By Sam Kienzle
Michigan State is almost there. Where is there? What is the there? The team in already elite by conference standards. They just have to take that last mile there.
There is national recognition. There is the Rose Bowl or ascending to the BCS level. There is an outright Big Ten championship. If they want to get there, they are so, so close.
Head coach Mark Dantonio has put Michigan State into contention to get there. If the 2011 Spartans were a car, Dantonio was its mechanic and driver. His steel baby at five years in the making has turned into a consistent winner in the conference. Eventually, the chips will fall his way completely because his machine will have every part it needs to get there.
Consider the signs of progress. Win on the road? Done. Wins at Ohio State and Iowa in 2011, stadiums that have been very rough on Sparty in the past, pushed the team down the road.
Establish a standout defense? Yes, clearly. The Spartans ranked in the top twelve nationally in four defensive categories.
Win your division? Key wins over Michigan, Northwestern, and Iowa solidified a Legends division championship.
Win a bowl game for the first time under Dantonio at Michigan State? What a doozy as the Spartans came back from a sizable deficit to beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl, 33-30 in three overtimes.
So how to get through that last mile? Get to the Big Ten championship game (again) and win it. Last year, in the inaugural championship game, Michigan State battled Wisconsin in one of the best conference games of the year.
Down 21-7, Dantonio’s steel baby roared to a 29-21 lead off a 22-0 run, including a fake extra point play for a 2-point conversion. Wide receivers Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham caught everything down the middle.
In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. Wisconsin, the upperclass of the Big Ten, found its running lanes and took the championship, 42-39. The 2012 Dantonio steel baby still has its chops, though. Perhaps this year it’s ready to drain its tank into Pasadena.
KEY ADDITIONS: Junior wide receiver Bennie Fowler has been in the MSU program long enough to be considered an established upperclassman. He qualifies as a key addition because of his absence in 2011. Fowler only played in two games last season because of recurring foot injuries. He caught two passes for 20 yards against Minnesota.
As a freshman in 2010, the 6’2” Michigan native showed promise while catching 14 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed on reverses seven times, scoring once and tallying 62 yards with a long dash of 22 yards. New Spartan quarterback Andrew Maxwell will rely on Fowler considering the current void in pass-catching experience (see soft criticisms below).
KEY LOSSES: Jerely Worthy became one of the most unstoppable, fluid man-whales to play defensive tackle in the Big Ten in the past five years. His 2011 statistics won’t make you gasp (31 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks), but consider that when he got his man, he was a crushing force. Teams often ran the ball away from Worthy and put a double-team on the 300 pounder, creating opportunities for other defenders.
Worthy also had a swim move that would make Ryan Lochte smile. Iowa fans will remember Worthy for being an Oscar-worthy flopper, as well as a great disruptor. Georgia fans will remember him for (literally!) single-handedly ending the 2012 Outback Bowl with a blocked field goal in the third overtime, giving East Lansing the win. Worthy skipped his senior year and is now bolstering Green Bay’s defensive line.
Also of note: Fan favorite quarterback Kirk Cousins and all-time leading pass catcher B.J. Cunningham are gone, as well as magical wide receiver Keith Nichol (Hail Mary deflection against Wisconsin, supreme lateral for touchdown in Big Ten title game), second-leading receiver Keshawn Martin, and dependable tight end Brian Linthicum. Whoa nelly.
WHO WILL DELIVER IN 2012: The offensive line and the defense. Incoming junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell needs time to throw to a batch of (mostly) new wide outs. Convenient it is that he has four returning offensive linemen, including tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti. Experienced center Travis Jackson will give Maxwell and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar peace of mind.
This defense will be, once again, a real humdinger. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi turned down the Akron Zips head coaching job to stay at Michigan State. With eight returning starters, the Spartan defense will rank as one of the conference’s best. Last season, Michigan State ranked first in total defense and rushing defense in the conference as well as third in scoring (18.4 points per game allowed) and pass defense.
Note that they ranked in the top-twelve nationally in those four defensive categories. The team returns their three starting linebackers in Max Bollough, Denicos Allen, and Chris Norman. The reserves at each linebacking position are also game tested, giving Narduzzi excellent depth. Denicos Allen and dinosaur defensive end William Gholston combined for 16 sacks last season. Future NFL cornerback Johnny Adams also returns.
WHO WILL NOT: The unrecognizable wide receivers. Michigan State is, fair to say, a talented and experienced team. By the end of the year, the top five ball-catchers may be playing brilliant, polished ball. For now, we at KRUI have to pick on a group. Over 2,700 yards of catches are gone in Cunningham, Martin, Linthicum, and Nichol.
Running back Le’Veon Bell was the team’s third-leading reciever with 35 catches for 267 yards. Bell will be the leading tailback this fall–like last season–so one can’t expect him to be the team’s main pass target. Bennie Fowler may happily re-introduce himself as capable, but guys like Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphrey, and the Sims (tight end Dion and receiver Andre, no relation) must rise to the occasion. Though inexperienced, these youths have tremendous talent.
PREDICTIONS: Michigan State will know right away if it’s in decent shape. The Spartans host Boise State on August 31st. Boise State may not be the same super mid-major that they’ve been in the past few years, but Bronco head coach Chris Petersen is an elite leader.
The Legends division schedule for Sparty essentially comes down to a road game at Michigan. Otherwise, State gets Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern at home.
A cross-over game at Wisconsin will be a challenge, but in this new split conference, divisional games are obviously of the highest importance. Ten wins and another divisional championship seem realistic.