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Michigan State Spartans preview

September 19, 2012

Although EMU hasn’t played Michigan State in football recently — the last meeting was 2008 — the schools are frequent enough opponents in other sports that I think we can dispense with the “Know Your Foe” for this one.

What’s their history?

Since its inception as a club sport in 1885 and a varsity sport in 1896, Michigan State football claims at least a share in of six Mythical National Championships (1951, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1965, and 1966), two Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships (1903 and 1905), and seven Big Ten championships (1953, 1965, 1966, 1978, 1987, 1990, and 2010).

Early teams at the State Agricultural College competed in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA), which was chartered in 1888 and is the oldest collegiate conference in the United States. The Association’s first season of competitive football was in 1894, but in those early years the Aggies could only accomplish one outright conference championship (1905) and a share of another (with Albion in 1903). The State Agricultural College left the league and became an independent in 1907. For at least a quarter-century, the Aggies — subsequently called the Spartans — tried to join the Western Conference (aka Big Nine (11 12) Ten), not getting in until 1950 (1953 for athletics).

During the 1950s when Detroit was known as the world’s leading automobile manufacturer, Michigan State was often referred to as the nation’s “football factory”. In 1951, the Spartans finished undefeated and untied to claim a share of the national championship with Tennessee. A second consecutive undefeated season led to a consensus national title in 1952. After joining the Western Conference, they promptly went on to capture the conference championship (losing only to Purdue) and beat UCLA in their first Rose Bowl game. From 1950 through 1953, the team had a 35-2 total record; after the 1953 season Biggie Munn, the Spartan coach, turned the team over to his protégé Duffy Daugherty. Daugherty led the team to a 10-0 regular season record in 1965 and a Mythical National Championship, despite losing to UCLA in the Rose Bowl (final polls were often conducted before bowl games were played). In 1966, Michigan State and Notre Dame both ended the season at 9-0-1, having tied with each other in what was dubbed “the game of the century” after Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian chose to play not to lose (rather than trying for the win) on the final drive.

(Partially from Wikipedia)

What about EMU?

Like the rest of the B1G, the Spartans are undefeated against EMU, with a 8-0 record, although unlike the rest of the B1G, they actually spent 15 years (1892-1907) in the same conference.

The series started in 1898, when Michigan State (Normal) was in Ypsilanti, and the farm school up in East Lansing was the State Agricultural College. The Normalites lost twice to the Aggies that year, 24-6 and 11-6, and that was as close as the games ever got. The next year the Aggies won 18-0, and then the series went on hiatus for nearly a century, as the Aggies/Spartans left the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association to compete first as an independent school and later in the Big (11 12) Ten.

The series resumed in 1996, when Nick Saban’s second Spartan team crushed the Eagles 47-0, and in Saban’s last (and best) year in East Lansing, 1999, the result was much the same, with a 51-7 final score. The 2002 Spartans were not nearly as good under Bobby Williams, but they had no trouble with EMU in the season opener, winning by the biggest margin in the series, 56-7. EMU made the trip again in 2006, John L. Smith’s last season, and put up their highest point total in the series, but still lost 52-20. The last meeting, in 2008, came in Jeff Genyk’s final season at EMU and Mark Dantonio’s second at Michigan State, and the Spartans scored early and often, en route to a 42-10 final score. Andy Schmitt led the Eagles offensively, completing 11 of 23 passes (48%) for 111 yards, while Terrence Blevins carried nine times 54 yards (6 yards per carry); Javon Ringer tore things up for the Spartans, carrying 34 times for 135 yards (4 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.

Who’s on the sideline?

Mark Dantonio, during a 2011 football game. Photo by Matt Radick; CC-BY-NC

Following the horror of the John L. Smith years (really, what was Ron Mason thinking?), Michigan State turned to Mark Dantonio. A South Carolina alumnus who played defensive back in the late ’70s, Dantonio has a master’s degree in education from Ohio University, where he got his coaching start as a graduate assistant. He got his “real coaching start” at Akron (then in Division I-AA) as defensive backs coach under Jim Dennison in 1985. The next year he went to Akron’s rival, Youngstown State, where he spent five years under Jim Tressel, first as defensive backs coach and later as defensive coordinator. From 1991 to 1994 he was the defensive backs coach at Kansas under Glen Mason, and when Nick Saban was hired as Michigan State’s head coach in 1995, he called in Dantonio as defensive backs coach.

Dantonio must have liked East Lansing, because when Saban left for LSU at the end of the 1999 season, Dantonio stuck around for Bobby Williams’ (EMU running backs coach from 1985-1989) first season. In 2001 Jim Tressel was hired as head coach at Ohio State, and Dantonio joined his friend and former boss as the defensive coordinator, where for three seasons, he presided over one of the nation’s best defenses. In December 2003, Dantonio was tapped as the new head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, who he led to a bowl win (Fort Worth Bowl, 32-14 over Marshall — interesting because as Marshall was leaving the MAC for Conference USA, Cincinnati was leaving Conference USA for the Big East) and to another bowl trip (2007, against Western Michigan), though he didn’t stick around for the latter, as he was headed back to East Lansing.

After three straight losing seasons under John L. Smith, and five in the last seven years under Smith and Bobby Williams, Dantonio immediately got the Spartans heading in the right direction. Dantonio returned Michigan State to a more traditional and more fundamentally sound style of play, which worked particularly well from a recruiting standpoint as Rich Rodriguez took Michigan in the opposite direction. Under Dantonio, the Spartans ended a six-year losing streak to Michigan, won their first bowl game in 10 years, their first top-10 ranking (going as high as #5) in 10 years, five consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 20 years, ended consecutive seasons ranked for the first time in 20 years, and beat Michigan four consecutive years for the first time in 49 years. In 2011, following Jim Tressel’s resignation from Ohio State amidst an NCAA scandal, there were rumors that Dantonio would be headed south to Columbus, but, regardless of whether he was ever under actual consideration, Dantonio signed a contract that October that made him a “Spartan for life”, and the next month, Ohio State announced Urban Meyer as their new head coach.

(Related reading: “The Many Faces of Mark Dantonio” by The M Zone)

What have they done lately?

Coming off an 11-3 season last year (losses at Notre Dame, at Nebraska, and against Wisconsin in the B1G Championship Game; notable wins over Wisconsin in the regular season, Michigan, and Georgia in the Outback Bowl), and returning nine starters from the defense that powered the team through the season, pre-season expectations for the Spartans were high this year. Notable departures from 2011 include defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receivers Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham, and running back Edwin Baker, all taken in the NFL draft. Early expectations were that the B1G Championship might be decided by the Michigan-Michigan State game, and the Spartans were looking like not only a favorite in the B1G, but possible contenders for the Mythical National Championship.

The Spartans opened the season by hosting Boise State, who had been ranked in the top 10 for most of the past three years (39 of 40 polls through the end of the 2011 season) and were the first team in FBS history to win 50 games in 4 years. The Broncos had lost nearly all of their starters, however, returning the fewest in the nation: three on offense, two on defense, and one on special teams. Despite the roster turnover, the Spartans needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to secure the 17-13 win. The next week, Michigan State traveled to Mount Pleasant to play Central Michigan as part of the “Celebrate the State” series. To put it bluntly, the Spartans might as well have been playing a high school team; the Chippewas’ only points came in the last two minutes, when Michigan State back-up quarterback Connor Cook threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, and it probably wasn’t as close as the 41-7 final score might suggest.

Last week, the Spartans hosted Notre Dame in the Megaphone Trophy game, and for the second year in a row, a Michigan State that had been looking pretty good utterly embarrassed themselves in this game. Le’Veon Bell carried 19 times for 77 yards, but because quarterback Andrew Maxwell was sacked five times, the Michigan State ground game netted just 50 yards on 25 carries.

Who makes tackles?

Key defenders include middle linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, and defensive end William Gholston. But let’s be honest, this whole defense is very good and very experienced. Eight of the eleven positions have a player with at least 15 career starts, with the two tackles and free safety as the only exceptions. Both as a defensive coordinator himself and subsequently as a head coach, Mark Dantonio’s teams have consistently fielded nationally competitive defenses, and this team looks to be no exception.

How do they score?

With the graduation of Kirk Cousins, junior Andrew Maxwell is now the starting quarterback. Although he’s inexperienced, Maxwell certainly has the ability to get the job done; so far this year he’s completed 65 of 114 attempts (57%) for 710 yards (237 yards per game), two touchdowns (both at Central Michigan), and three interceptions (all against Boise State). So far, he’s not shown himself to be terribly mobile, but he does have some talented receivers, including Dion Sims, Keith Mumphery, Bennie Fowler, and running back Le’Veon Bell. Michigan State has a strong running game to complement Maxwell’s arm. Le’Veon Bell is the team’s workhorse, carrying 81 times for 357 yards and four touchdowns already this year.

Prediction?

Jeremy predicted that EMU will lose 49-12 (with two missed extra points). This afternoon, Mike Valenti picked EMU to cover (on a 33-point spread), saying, “MSU’s offense isn’t capable of scoring over 40. State will win by 4 TDs and I have a hard time thinking MSU will cover.” Four touchdowns is a 28-point final margin, so that suggests something like a 40-12 final score, and let’s assume that Mike also thinks that EMU is going to miss those extra points.

Looking at their common opponent (Notre Dame), we can guess that Purdue may have a more potent offense than Michigan State (although that was also a particularly bad game for the Spartans), so that suggests that they’ll score something less than the 54 points managed by the Boilermakers. However, I also think the Spartans have a better defense than Purdue, which suggests that EMU may score less than the 16 they managed last weekend. I’ll predict a final score of 42-10, with EMU’s touchdown coming late in the game to make the final score look more respectable than the game really will be.

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