Big Ten Breakdown: Michigan State Spartans, Part 1 (Overview and Offense)

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Big Ten Breakdown: Michigan State Spartans, Part 1 (Overview and Offense)
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Team Overview

Michigan State blog theonlycolors.com went to great lengths and used complex mathematics to prove that 2011 Michigan State will not be a repeat of 2010 Iowa.

To give a recap of 2010 Iowa, the 8-5 Hawkeyes came into the year as a Top-15 team and a favorite to win the Big Ten.

They did so because the previous year saw them going 11-2 and winning the Orange Bowl.

However, there is no denying that the 2009 Hawkeyes got a lot of fortuitous bounces en route to snagging 11 wins.

Thus, the 2010 version of the Hawkeyes might have been better than their 2009 counterparts, but if not for an Insight Bowl against Missouri, the 2010 Iowa season would have been considered an abject failure.

By comparison, the 2010 Spartans also went 11-2. They had one of the easiest schedules in the Big Ten. They didn't leave the state of Michigan until late October.

The only ranked teams they played were Wisconsin and Alabama. The Spartans beat the Badgers but got smacked by the Tide. They also got smacked by the aforementioned Iowa team 6-37.

Three of MSU's wins came by a touchdown or less. They had to come back in order to beat four-win Purdue and seven-win Northwestern.

In the recently released USA Today preseason coaches poll, the Spartans were ranked No. 17.

That is the fourth-highest ranking of any Big Ten team and the second highest in the Western division.

In effect, as we move into 2011, one of the biggest questions in the Big Ten (and there are a lot of big questions) concerns whether the Spartans are for real or whether their 2010 success was a fluke.

Is their preseason promise smoke and mirrors?

If it's not, can they deliver on their preseason promise, or are they the Iowa of the 2011 football season? 

 

Offensive Overview

2010 Scoring Offense: 29.5 PPG (fifth in the conference), total offense: 388.5 YPG (sixth), rushing YPC: 4.45 (fifth), passing efficiency: 149.62 (fourth).

Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 4.2.

Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Second (2007 and 2009).

Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Sixth (2006 and 2008).

Returning Starters: QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR B.J. Cunningham, WR Keith Nichol, WR Keshawn Martin, TE Brian Linthicum, OG Joel Foreman, OG Chris McDonald.

Open Positions: FB, OL.

 

Offensive Breakdown

During the coaching shuffle that happens during the offseason, the comings and goings of the assistant coaches and coordinators is often forgotten.

In MSU's case, their offensive coordinator for the past four years, Don Treadwell, has moved on to assume the head coaching position at Miami (OH).

Mark Dantonio promoted his offensive line coach, Dan Roushar, to the vacated OC position.

But before we get to Roushar, let's consider Treadwell.

Over the last four seasons, MSU has averaged the third-best scoring offense in the Big Ten (behind Wisconsin and OSU). Treadwell was no small part of that success.

When Dantonio went down last season with a heart attack, Treadwell assumed head coaching responsibilities.

Treadwell was wearing the headset in MSU's only quality win last season (Wisconsin). In fact, with Dantonio as the head coach, the Spartans' record against ranked foes is a pathetic 1-13. On the other hand, Treadwell is 1-0.

Also, Treadwell oversaw the wide receivers at Michigan State, which has been one of MSU's strongest position groups in the Dantonio era.

With that in mind, Roushar has previously been OC at Illinois, Northern Illinois, Ball State and Butler.

For the most part, it is safe to expect Michigan State to run basically the same offense it has been running, though Roushar said he wants to stress the vertical passing game.

I think that is a bad idea, given the problems I expect the offensive line to have.

MSU runs a traditional Big Ten offense. It starts with power sets, and the priority is to establish the run and then work the passing game off play action.

That said, the Spartans (at least under Treadwell) have been known to mix it up a lot and liberally mix fullbacks, tight ends and receivers into their formations.

In short, though MSU runs first and employs a number of power sets, this is not Wisconsin football.

The Spartans will pass. Given the experience this year's team has at quarterback and receiver, my guess is they will pass often.

 

Quarterbacks

This will be Kirk Cousins' third and final season under center.

He has been largely unheralded despite carrying an impressive 146.65 career passer efficiency rating.  

Part of the reason for that has been the emphasis the Spartan offense puts on the rushing game. Another part of the reason has been the quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

With Terrelle Pryor and Denard Robinson hogging the headlines, there has been little time for Kirk Cousins.

The last issue has been his tendency to make ill-timed mistakes against good defenses in big games.

Against the four best defenses that MSU faced last season—Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Iowa and Alabama—Cousins threw seven interceptions and four touchdowns.

Two of those four games were losses, and the Spartans would have arguably squashed Wisconsin if not for the two interceptions Cousins threw against the Badgers (both in the red zone).

In 2009, Cousins barely completed 50 percent of his passes against the top four defenses he faced—Central Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State. All four of those games ended in a loss.

Next season, Cousins will likely face the toughest schedule he's faced yet as a Spartan.

It is probable that at least four of the Spartans opponents will have Top 30 defenses, with a possibility of five.

Cousins is a proven commodity, and the offensive line's performance will play a larger role this year in determining the fate of the MSU offense.

Nonetheless, Cousins and solid play-calling can help out a young offensive line a great deal.

If Cousins can become a big-game quarterback in his senior year and carry the team on his back, he can elevate his status from good to great and give Michigan State a chance at a second double-digit win season in a row.

Sophomore Andrew Maxwell is behind Cousins. He is a solid backup, but he is not ready to lead the Spartans into South Bend or Columbus.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 2

 

Running Backs

As MSU fan Ken Hammerick will hold me to, before last season, I said Michigan State running backs Edwin Baker and/or Larry Caper "can and are quality Big Ten backs, but they're never going to be All-Americans, and this year, they will not be All-Big Ten."

Well, color me dead wrong.

In 2010, Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards for 5.80 YPC and 13 touchdowns. The media named him first-team All-Big Ten for his efforts (though the coaches picked the exact four players I said they would).

He would have had a more glaring stat sheet except he shared carries with true freshman Le'Veon Bell, who ran for 605 yards for 5.65 YPC and eight touchdowns.

Caper wasn't as much of a presence, only carrying the ball 38 times, though he did log 12 receptions.

Heading into 2011, I will go on record as saying the junior Baker will be one of the Big Ten's top backs and he will earn all-conference honors.

However, I will stop short at saying he will earn national honors. This is why:

Last year, Michigan State played two Top-20 scoring defenses, and more specifically, two Top-20 rushing defenses.

Those defenses were Iowa and Alabama. The combined score of those two losses—the Spartans' only two losses of the season—was 13-86.

The combined rushing offense from those two losses was negative-17 yards. Edwin Baker's cumulative statistics were 21 carries for 35 yards or 1.67 YPC.

Firstly, when a team gets down that far, said team becomes one-dimensional, which limits the carries said back will have.

Secondly, it was not only Baker who didn't show up to those games.

Still, this begs the questions: how did MSU get down that far, and can the Spartans go nose-to-nose against an elite defense (specifically, an elite rushing defense)?

In the end, Baker's only 100-yard rushing performances on the season were against Western Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State.

Those teams were ranked 76, 107, 95, 98 and 74 against the run in 2010.

Sophomore Le'Veon Bell was slightly better against better defenses—for whatever that's worth—though Baker did receive considerably more carries, thereby generating a more substantive stat pool upon which to draw conclusions.

For more information, Spartanavenue.com does a good job of breaking down Baker's performances against elite defenses.

Still, the issue here is that next season, it is possible that MSU will play four Top-20 rush defenses—Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa—with a possibility of a fifth in Wisconsin.

If Baker and the Spartan rushing game don't show up, that is four or five probable losses from the get-go.

At the fullback position, senior Todd Anderson has moved into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.

Anderson has been all over the field in his interesting career. He began as a walk-on linebacker and then moved to defensive end last season.

He finally moved to fullback during the bowl practices and hasn't looked back.

Redshirt freshman Niko Palazeti will serve as his backup.

Expect the fullback this season to serve primarily as a battering ram, though the inexperience at the position might lead to a missed assignment or two, which can often be the difference between a win and a loss.

More notably, the tailback position is stocked, but if the Spartans are to repeat last season's success, they will need their backs to step up in big games.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 2

 

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Michigan State returns all but two players who had any receptions last season. Those two losses—top receiver Mark Dell and top tight end Charlie Gantt—are notable, but the Spartans have plenty of solid pass-catchers to go around.

The top returning receiver is B.J. Cunningham.

Barring injury, Cunningham will leave East Lansing as the Spartans' all-time leading receiver.

He's not as flashy or inherently talented of some of MSU's great receivers. But he is consistent and dependable. This is most notable in his big-game performances.

In nine career games against ranked opponents, Cunningham has 36 receptions for 400 yards and three touchdowns.

MSU's second receiver will likely be senior Keshawn Martin.

The Ozone appropriately described Martin as being like a Swiss Army knife. He's as dangerous as any player in the conference, but he tends to disappear for weeks at a time.

Martin is the best punt- and kick-returner in the Big Ten, but he's yet to put together all the pieces as a receiver.

Before last season, I predicted Martin would be one of the conference's breakout players. With 32 catches for 394 yards and a touchdown (not to mention 18 carries for 157 yards) Martin played well, but he wasn't the force I predicted he would be.

Perhaps this season will be the season he brings it all together.

The third receiver is senior converted-quarterback Keith Nichol.

In his first season as a pass-catcher, Nichol caught 22 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown.

He will be better this year now that he is experienced at the position. He will never be a great receiver, but he is a solid third option.

Filling out the depth chart are sophomore Bennie Fowler and redshirt freshman Tony Lippett.

Fowler is something of a Keshawn Martin, Jr., and in fact, when Martin went down with an injury last season, Fowler spelled him. He is extremely talented but needs to learn the position better.

Lippett is the wild card of the bunch, as he will play both defense and offense. I am not a big fan of two-way players, but it has worked before.

The Spartans have no shortage of experienced tight ends.

Summer camp opened with sophomore Dion Sims as the starting tight end, with the more experienced senior Brian Linthicum behind him.

Sims missed all of last season for committing a felony. He has been reinstated and has presumably impressed the coaches.

He caught three passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2009. 

Meanwhile, the tight end group's second felon, Brian Linthicum, has 38 career receptions for 496 yards and three touchdowns.

It is possible that his demotion occurred because he missed much of spring practice due to punishment for the aforementioned felony.

Finally, senior Garrett Celek will also compete for a starting spot. He missed the final 11 games in 2010 with a shoulder injury. As an added bonus, he has no criminal record.

Overall, MSU has a strong go-to guy in B.J. Cunningham. The rest of the receivers are talented, but still have some rough areas to work out.

Also, the top two tight ends, if they can stay out of jail, should form a nice one-two punch for the Spartan offense.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 3

 

Offensive Line

The biggest question on Michigan State's offense concerns the line.

The Spartan's have the fourth fewest returning offensive line starts in the Big Ten. Complicating that is the fact that 36 of the 57 returning starts have been registered by one player—senior Joel Foreman.

Most of the other returning starts come from the other returning starter, junior Chris McDonald. That leaves a lot of green bodies up front.

The starting five at the beginning of fall camp was (left-to-right): sophomore Dan France, Joel Foreman, redshirt freshman Travis Jackson, Chris McDonald and redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland.

Other players that will push for playing time include senior Jared McGaha, Juco transfer Fou Fonoti and converted defensive tackle Blake Treadwell.

Sophomore Henry Conway might also be in the mix after missing last season with a neck injury.

Foreman is a nice anchor to the line.

He is a four-year starter and will be All-Conference this season.

McDonald can be solid at the guard or right tackle position. Last season, he started 12 games, as he sat out the Minnesota contest with an injury.

Dan France began his collegiate career on the defense, but he made the move to offense during the team's bowl practices.

There isn't much to say about Jackson and Burkland, as they're redshirt freshmen and have no collegiate experience.

McGaha and Treadwell comprise the remainder of the returning offensive line experience.

McGaha is versatile and started at both guard and tackle last season. He was the starting left tackle as the team headed into spring practice, but he slipped down the depth chart.

Meanwhile, Treadwell's "starts" have all come on the defensive side of the ball, as he switched to offensive line this spring.

Lastly, as a Juco transfer, Fonoti was given a scholarship to earn immediate playing time. But, at the beginning of fall camp, he was buried on the depth chart.

To put it bluntly, there are a lot of red flags with this group.

First of all, they are inexperienced.

Secondly, the upperclassmen have been passed by freshmen and sophomores. Either the underclassmen in this scenario are lights out, or the upperclassmen haven't developed as one would hope.

Finally, there are two players who recently switched positions and moved right to the top of the depth chart.

Again, I'm not saying those players can't be successful. I'm saying unless they are lights out, they've passed players that have had time in the system to learn the position.

Is it possible that one of the underclassmen/position switches is lights out? Absolutely. Is it probable that they are all that good? No.

One other issue to consider is that Mark Dantonio—and his offensive line coach at both MSU and Cincinnati, Dan Roushar—does not have a strong history of producing offensive linemen.

In four years as the head coach of MSU and two as the head coach of Cincinnati, he has never had an offensive lineman picked in the NFL draft.

I expect this bunch to struggle this season, especially at the beginning of the year while they are gelling.

It will be interesting to see how OC Roushar adjusts his offense given the abundance of talent and experience he has at the skill positions and the lack thereof on the line.

If this were a spread, pass-happy offense like Northwestern, I'd be more confident. In a power-heavy, run-first team, I'm decidedly bearish.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 10 

 

Coming tomorrow, defense and specialists.

 

Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Michigan Wolverines.

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