Another Homecoming Date with NW and Another big Challenge for Spartan Football

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Just when MSU thought it got over the hump by beating Michigan in overtime and cruising through the first half at Illinois, it got hammered with the injury bug, in a BIG way. As MSU was in the process of thumping Illinois up and down the Memorial Stadium field turf, that evidently evil field turf did something no Illini defender could do last Saturday, it stopped Rs.-So. RB Glenn Winston cold. Worse, it shut down the budding Spartan star for the season, and threatens to derail the team’s success for the rest of the year.

Will that key injury prevent MSU from competing for the conference title all the way to the last weekend of the season, for a second straight year? Could that injury cause such a disruption to the momentum of the football team that it will immediately take them out of serious contention? These are some of the new questions facing MSU football as we reach Mid-October 2009, and yet another Homecoming date with Northwestern. This round of adversity might be the toughest yet for MSU.

Things Were Getting Good on the Ground

Winston was coming on in a similar fashion to another big and powerful Spartan RB some 10 years ago. Now I’m not saying Glenn Winston, before this knee injury, was the second coming of T.J. Duckett. But he’s the closest thing we’ve seen around here since the Diesel didn’t come back to campus for his Sr. year. In fact, when I asked Coach D during the Wisconsin week earlier this season if he could compare Winston to Duckett, he said bluntly, “no, I would not say he compares to T.J.”

That doesn’t mean Dantonio doesn’t recognize the similarities between the two. In fact, Winston may be more polished as a runner than Duckett was as a So RB. Duckett had no real running experience before getting to State, and was taught “a play or two” by the Spartan staff in a couple early season practices in 1999, as Dantonio recalled. But I asked for that comparison weeks ago. Winston had come on like a freight train since. So had the rest of the running game, the offense, and really the whole team.

Winston and true Fr. RB Larry Caper were starting to pound teams and build the type of ground game momentum that could keep MSU highly competitive deep into the conference title race. Caper is starting to run the ball through the Big Ten like All Conference Ohio St. RB Beanie Wells had in the past couple of years. He’s quickly becoming one of the toughest young backs in the country to tackle. And also like Wells, has shown an ability to blow through the second level of defenses, as evident by the OT winning TD run to beat Michigan. The combination of Caper and Winston was legitimately threatening to wear all opposing teams down by the 3rd and 4th quarters of the coming late season matchups.

Of course, we cannot forget the vastly improved Spartan Offensive Line. As we’ve spoken of here before at Spartan Nation, the OL’s performance is responsible for much of the ground game’s success. If I had to quantify it to a percentage, I would say the OL is responsible for approximately one third to one half of the running game’s overall production. Now that the OL playing group appears healthy, set, and improving with each series, they will be called on to lead the Spartan Offense for the conclusion of the ’09 race.

The End is the Beginning of the End?

Life without Winston will be a serious adjustment for MSU. The Spartan Nation shouldn’t expect things to pick up where they left off in the first half last week. Remember the learning curve Winston, Caper, and the OL have gone through to this point in the season. Whichever back replaces Winston will likely face a similar development curve. While it may not be as long, in part thanks to the current play of Caper, the OL, and other blockers on the field, there should still be a noticeable arc of progress. And though the rest of the Spartan “stable full of backs,” as Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook described them, are talented players, none of the is Winston. Though each player is unique in his own talents and abilities, none should be expected to have the type of impact he had right away.

Yet, whatever RB combination MSU uses from here, they can remain a productive unit. We might see MSU begin to feed Caper carries at a pace similar to Javon Ringer of 2008, but that’s not the ideal. MSU would like to be able to work in one or two of the other backs as well, who should each be more than hungry to show their game here in the middle of a developing Big Ten race.

The Spartans adaptation to life without Winston, both on kick returns and in the backfield, should be a primary factor in determining the team’s performance and record from here. The Offense really was starting to take off, to that great an extent. The backfield’s performance was affecting the whole game plan and outlook for MSU Football, not just the Offense. We’ll get an idea of how the Spartans adapt to the loss of their backfield battering ram early Saturday afternoon.

The Wildcat Matchup

Coach Dantonio and Coach Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern share a deep and mutual respect for each other. Both are a great credit to their institutions of higher learning, and to the Big Ten Conference. Their two head to head matchups thus far have been filled with wild and crazy plays all over the field. Coach Fitzgerald told Spartan Nation Tuesday the recent games between these two schools have had a memorable flavor. “For whatever reason, the games have been really great football games. Some have ended up on our end…some have ended up on theirs.”

The Spartan Nation remembers the all-time wild shootout of 2007, and hopes the Spartans never repeat that tackling performance again. I remember standing in Spartan Stadium watching NW go up and down the field and thinking, this may be the best performance by an opposing QB in the history of this stadium…really? And the ’08 matchup had its own unique quirks and happenings, notably NW spotting the Spartans a couple scores off the bat and being forced to play catch up from a deep deficit all day, which proved too tall a task.

Coach Dantonio told Spartan Nation Tuesday that a key to Saturday’s contest would be tempo and conditioning. Dantonio feels the Spartans’ conditioning will be tested, and on display in front of yet another National TV audience. Not to sound exhaustingly cliché, as I’ll leave that task to certain Detroit sports talk show hosts who seem to do it best, but this is when Coach Mannie’s work in strength and conditioning gets a chance to show off. This is when all the work the Spartans put into the 4th Quarter program and off season conditioning will come to the forefront. Look for NW to keep the tempo up on offense, perhaps snapping the ball with as many as 20 seconds left on the play clock.

But Fitzgerald knows what he’s getting into when he plays a Mark Dantonio led bunch. He told Spartan Nation Tuesday that he’s impressed with State’s improving play of late. “They play hard in all three areas, and they’re very well coached.” The NW alumnus and recent College Football Hall of Fame inductee added that the Spartans now have the look of a Big Ten title contender. “The team I’m watching right now is playing as good as anybody (in the Big Ten)…it’s a fun team to watch, except for the week which you’re getting ready to play them.”


PS. From Grad Assistant to NFL Whiz Kid…in About 10 Years

Coach D also talked to Spartan Nation this Tuesday about former Spartan Grad Assistant Josh McDaniels, the new Head Coach of the Denver Broncos, who currently sit atop the NFL’s AFC West. Dantonio knew of McDaniels first through his father Thom McDaniels, a Hall of Fame level High School coach for years now in Ohio. Dantonio remembers a young Josh McDaniels as an intelligent and aspiring GA under Nick Saban. McDaniels was a part of the Spartans’ outstanding 1999 campaign, which was clearly loaded with impressive playing and coaching talent.

According to Coach D, McDaniels was brought to the New England Patriots on the recommendation and connection to another former MSU Grad Assistant who was then working with the Patriots. Once that assistant was promoted up in the organization, McDaniels was brought into work the Pats’ “Quality Control” position. As time quickly passed, more Patriot assistants were promoted up and or moved on to other coaching opportunities (Charlie Weis, Eric Mangini, etc.) and McDaniels had quickly the Offensive Coordinator of the highest powered offense in the NFL.

After successful years in New England, McDaniels was hired to replace two-time Super Bowl winning coach Mike Shannahan, at the deceivingly young age of 33. To date, McDaniels has led the Broncos to a perfect 5-0 start. Denver plays at San Diego this weekend before entering their Bye week. And if McDaniels isn’t enough of an MSU connection for you to follow, scan the Broncos roster and you’ll see the old Spartan GA brought in an another familiar face from the ’99 team in former Spartan standout DB Renaldo Hill. Hill joined the Broncos just this year, and currently starts for McDaniels’ Defense at Safety.