The weather in East Lansing today is beautiful for November 2nd. It's 65 degrees with a nice breeze. With the Golden Gophers (previously known as the Golden O-fers) on their way to town and a beautiful Saturday on tap it's time to think of what lies ahead of the team for this upcoming month.
Currently, the Spartans are sitting well at 6-2, having run through an October gauntlet that included three straight weeks of top 15 opposition. The schedule for this month is far more forgiving with Minny and Indiana at home, Iowa and Northwestern away this month's schedule looks significantly easier. Why do I bring up a schedule of which you are all aware?
Two of our opponents, Minnesota and Indiana, are trainwrecks and we have them at home. Look for us to re-establish our running game against them. Northwestern has the friendliest fanbase of any opposing stadium in the Big Ten, because you'll be joined by all MSU fans. Then, there's Iowa. Kirk Ferentz seems to have Mark Dantonio's number, compiling a 4-1 record against him in the series including soul-crushing losses in 2009 and 2010. Their November schedule includes UM, MSU and Nebraska at home and away at Purdue. MSU hasn't won in Iowa City since 1989, etc. Frankly, this game scares me, history is on their side, they play the Cover 2 just like Nebraska.
Still, if Denard Robinson is Mr. September, Mark Dantonio is Mr. November. Dantonio has compiled a 9-3 record in November since coming to Michigan State, good for a .750 winning percentage. His career winning percentage at MSU is .650 percent. Prior to last year MSU hadn't won at Happy Valley since 1965 back when JoePa had been coaching the team for only about 45 years or so. Mark Dantonio can flat out win when the northern winds are blowing.
There are many interesting bowl scenarios that could play out this month. MSU currently sits 4th in the Big Ten in the BCS rankings and 17th overall. Spots 15 and 16 are currently occupied by Michigan and Penn State. It's unlikely Penn State makes it through the rest of the season without a loss, how they've made it this far is frankly staggering. If Nebraska wins out Michigan falls below us. If Michigan State wins out and so does Nebraska, it is difficult to see Michigan State not making a BCS at-large game. If Nebraska stumbles and MSU wins out, they will play in the Big Ten title game. Either way win out and great things will happen.
So why am I excited? Our defense is astoundingly good. Mark Dantonio is a proven winner in November and should Michigan State win out the odds of them being the second-highest BCS rated Big Ten team or HIGHER are fantastic. This is Mark Dantonio's time of year, this is when he feasts on the opposition. All I know is I'm excited to watch.
So yesterday I got all "get off my lawn you damned whippersnappers" about the lack of identity within the Michigan State offense. I recanted a better time in 2007 when MSU converted all of it's third downs by running the ball down the opposition's throat. It seems unfair to level this criticism without some research to back it up.
I tried to think of a question that would provide a strong indicator to what the "identity" of an offense is and landed on this one. Since 2007, on 3rd and 4th down with 3 or fewer yards to go, what type of play does Michigan State run and how often is it successful? If you believe in your running game, I think this is a makeable down and distance. If you are skittish about your running game, I think this you'll see a lot of passing.
The stats were constructed taking the results of plays on 3rd and 4th down with 3 or less to go. They were only taken in Big Ten games to try and remove some of the fluff in non-conference games. Results are tabulated using ESPN play-by-play. Note: Discovered cfbstats about seven seconds ago, will probably use that in the future. The stars indicate a missing game. In 2007 it was Indiana, in 2008 it was Wisconsin, in 2009 it was Minnesota. An obvious issue is small sample size. 20 or 30 of something over 8 games is not really a lot. Second issue is that we've played the meat of our schedule in 2011 so there will be some fluff going forward or at least, I hope so.
So what does this tell us?
- First, I was half right about 2007. When we ran we converted 80 percent of our third and shorts in 2007, but we didn't run as often as I remembered. We only ran 45 percent of the time on 3rd and short in 2007 we just happened to be successful nearly every time.
- Next, MSU is having it's worst 3rd down rushing conversion percentage of the Mark Dantonio era in 2011. Again, this might be because we've played the meat of our schedule and things should only get easier from here. Also, our offensive line is not bad, but not the manbeasts we were expecting by year 5. With the exception of 2009 we haven't had a year below 58 percent. This year we're at 33 percent.
- I think the sheer number of 3rd and shorts is important too. In 2007 MSU had 33 3rd and shorts, in 2010 it was 29, in 2008 it was 26 and 2011 is projecting 26, in 2009 we had 16.
In these situations, we've run more than passed in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In 2007 we passed more than ran. In 2011, we have yet to play three spread teams with weak rushing defenses and Iowa, who's down, but still Iowa. I suspect the balance will end up at the end of the Big Ten season slightly in favor of rushing over passing.
So in this particular metric is Michigan State a power running team at least in terms of play selection? For the last three years and projected over this year, yes, anywhere from marginally (2008 and 2011) to definitely (2009 and 2010). The question might instead be after 2007's third and short success on third down, should we be?
Anyway, leave comments or areas for improved study below, stats was a long time and many hoppy beverages ago
This week has been a giant crapgasm of fail, so that means Game Preview Lite.
Ok, so here's the thing about Nebraska, for a team that is in it's first season in the Big Ten, they sure do like to kick our asses a lot. Nebraska is 5-0 against MSU historically, with the most recent loss coming in the 2003 Alamo Bowl(aka "Richie Incognito destroyed Stanton's knee and laughed while he plotted his next murder" bowl). We've made several attempts to their heroic coach of yore, Tom Osborne, but we lost out on that too. In short, they've owned us hard throughout the years.
While this is the same old Nebraska team(option rushing, strong defense) this Michigan State team is better than any version that has played Nebraska in years past. That's what will make this matchup interesting. That and Darrell and his other brother Darrell.
Every Thanksgiving the following conversation takes place:
Bo: I'm cutting the turkey. Carl: No, I'm cutting the turkey. This requires a specialist and you look like Lord Voldemort. Bo: Ok, you can cut the turkey, it'll give you a good moment to think about while you're in the unemployment line for mouthing off. Carl: You're an asshole, where would you be without the revival of the blackshirts? Bo: You mean without Ndamkoung Suh? What has your defense done since he left? Precisely dick. That's what. Whatever happened to that 4-1-6 you installed the year after Suh left? Oh it disappeared when you didn't have the best Defensive Tackle in 10 years to screw everything up for the other teams. Sit down you sad little man.
It happens at every single holiday gathering. I even heard that they played a 12 hour game of slapbelly fueled by egg nog, rum and sibling rivalry.
Nebraska Passing Attack vs MSU Pass Defense
Taylor Martinez can't throw a football. Like he may be physically capable, but his offense does not require or even really expect it. With a 55 percent completion percentage and 7 TD to 6 picks. He's a Nihilist dude, nothing to be afraid of.
Nebraska Rushing Attack vs MSU Rush Defense
MSU has held it's big ten opponents an average of 126 yards under their average rushing totals for the season so far. If that holds true tomorrow it would still mean allowing 135 yards rushing to the Huskers. They're really good at running the football, as they should be for an option team. In short, I think we'll give up 200ish yards to them on the ground. Despite that being good considering the quality of their rushing attack, it'll definitely be a bit like making out with the wrong person for a while before you realize the mistake you almost made.
Nebraska Rushing Defense vs MSU Rushing Attack
Nebraska is 70th in rushing defense. Which like, what the hell? Where's your blackshirt death Bo Pelini? Part of being an option team means having a good rush defense. So, uh? If only we had a common yardstick... and we do! Against Wisconsin, they allowed Wisconsin 50 carries for 231 yards. So Nebraska rushing defense is like 1990 Soviet Union, scary in name only. That said, our ability to run the ball this year has been like 1990 Yugoslavia, not even scary in name only. At dead last in the Big Ten it's kind of sad, whenever you finish behind in Indiana football in anything it's sad.However, our rushing attack will do better than usual because we've played some teams with good run defense, but won't be dominant.
Nebraska Passing Defense vs MSU Passing Attack
Nebraska has the 27th ranked pass defense but has allowed a lot of passing TD's(11) and few picks(5). Cousins is coming off the game of his career, so unless Nebraska plans to abandon defending the run and let Cousins pass freely, a small let down seems inevitable. I kind of like this match-up, our running game is enough that the Nebraska can't give up on it.
I dare not pick
This like the last few games seems like a game that could go either way. Nebraska is a bit of a paper tiger to me and the chief characteristic of Mark Dantonio teams is exposing pretenders. Still, until we have a year that does not feature an amazingly shitty away loss, I won't believe we can do without it. That loss doesn't come this week though. MSU makes the series 5-1 with it's first win against the Cornhuskers.
The Michigan State/Wisconsin game will be a game I remember for a very, very long time. The game featured two typical Big Ten Quarterbacks both with semi-accurate arms, the ability to run a little bit and could play Wide Receiver if so desired. So I'm sure you could see why it's a little strange that the typical Big 10 Quarterback on our roster was the one who caught Saturday night's Hail Mary pass, not the one who threw it.
A bloodless revolution has taken place at the Quarterback position in the Big Ten over the past several years. In 2006, zero quarterbacks rushed for over 450 yards. In 2011, two (Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez) have already eclipsed that total. MarQueis Gray, Kain Colter(if he plays even one more game), Nathan Scheelhaase and Braxton Miller are on pace to meet that 450 yard mark. Russell Wilson is on pace to come up just short Gray and Scheelhaase could pass it this weekend. Miller and Colter should just squeak over it.
There in dead-assed last sits our hero. Mr. Kirk Cousins. With 16 rushes for -70 yards he's not a runner. That's almost exclusively sack yardage. It's not that he can't run, it's that he chooses not to. I might add the dude who took the terrible angle plays for the Chargers now.
So Why Am I So Happy That Our Throwback QB Is Coming Back To The Future?
A couple reasons. First, the Big Ten is the most boring conference in college football. The national opinion of Big Ten Football is that it is slow, anachronistic and boring. This is the same reason Michigan hired RichRod, they wanted to be the first to the block with the new brand of football. That and Rodriguez was the first dude to say yes. I am 100 percent ok with the rest of the country thinking we're a conference full of Robot Henne Quarterbacks who can't run at all.
Second, this over the years will provide a distinct recruiting and development advantage. Brian Hoyer who did not get drafted at all in pro football has been Tom Brady's backup for the past three seasons. Kirk Cousins is anywhere between third and seventh on most analysts Draft Board despite the fact passing wise he's the fourth best QB in the Big Ten. If you want to play in the NFL at QB how fast you are doesn't really matter at all, it's how well you throw the ball. Being a pro-style quarterback prepares you for playing in the pros.
Kirk Cousins is the last of a dying breed for a few reasons. The bulk of which have nothing to do with and are far more important than this article. He is a human being that is what's good in people. The one that interested me today though is that he is the last of a dying breed of dropback passer in the Big Ten. In spite of that all, I'm not sure I'd want anyone else.
So, Saturday afternoon, I caught The Death. It had started creeping in on Friday morning but Saturday afternoon it was on like Donkey Kong. I couldn't make it through a conversation without a cough drop, something hot to drink (which ruled out most of what you do drink at a tailgate) or just coughing for about 25 seconds. I mentally entertained skipping the game and it would have been my first scratch unrelated to a wedding in eight years. In the end though, wisdom prevailed, pain is temporary, pride is forever and all that other nonsense. Armed with two rolls of cough drops and drinking four hot chocolates throughout I watched one of the best games I have ever seen at Spartan Stadium.
See for as damned uncomfortable as I was physically on Saturday night this isn't about me or really the other 75,000 fans in Spartan Stadium. This night was about the Michigan State Football team. A team picked to win this game by no one except a handful of local media. A team who was minus one of their best players in Will Gholston and whose Defensive Coordinator was given one of the most wristslappy rebukes I have ever seen on Friday afternoon. An offense whose problems have been maligned even on this very blog laying out the mighty Badgers for 37 points. A fifth year walk-on (Elsworth is apparently a sophomore) making not one but two critical plays to win the game for the Spartans. Kirk Cousins going out and putting up 22/31 for 3 TD's and no picks against the nation's fourth ranked pass defense. And....
Keith Nichol's day in the sun. Holy crap if this kid hasn't earned it. He could have chosen not to come back after spurning MSU for the Sooners. But he did. He could have left after losing out the starting job to Kirk Cousins in 2009, but he didn't. He could have tried to beat out Cousins for the gig in 2010, but he didn't, he chose instead to be a Wide Receiver because he thought it's where he could best help the team. With that touchdown grab, Keith Nichol has 202 yards and 1 Touchdown on the season, hardly stultifying numbers, but way to make your one count. Congratulations sir.
As a result, I think our team would have kicked Badger ass with or without us on Saturday night, but I'm happy I was invited to spectate.
- Keshawn Martin the Wide Receiver appears to be back to form. I thought his receiving struggles were related to the lack of a legitimate 2 receiver and him being asked to play outside of his typical slot role, but some switch flipped for him in the past couple games. Keshawn Martin the Punt Returner still looks a skosh iffy to me.
- Congratulations to Kyler Elsworth. A HUGE 3rd down stop in the second quarter to force the Badgers to kick a field goal that was subsequently blocked. Speaking of blocking, did you know he blocked that punt that was then returned for a touchdown. Congrats Mr. Elsworth.
- The Wisconsin playaction is breathtaking and their run game is always enough of a threat that you cannot write off the run on playaction. There were several times in this game that the run was sold so well I had no idea that it was a pass until the ball was in the air. Our defense was outstanding on Saturday despite giving up 31 points.
- 1. The number of interceptions Russell Wilson had this season coming into the MSU game. 2. The number of interceptions he had during the game. Our defense managed to do twice what one other team had done once all season. Pick off another September Heisman candidate.
- Missing Will Gholston in my opinion almost cost us this game. Not really in quarters 1,2 or 3. Specifically in Quarter four when Wisconsin was completing passes because they had ALL DAY to throw. That's where Will would have made the difference helping get to Wilson just a half second sooner would have made that game less interesting in my opinion. Glad we'll have him back for the remainder of the season.
- Did Bielema Choke this game away? Mostly no. The timeout he called on 2nd and 20 was a good decision. The one he called on 3rd and 8 was not. State would have had to call a timeout in that situation anyway which means we have one less for the Rocket play. Hindsight's 20-20 of course, but there was just too much field to defend for him to think he was really going to pull that off on 3rd and 8.
Anyway, great win, program win maybe even? Great game to watch and might be the set up for a huge rivalry going forward.