Michigan State Football: The Spartans See Red Ahead

Ryan C. ZerfasContributor IIISeptember 30, 2011

Red and Green is usually associated with Christmas. This October schedule is not a gift.
Red and Green is usually associated with Christmas. This October schedule is not a gift.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Ohio State is the only Big Ten team Mark Dantonio has not beaten in his time at Michigan State. This week to inspire the troops around one word, focus, he exonerated the players from their media obligations. Will focus be enough tomorrow in Columbus at 3:30 p.m.  EST (ABC regional, ESPN outer markets)?

Michigan State hasn’t had success against the Buckeyes since the Saban era with wins in Columbus in 1998, 28-24, and in 1999, 23-7 in Spartan Stadium.

This year, even without the Sweatervest, the task will not be easy, but with what we have seen from Ohio State thus far, this isn’t the instant “L” I chalked up in my season preview. I feel Kirk Herbstreit mislead me early in the year when he talked about the same sharpness and crisp nature of the practices and talent aboard the Columbus clipper.

This Buckeye team was one play away from losing to Toledo at home. They were mutilated by an undermanned Miami team. Their quarterback shuffling system appears disorganized and chaotic as the team tries to discover itself. Sound familiar? It’s not too much different from what’s going on with the Spartan offensive line.

Looking at the schedule coming into the season, this looked like an opener of Big Ten powerhouses looking to defend their titles, but with recent developments, both teams find themselves gasping for proverbial football air. This is a true program game for both Mark Dantonio and Ohio State coach Luke Fickell. The tone for the 2011 season is set on the field tomorrow.

Vegas agrees with me here. This is an EVEN game with a slight edge (+3) to Ohio State for home field. I would counter and say that’s a HUGE edge. Even a backpedaling program is tough at the horseshoe. I would rank it as the toughest place for Michigan State to play in the Big Ten. Michigan’s bloated house isn’t really that loud or intimidating. Penn State is tough, but with recent success there the Spartan sword is sharp, clean and ready to welcome a battle (I will miss the Land Grant game!?).

Twenty-four current Spartans hail from Ohio and most of them were in elementary and middle school the last time Michigan State had success in Columbus. I believe in focus, but that’s intimidating, even if the opposing coach is wearing a mere polo or jacket.

We have a fence here. Two sides. Simple as that. How are the Spartans going to execute this weekend? Is this going to look like the Notre Dame game or can Ohio State be made into a cup cake looking batter, like those consumed in previously devoured on Spartan Saturdays featuring Central Michigan, Youngstown State and FAU?

Looking ahead, the Spartans see red. It could be even bloodier with Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin up the road. If you’re playing along, there is only one non-red team and one easy victory (perhaps that’s even debatable) on that docket. All in all, it could spell a very blood shed October. I just want to see some pride on the field this week to give me hope for the future.

In spirit of Dantonio, let’s focus on the two outcomes that come from this game. Win or lose. 

The Spartans Win If…

Stop me if you have heard this (from me) before, but the battle of the trenches is pretty much surrendered. With that said, the concentration here will be to get the ground game back. This could be much like running into a brick wall, but Dantonio has pretty much made it clear there will be “running with attitude,” because the coach will possess that mentality.

I love this sentiment, but it could get ugly based on personnel. I do not expect there to be much space to run with the offensive line in shambles, but with the trio of backs Michigan State has, Bell, Caper and Baker, I think plays will have to be made. Buckeyes need to be run over and flattened on their backs as if they were standing on the tracks when the train is coming through!

I would rather see the Green and White pound themselves into a brick wall with what this program is built around than to see another embarrassing display of catawampus formations and tomfoolery like that in the Notre Dame game. I understand what the Spartans were trying to accomplish there, to offset the horrendous deficit at the line, but sometimes you have to cut your losses and accept your fate.

Pound. Green. Pound. 

Kirk Cousins is going to have to make quick decisions. He is getting hit far too often and his timing and rhythm are clearly off. MSU will try to establish this rhythm with some quick slants, screens and other ways to offset the unfair advantage up front allowing Cousins to get a feel for the game.

At the end of the game against Notre Dame, Cousins and Cunningham were connecting with reckless abandon. The passes were with pinpoint laser accuracy and I’m not even sure how they found room to get those plays off in the first place. Use that.  

Run the ball into a brick wall. Let the talent try to make plays. Quick scripted decisions with timing and focus. Make them take away Cunningham. That’s the winning offense.

Defensively, again, the Spartans will need to see if the defensive line is as good as advertised. I’m interested to see how well they contain a running quarterback like Braxton Miller. They successfully contained Denard Robinson last year, and with a superior defensive line, this shouldn’t be impossible. Force Miller to throw the ball and keep him contained. Occasionally, he’ll squirt out and make some plays, but he won’t kill you where it counts without being able to access some other weapons in the air.

The Buckeyes Win If…

They prey on Michigan State’s weakness to implode when outmatched. I will not be convinced that Ohio State doesn’t have the top level talent to possibly flip the script on what I wrote above. The defense should be able to control Kirk Cousins without blitzing, which allows the secondary and linebackers to patrol the passing game for turnovers. A couple of those and this game looks like the Iowa and Alabama games last year. Ugly.

Simply get ahead early, force the turnovers and watch the Spartans cower in fear. This formula has been set in the Dantonio era. The Buckeyes don’t want to be in a close game with an experienced Michigan State team, thus allowing the Spartan running attack to make the game clock tick quicker than a drunken bender.

The Buckeyes really only have to lean. Like when you’re ahead in poker. They enter the game with a lead. They just have to disrupt the Spartans attempt to gain a rhythm. This can all be done without finding their own Buckeye identity. That’s the cash prize.

Without taking advantage of an early lead, crowd hysterics and perceived destiny, it will be tough for Ohio State to win a straight up football game against Dantonio and company until they can regain their own composure. The fact is, it might not be necessary just yet, for this game at this time.  

The Verdict

Based on what we have seen thus far in 2011, both of these teams are struggling to find themselves. It’s hard to fathom Michigan State will have the answers to their offensive line debacle on the road against a talented opponent with top-tier recruits. One cannot ignore what Ohio State has displayed on the field this season, with a few missing pieces (RB Heron, WR Posey) serving one last game in their well documented suspension.

The real deciphering product of this game is the difference between the play at 3:30 in Columbus and the top level in conference play kicking off at 8 p.m. when No. 8 Nebraska travels to Madison to play No. 7 Wisconsin.

The Spartans have to get this game to stand a chance against either of those teams. Unfortunately, there are still too many weaknesses in the Spartan armor to advance to the next level. I would have to favor ALL red teams in October.

Tom Clancy always had a way with titles. 


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