.J. Cunningham on a 29-yard touchdown pass with 8:24 left in the first quarter.
The Spartans would strike again just six seconds into the second quarter, with Blair White the beneficiary of Cousins' arm this time. Two quick touchdowns and a defense that wasn't budging, the 1-AA Bobcats never stood a chance.
After Cousins' early performance, the other half of the quarterback battle was given a chance to deliver. Keith Nichol, the transfer from Oklahoma, got straight to work. He delivered a pair of touchdowns to a pair of tight ends, Dion Sims and Brian Linthicum. The Spartan air attack was looking good, and nobody was lamenting the loss of Brian Hoyer any longer.
In the second half, MSU took their foot off the gas, electing to try and work in some running backs who were fairly low on the depth chart. Glenn Winston, A.J. Jimmerson, and Ashton Leggett all made appearances as Dantonio slowed the game down to avoid making the blowout worse.
The change in tempo meant that Brett Swenson would have a couple of chances to convert field goals, and he picked up where he left off in 2008, with two accurate kicks from 45 and 37 yards. The Spartans relied heavily on Swenson's leg last season, and it looks like they will be able to do the same in 2009. He's a great kicker who is not fazed by pressure at all.
Montana State was done well before halftime, as was expected. The Bobcats were an outmatched FCS team that merely provided a chance for the Spartan newcomers to stretch their legs.
Fans were treated to one moment of drama late in the game, however. With the score 41-3 in favor of Michigan State, redshirt freshman kicker Dan Conroy stepped up to attempt a 43-yard field goal. A Bobcat defender managed to get a slight touch on the kick as it traveled toward the uprights, and those still left in the stadium gasped as the kick hit the crossbar and bounced through. That would be the final score of the game as the Spartans took home a 44-3 victory on opening day.
Grading the units
Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both looked capable of leading this team to a third consecutive bowl game. Their throws were mostly accurate, and the passing attack accounted for all five touchdowns.
Fans may lament the lack of a rushing touchdown, but Montana State made a commitment to stopping the run, allowing the Spartans to air it out. Caulton Ray and Larry Caper had very healthy YPC numbers, and those figure to stay good once opponents realize that they have to prepare for both the run and pass this season.
Greg Jones was his usual dominant self, with 14 tackles and two sacks. The Spartan defense surrendered only 12 first downs, and held Montana State to 2.2 yards per carry. But, the defense also gave up a few big plays during the lone Bobcat scoring drive, and there were a few missed tackles due to players forgetting to wrap up.
Special teams: A
The Spartans were three-for-three on field goals. Keshawn Martin had some very nice punt returns, including a long return of 26 yards. And, the punt unit also blocked a kick, leading to a Michigan State score. Punter Aaron Bates was only called into service twice on the afternoon, averaging a very impressing 57 yards per kick.
With so many new faces in key positions, many people thought that the Spartans would struggle in 2009. While we can't pass judgment on an entire season before Labor Day, it does look like many of those concerns were blown way out of proportion.
Both quarterbacks showed good decision-making capabilities, and made big plays—Cousins with his arm and Nichol with his feet. Dantonio's team will be in good shape regardless of who wins the quarterback position.
The Spartans also have to replace Javon Ringer, the most productive part of their offense in 2008. To open the season, freshmen Caulton Ray (RS), Edwin Baker, and Larry Caper were platooned at the position. Ray and Caper showed excellent speed and evasiveness, registering 5.9 and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively. Baker showed that he could have the power to run between the tackles, setting the Spartans up for a "Thunder and Lightning" platoon like they enjoyed in 2007 with Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick.
Another year, more dropped passes. The box score will tell you that Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol combined to go 19-for-35 through the air. Television replays will show you that Spartan receivers are once again being plagued by a case of the drops.
Last year, drops were a constant companion during games. B.J. Cunningham dropped an easy touchdown catch against Wisconsin that nearly ended up costing Michigan State the game. Thank goodness Brett Swenson's foot is better than the receiving corps' hands.
Yesterday, balls were frequently bouncing harmlessly off the hands of Spartan receivers. The only guy who seemed to be sure-handed each time he was thrown to was Blair White, who caught two touchdown passes. These kind of mistakes aren't going to cost you a game against Montana State, but the schedule gets a lot tougher very quickly. The receiving corps need to eliminate drops now before it's too late.
Center Joel Nitchman appeared to have injured his knee early in the game, and did not return. According to reports from the MSU post-game show, it's being diagnosed as a grade two MCL sprain. Nitchman will likely miss next week's clash against Central Michigan, and could be doubtful for the big trip to South Bend that follows.
Nitchman is a key veteran on an offensive line that is still growing. He was named to the preseason Rimington Award watch list, and losing him could destabilize a very young rushing attack.
Greg Jones, for his 14 tackles—including two sacks—and constant presence in or around the Montana State backfield.
The tight ends, for their combined six receptions, 73 yards and two touchdowns.
Blair White, for his nine-catch, 162 yard, two touchdown performance.