Before the Notre Dame game, the Michigan State Spartans looked like world-beaters who were destined for another Big Ten Title and perhaps a better postseason showing than last year (Roll Tide!). After the Irish put it on the Spartans to the tune of 31-13, Michigan State is a has-been, out of the Top 25 with question marks all over the field.
So which team is Michigan State really? Probably neither, instead falling somewhere in the middle. The Spartans were likely a smidge overrated coming into this season on the merits of their 11-2 record last year. However, that record involved some come-from-behind wins against Northwestern, Purdue and Notre Dame to name a few.
There were lofty expectations for the Spartans' running game and defense coming into 2011, but the inexperienced offensive line as well as the true impact of Greg Jones' and Eric Gordon's departures may have been overlooked.
With that said, Michigan State still has a solid (not spectacular) defense, four impressive running backs and a battle-tested senior quarterback. They have the tools in place to at least contend for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis this December.
It is far too early in the season to label any team a success (besides Boise State) or a failure (besides Georgia). However, for the Spartans to live up to their own expectations, there are a few concerns they must address.
The Michigan State offensive line was just that against Notre Dame: offensive. Kirk Cousins was under heavy fire all game from the lightning quick Irish front four and he was sacked twice. The offensive line also committed six penalties, which is the quickest way to kill any drive.
While the Spartans knew the offensive line would be an Achilles heel going into the season, things have only gotten worse up front for Michigan State. Redshirt freshman Skyler Burkland was lost to a season-ending ankle injury against Notre Dame.
Two signs of how bad things are for Sparty: as a result of injuries and inconsistent play, they are converting defensive linemen to offensive linemen midseason. Also, the Spartans most solid lineman up front, Joel Foreman, committed two holding penalties on one drive against the Irish.
Why is a depleted offensive line such a big deal for the Michigan State? Because it directly offsets their biggest strength, the run game.
Through three games this season, Edwin Baker is on pace for 668 yards on 136 carries. While his 4.9 yards-per-carry average is respectable, those number are nowhere near what was expected of Baker this season.
Coming off a year in which he rushed for over 1,200 yards, Baker was expected to break through and potentially challenge for the Doak Walker Award in 2011. After finding his way into the end zone 13 times in 2010, he has reached pay dirt only once this year.
While it's true he is running behind a patchwork offensive line, it should not matter. Baker's speed and ability to break tackles give him the ability to create on his own, something he will need to start doing a lot more of for the Spartans to win in the Big Ten.
Michigan State should be able to handle Central Michigan this Saturday, which would boost their record to 3-1. From there, things start to get a bit dicey for Sparty.
Their first four games of conference play: at Ohio State, vs. Michigan, vs. Wisconsin and at Nebraska. If the Spartans are not careful, they could be out of the Big Ten race before the race really gets underway.
While all Big Ten games count towards a team's conference record, the Michigan and Nebraska showdowns loom especially large for the Spartans since each of those teams are also in the Legends Division.
To have any shot of reaching the Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Spartans cannot do worse than 2-2 over that treacherous four-game stretch. Of course they would have to sweep their last four games too (vs. Minnesota, at Iowa, vs. Indiana, at Northwestern).
In 2010, the Spartans were a big-play offense. They had touchdown plays of 48, 49 and 80 yards. Edwin Baker, responsible for the 80-yard rushing score, also had runs of 61 and 56 yards. Le'Veon Bell had gains of 41 and 75 yards.
In 2011, the Spartans have had one play go for more than 40 yards (a 55-yard reception by B.J. Cunningham in the opener against Youngstown State). They have only mustered up three plays of 30 or more yards total through three games.
Their longest running play of the season so far is 23 yards by Baker. These are startling numbers from an offense that returned all of their skill position players besides receiver Mark Dell.
The Spartans need to be more aggressive with their play-calling under new Offensive Coordinator Dan Roushar to loosen up the Big Ten defenses that Michigan State is about to face.
Take nothing away from the job Mark Dantonio has done with this Michigan State squad. In five years he has taken the Spartans from a consistent presence in the middle of the Big Ten standings to a legitimate challenger for the conference title. His recovery from a heart attack and his will power to continue coaching last season were truly inspirational.
With that being said, sometimes Dantonio may not make the most sound coaching decisions.
Look no further than the fake field-goal attempt against Notre Dame last week. Trailing 21-10 nearing the end of the first half, Dantonio calls a timeout and sets up the trick play. Getting points on the board with a field goal and cutting the Irish lead to one possession would not just have been the conservative play, it would have been the right play.
But Dantonio wanted to stick it to Brian Kelly and the Irish. Of course the play broke down and Notre Dame took the momentum into the half.
While that one play certainly did not dictate the outcome of the game, Dantonio needs to be cognizant that his decision-making and strategy are based solely upon winning and not upon pride or ego.