We are trying hastily to wrap up our season previews and so we move on to one of Northwestern’s fiercest rivals and perhaps one of its program models. Michigan State is currently where Northwestern envisions itself being one day. Not a traditional powers who has slowly risen through the Big Ten’s middle tier, reached consistency and now competes for the Big Ten title every year.
Or, at least, the last two years Michigan State has.
And the last few years, the Spartans have been a thorn in the Wildcats’ side. The game is somewhat of a benchmark for Northwestern because of the place Michigan State represents in the Big Ten’s program development hierarchy. And right now, despite all the success for the Wildcats the last four years, the gap seems pretty wide. The Spartans have won five of the past six games against the Wildcats, and that one win was that double overtime epic with C.J. Bacher and Omar Conteh. And since history begins in 1995, Northwestern is a respectable 5-8 since 1995.
You can sense the frustration that Northwestern has not had a better shake against Michigan State.
There is no better time to start than this year. Not that it will be easy. Even with losing Kirk Cousins, Michigan State expects to make a second straight appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game.
To help us learn a little about Michigan State and our Legends Division rival, we turned to Pete Rossman (no relation… I think) of The Only Colors. First the basics:
- 2012 Game Date: November 17 – Spartan Stadium – East Lansing, Mich.
- Alltime series: Michigan State leads 16-36
- Last meeting: Michigan State 31, Northwestern 17 – Evanston, Ill.
- Mark Dantonio – 44-22 (27-13 in B1G)
- Returning offensive starters: 5
- Returning defensive starters: 8
- 2011 Total Offense: 390.4 ypg (B1G 4th)
- 2011 Total Defense: 277.4 ypg (B1g 1st)
- 2011 Scoring Offense: 31.0 ppg (B1G 3rd)
- 2011 Scoring Defense: 18.4 ppg (B1G 3rd)
On to the preview…
Philip Rossman-Reich, LTP: Michigan State has been knocking on the door for a while, splitting the Big Ten title in 2010 and getting to the Big Ten championship game last year. What would breaking through mean to the Michigan State program? Is there a sense the Spartans have to do it now while that team from Ann Arbor is still rebuilding?
Pete Rossman, TOC: The Spartans won a share of the Big Ten title in 2010. They were a running into the kicker penalty away from the Rose Bowl last year. They won the Outback Bowl over a very good Georgia team last season. That means the next step for Michigan State is quite obvious: win the Big Ten outright and make it to the Rose Bowl. If Michigan State couldn’t make it to the Rose Bowl because of their involvement in the National Championship game (a man can dream), I could live with that.
As for Michigan, they have competent coaching now; that’ll obviously make the Legends division a bit tougher. That said, MSU’s schedule eases up the next two seasons, with Ohio State and Wisconsin rotating off and Purdue and Illinois rotating on. While winning a conference title will be a bit tougher in coming years, I trust that Dantonio will find the right players to keep MSU competitive.
PRR: Kirk Cousins, like our Dan Persa, was the heart and soul of Michigan State. He was a great leader and an incredible talent. He made Michigan State go in a lot of ways. I don’t think you can replace him in one season, but what will Michigan State do to replace everything he did for Michigan State? Is Andrew Maxwell ready to step into that quarterback role and keep the Spartans run of success going?
TOC: If it was just Maxwell Michigan State needed to replace, I’d be less nervous. However, they’ve lost wide receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol, and tight end Brian Linthecum to graduation. [That means] 222 out of 288 receptions on the team last season were made by players no longer with the team, and that to me is a lot more nerve-racking than Maxwell, who’s in his fourth year as a Spartan.
There’ll be dropped passes, but there is talent. De’Anthony Thomas is a former Top 100 recruit, tight end Dion Sims has proven himself in the two scrimmages this camp, Bennie Fowler has experience, and Tony Lippett has shown flashes of breakaway speed at times. It’ll be tough to watch at times, but I expect Maxwell to complete at least 58 percent of his passes and provide enough points for the defense to secure the win.
PRR: Michigan State’s defensive line was monstrous last year with Jerel Worthy anchoring it. Worthy is gone but William Gholston is still there and this is still a team that carries a strong defensive tradition with it. Can Michigan State match the defensive dominance it had last year? Who will be the players to watch and be wary of for opposing offenses?
TOC: You and most of the media have already mentioned William Gholston, so I’ll skip him for now and mention a player from each level of the defense.
The other defensive end, Marcus Rush, had 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks last season on his way to Freshman All-America honors. Offensive lines won’t be able to double-team both Gholston and Rush. Of the linebacking corps, Denicos Allen will look to improve on his 18.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks from last season; the attention the front four draws really opens avenues up for him to stop mobile passers. Lastly, among the back four, Johnny Adams is the perfect corner for the corner blitz State likes to surprise team with at times. He recorded three sacks last season to go with three picks while being one of, if not the premier cornerback in the conference.
The Spartans return nine of 11 starters on defense this season, so it’s hard to see them falling off from 2011. In fact, I’ll be surprised if the defense doesn’t improve.
PRR: Michigan State had kind of a light recruiting year. Scout has their class 38th in the nation (third in the Big Ten) and Rivals had the Spartans fifth in the conference. Who in this recruiting class, if any, could be standing out this year? Where does this year’s class fit in for this year’s team?
TOC: Those rankings can be a bit deceiving. The reason that recruiting has been so light is that MSU can only take about 17-18 players this season, and since the recruiting rankings are based in part by how many players a team recruits, they won’t be as high as other teams. State redshirted all but one of its freshman class its previous year, so there won’t be much room for this year’s freshmen.
However, there are a couple of freshmen pressing for spots in the two deeps. Demetrious Cox could see time at either safety position, and long snapper Taybor Pepper will in all certainty be the starter next Friday against Boise [State]. Top 100 recruit Aaron Burbridge was pushing for time at wide receiver, but he sustained a significant injury during camp and will most likely be redshirted.
PRR: Northwestern and Michigan State have had some classic games, but not recently. What, in your mind, has been the biggest difference in Michigan State taking care of its business against Northwestern in recent years? What about Northwestern should give Michigan State fans pause entering this year’s game?
TOC: The biggest difference has been Michigan State’s defense learning how to play mobile quarterbacks efficiently. In my opinion, this requires two things: containing said mobile passer and having the defensive backs be good/disciplined enough to cover the receivers after the play has broken down. I recall in past years that the Spartans would absolutely be torn to shreds by the spread, and that’s not the case anymore.
As for this year’s game, I think the biggest thing that should give MSU fans pause is the Colter to Prater potential. The Georgia game showed that MSU can be beaten by athletic wide receivers, which Prater definitely is. That said, the Northwestern game comes after MSU’s bye week in November. They’ll have time to rest up and be ready.
PRR: Many thanks to Pete for taking the time to answer our questions about Michigan State. I guess I will you at the next family reunion (maybe, probably not? … We can play Jewish geography later). Until then, we cannot wait for Northwestern’s date in East Lansing this November!