At first glance, last Friday’s victory over Youngstown State appears to be a solid opening win for the Michigan State Spartans. Kirk Cousins threw for 222 yards and a touchdown, the defense gave up only six points and B.J. Cunningham had a record-setting evening. The Spartans cruised to a 28-6 win at home to began the season.
Unfortunately for a Spartan team with aspirations of a second consecutive Big Ten Championship, last week’s win was anything but solid. The Spartans looked lackadaisical in the first half, possibly needing 30 minutes to shake out the offseason cobwebs. They had only two plays of 20-plus yards the entire game and only forced one turnover.
Going into their game against Florida Atlantic on Saturday, the Spartans have a multitude of issues they need to focus on in order to avoid a pattern of inconsistency to start the 2011 campaign. Here are five to get Michigan State started.
RB Edwin Baker
Sure Baker got the bulk of the work against Youngstown St., gaining 91 yards on 15 carries. He should have had 25. Baker is the Spartans top back and is on the 2011 Preseason Doak Walker Award Watch List for a reason.
After being the No. 6 rated running back coming out of Oak Park High School in 2009, Baker broke through in 2010. He had a team-leading 13 touchdowns and 1,201 yards rushing, averaging just over 15 carries a game. Now a junior, it is time for D'Antonio to crank up Baker’s workload and see what kind of numbers he can post.
I am all for giving your featured back a blow and bringing in Larry Caper and Le’Veon Bell for change of pace, but Baker needs to be the focal point. His ability to control the ground game, and more importantly the clock, will come in handy down the road against the likes of Ohio State and Nebraska.
DT Jerel Worthy
One of the supposed strengths of the Spartans coming into this season was the defensive line. That did not appear to be the case against Youngstown State. The Spartans recorded exactly zero sacks and allowed the Penguins to go 8-for-15 on third down. Allowing a conversion rate like that on third down is a direct result of not getting enough pressure on the quarterback.
If DT Jerel Worthy wants to validate his Top 20 position on Mel Kiper’s 2012 NFL Draft Big Board, he might want to introduce himself to FAU QB Graham Wilbert on Saturday…and do it more than once.
TE Brian Linthicum
It is no secret how important the tight end position is in Michigan State’s offense, and if you are unsure, then watch the final play of the last year’s Notre Dame game. Although Charlie Gantt is gone, the Spartans are still loaded at the position with Brian Linthicum, Dion Sims and Garrett Celek.
However, tight ends only accounted for two catches for 11 yards against Youngstown State. If Cousins can get these guys involved early, it would loosen up the coverage on the wide outs and help the Spartans avoid the sluggish first quarter they played last week.
In 2010, kicker Dan Conroy missed only one field goal all season. He took little time matching that mark this year, as he shanked a 27-yarder in the fourth quarter against Youngstown State. When Big Ten season rolls around and the weather cools down, the Spartans need a kicking game they can count on in games that are likely to come down to the wire.
Keshawn Martin also fumbled a punt in the second quarter which was recovered by the Penguins when Michigan State was only leading 7-0. Those are the kinds of plays that swing games, and just because it did not come back to bit the Spartans this time does not mean it won’t in games against Michigan and Wisconsin. Just ask the San Diego Chargers if special teams can derail an entire season.
For all intents and purposes, the Spartans laid an egg in the first half against Division I-AA Youngstown State. This week they play another subpar opponent in the Florida Atlantic Owls, who were throttled by Florida, 41-3, last week.
The Spartans are 33-point favorites this week. They are the bigger, faster, more athletic team. The Spartans know it and the Owls know it. Michigan State needs to come out with a ferociousness and brutality like it can smell blood in the water. It is not about taking FAU for granted; if anything, it is the opposite.
In life when you have an advantage, you do everything in your power to exploit it. The Spartans had the chance to do just that against Youngstown State, and instead played uninspired. Let’s see if they can impose their will on a weaker opponent this week, and then maybe we can start to consider the Spartans as contenders in the Big Ten.