April 03, 2010
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Spartans.
Mark Dantonio was hired in 2007 to bring some sanity and stability to a schizophrenic program that had driven predecessor John L. Smith to complete and utter insanity over three years of fourth-quarter flops and fast starts that melted into month-long losing streaks, and a nine-win, top-25 campaign in 2008 seemed like proof of his success. The Spartans had apparently turned a corner ... and rounded the block and doubled back in the opposite direction by the start of last season, a humbling regression that began with a 1-3 start in September, continued through four blown fourth-quarter leads in the regular season and ended with at least 14 players launching a premeditated assault on a frat party immediately following the team banquet. Thirteen of them were dismissed or suspended for the Alamo Bowl, which became blown fourth-quarter lead Number Five.
2010, then, is the prove-it season for the trajectory of Dantonio's tenure, two-thirds of which has looked alarmingly similar to the deflating regimes that preceded it. Another 2008 -- an eight or nine-win regular season and Jan. 1 bowl bid -- would reinforce the sense of progress that had held through roughly 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.
What's Changed. Seven different players started in the Spartan secondary at some point in '09, three of whom return (safeties Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde and cornerback Chris L. Rucker), but there's no such thing as a safe position in a corps that was humiliated early and often -- 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 subsequently 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.
No player had more than one of those picks, and none of the returnees is guaranteed to hold onto his job. Robinson and Hyde appear to be the early favorites to start again at the two safety spots, but Rucker -- a senior with 24 starts over the last three years -- was listed behind sophomore Mitchell White (zero career starts) on the initial spring depth chart, opposite sophomore Johnny Adams (two career starts, both in 2008), sending a very clear, threatening message to the underachieving holdovers. There are also four freshmen DBs and a handful of "athlete" candidates arriving in the summer, most notably four-star safety Isaiah Lewis, one of the top-rated prospects in Indiana. If the veterans aren't looking any better by then, the noobs certainly aren't going to be any worse.
What's the Same. The '08 offense was stuck with a limited quarterback (Brian Hoyer) and a running back fresh from a secret government experiment in the limits of human endurance (Javon Ringer), resulting in a paleolithic mindset that made Ringer only the fourth Division I-A back of the last decade to average 30 carries per game across an entire season. 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 weren't only more pass-oriented, but 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 consistent barrage of big plays; the top seven receivers all averaged at least 12 yards per reception, even the tight ends.
Cousins 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, 7 TDs in '09) add big targets in the middle of the field/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 below-average 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, evidence -- along with regular punt return duties and a couple other big gains as a runner -- that coaches are looking for every available opportunity to get the ball into the hands of their resident home-run threat.
Trench life. The one area that's most clearly improved in the Dantonio era is the pass rush, always a glaring sore spot under Smith, which should be fine again with sack leader Greg Jones (the Big Ten's best blitzer as well as its reining tackle king) and up-and-coming Jerel Worthy providing pressure from the inside. But the great leap forward in 2009 was on the other side of the line, where the usually mediocre offensive front allowed fewer sacks than any other team in the conference. The right side of this year's line is totally new, but with full-time starters D.J. Young and Joel Foreman back on the left side and part-timer John Stipek holding down the middle, whatever drop-off there is shouldn't be enough to significantly alter the scheme or Cousins' ability to get the ball downfield on any kind of consistent basis.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. With Dell and Cunningham both on ice after the frat house brawl, the situation at receiver was so desperate that Keith Nichol was moved outside from quarterback for the Alamo Bowl, where he caught two passes for a meager 11 yards. Still, that was good enough -- and prospects for continued playing time at quarterback bad enough with Cousins assuming the top spot and hyped signee Joe Boisture arriving early to compete for the backup job -- that Nichol decided to embrace the move this spring, gained a few pounds and started drills last week on top of the depth chart at split end.
Odds are that distinction won't last as the troubled veterans work their way back into the coaches' good graces and Nichol continues to rotate in for a few snaps at quarterback, but there is a void at the "improbably productive possession receiver" spot held down the last two years by Blair White, the same role one-time quarterback Kerry Meier assumed to tremendous effect after switching positions at Kansas. Nichol is not about to fulfill his goal as the best receiver in the Big Ten, or even on his own team, but the addition of another big, steady target will only add to defenses' problems as the Spartans continue to evolve into a full-fledged passing team.
Best-Case. With any consistency from the patchwork running game, the pieces are there to put together into the best offense in the conference, certainly good enough to match firepower in the shootouts that usually got away last year; Cousins, if well protected again, will have plenty of attractive options in any given situation. Three of last year's toughest road losses, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Minnesota, will be very winnable games in East Lansing this year, and runaway conference favorite Ohio State is conspicuously absent from the conference schedule for the second year in a row. If the Spartans can improve their scoring average by a field goal per game, even without much improvement from the defense, they can be back at 9-3 and bound for a New Year's date in Florida.
Worst-Case. The high-flying passing game looks good on paper, but MSU was the second-highest scoring team in the conference last year and still limped out with a losing record; sans a respectable running game and functional secondary, only mediocrity awaits. That's especially true with a schedule that offers all the usual pitfalls of the Big Ten schedule, including trips to still-recovering Michigan and Northwestern that scream "classic Spartan flop," not to mention straight-up underdog visits to Iowa and Penn State. There are at least four wins in September and November alone, but a slip against a Western Michigan or Purdue, along with a losing record in the crucial, five-game conference stretch in October, could lead right back to another 6-6 disappointment.
Non-Binding Forecast. Man-for-man, his isn't the most talented offense in the conference, but given the close-to-the-sweatervest approach at Ohio State and widespread inexperience at Penn State, I'd put my money on MSU leading the conference in scoring at a little over 30 points per game. Just like last year, though, part of that will be out of necessity, to overcome the growing pains of a pair of new and/or ineffective cornerbacks, specifically, and a back seven in general that just doesn't have the horses to seriously contend for the conference title or one of the floating BCS slots. Assuming the offensive line holds up, though, the passing game will have a few eye-popping afternoons, and a Gator or Outback Bowl bid likely awaits after a borderline top-25 finish in the neighborhood of 8-4.