Part of the Doc's Big Ten Week.
Mark Dantonio cut his teeth during 15 years as a defensive assistant under both Jim Tressel and Nick Saban, and Michigan State's surge to 9-4 in 2008, Dantonio's second season in East Lansing, heeded his mentors' influence offensively: Stuck with a limited quarterback (Brian Hoyer) and a running back (Javon Ringer) fresh from a secret government experiment in the limits of human endurance, the Spartans assumed a paleolithic mindset that made Ringer only the fourth I-A/FBS back of the last decade to average 30 carries per game across an entire season. Nine wins marked the best season at MSU since it won ten under Saban in 1999, and joined the 1987 Rose Bowl team as the Spartans' only other nine-game winner since the 1966 national champions.
Last year, though, may have been the beginning of turning the rugged identity on its head: With a pair of younger, livelier arms in the pocket and no single, go-to- rusher (the top two and three of the top four backs were freshmen), the Spartans were only slightly more pass-oriented in '09, but were far more downfield-oriented when they did pass. Between them, sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol averaged a full yard more per completion than Hoyer had in '08, for almost three times as many touchdowns and a more consistent barrage of big plays – they combined for 89 completions covering at least 15 yards to 62 in '08, and the top seven receivers all averaged at least 12 yards per reception, even the tight ends.
Six of that group return, and if it's not exactly the most awae-inspiring collection of talent in the Big Ten, it does stand to become the most prolific: Given the close-to-the-sweatervest approach at Ohio State and widespread inexperience at Penn State, tit shouldn't take much more than 30 points per game to lead the conference in scoring, a mark the Spartans should have no problem hitting with regularity.
Cousins clearly separated himself from Nichol as the clear starter over the second half of the season, was as efficient as any quarterback in the Big Ten and could easily emerge as the best passer in the conference with a full season as the unquestioned No. 1, especially with one of the league's deepest receiving corps at his disposal: Assuming they can stay out of trouble, Alamo Bowl suspendees B.J. Cunningham (89 career catches) and Mark Dell (82 catches) offer veteran reliability, and tight ends Charlie Gantt, Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims (combined 53 catches, seven touchdowns in '09) add big targets in the middle of the field and in the red zone.
The red-siren target for opposing secondaries, though, will be junior lightning bolt Keshawn Martin, who scored five touchdowns on just 18 catches as a sophomore, four of them on completions of at least 45 yards. Martin's meh height (5'11") makes it tough to keep him involved in the down-to-down passing game with so many other, taller options on hand. But he also added an 84-yard run and 93-yard kickoff return for touchdowns against Minnesota for good measure, making him the only player in the country to score three TDs of 80-plus yards by three different means. Martin was the main reason MSU led the league in kickoffs returns, and handled regular punt return duty, as well, more evidence that coaches are looking for every available opportunity to get the ball into the hands of their resident home-run threat.
And yet that accumulation of firepower didn't do anything for the Spartans in the win column, and not only because they struggled to score against the best defenses they faced, Iowa (13 points) and Penn State (14). Four of MSU's seven losses came in games in which the Spartans scored at least 30 points, and they ominously harkened back to the dark days under John L. Smith (as well as Dantonio's first season in 2007) by blowing fourth-quarter leads against Central Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and Texas Tech; they narrowly escaped another choke against Michigan by rebounding to win in overtime after giving up two touchdowns in the last four minutes of regulation.
Between Central Michigan and Notre Dame in September and Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State and Texas Tech after Halloween, MSU was put to the torch for at least 300 yards passing in six different games, five of them losses. The Spartans faced more passes and gave up substantially more yards and touchdowns than any other team in the conference, with only six interceptions to their credit. Statistically, it was the worst pass defense in the Big Ten by a mile. The offense had to be explosive to have any chance of keeping pace.
If 2010 is the prove-it season for the trajectory of Dantonio's tenure – two-thirds of which so far has looked alarmingly similar to the deflating regimes that preceded it – the proof is likely to come in the form of an even more aggressive passing attack that distributes the ball to as many different receivers as possible.. Another 2008 (an eight or nine-win regular season and Jan. 1 bowl bid) would reinforce the sense of progress that had held until the sobering home loss to Central Michigan last September. Another 2007 or 2009 (a close-but-not-quite campaign ending with a loss in some forgettable holiday locale) will only confirm just how deeply the program is mired in its mediocre quagmire.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.