One Way the MSU Spartans Can Attack Cal

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Okay, with game day quickly approaching, I’m sure you are wondering what Cal is going to present this year, and more importantly, what MSU must do to win. So, I was able to sift through some fall camp notes and previous results to give you the latest on this football challenge for the Spartans. Let’s go position by position first: Words in bold are key terms where MSU needs to be concerned  and paying attention in game planning.

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Offensive coaching change: Frank Cignetti is the new offensive coordinator after spending time with the 49ers as the QB coach, with North Carolina as the O-Cordinator, and several impressive years as the O-Cordinator at Fresno State. In fact, the Bulldogs averaged over 52 points per game the last six games of 2004. He also tutored Jeff Blake and Aaron Brooks in their most productive NFL seasons. He is considered a master with third down conversions. Yet, this is still Tedford’s offense and it won’t change dramatically. They have however, been throwing more to the backs and especially the tight ends this fall. They also use play-action, and the back end will have to be ready for MSU.

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Quarterback: Kevin Riley has won the starting job against MSU. There was a bit of a QB battle here with Nate Longshore taking on the challenger through fall camp. Longshore has been the long time starter and was effective last year in beating Tennessee before hurting his ankle. Riley then took over for one game.  Longshore came back in mid-season and was not the same guy, throwing multiple interceptions in losses to Oregon State, ASU, UCLA, USC, and Stanford, but was bothered by the ankle all season. Riley then stepped into a 2nd quarter situation in the bowl game against Air Force and led them to victory with a high completion percentage and by throwing with accuracy downfield. They also use him to run the option in goal line situations.

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Here’s what we know so far. Even though Riley is the starter, both will play and MSU needs to be ready and prep for the strengths and weaknesses of each, so I have some extra tidbits regardless of who is in the game for Cal. For example, when things are going well,  Longshore plays well and can get on a roll, but when things start to fall apart, he is prone to picks (especially with defensive pressure), and can really struggle with his head. If Longshore comes into the game, the Spartans can’t let him get off to a fast start and build confidence. They’ll need to get inside his head early. However, Tedford does like the knowledge, experience, and his ability to manage the other 10 guys in the game.  Riley is the mobile running QB that can get out of the pocket and put pressure on the defense. Cal is looking for mobility against the attacking MSU defense. Riley was also the fan favorite in this debate. Any faltering by Riley, and Longshore will be in the game.

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Running back: Here you have Jahvid Best, who is crazy fast, quick, powerful, and back at full speed after battling a hip injury. Tracy Slocum is a tough runner who can break a lot tackles at the point of attack. Shane Vereen, despite a leg bruise, had a big fall camp and will see time. Covaughn Deboskie is highly-touted backup who suffered a concussion. In fact, all four of these guys have battled various injuries this fall and will try to heal up in time for MSU. Best had 21 plays of 10-yards or more last year and MSU must be effective tackling in space, especially with him. Both Best and Vereen played well in the recent closed scrimmage.

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Tight Ends: As I mentioned, the QB’s have been throwing to the tight ends often this fall. Cameron Morrah can get deep, and Tad Smith over the middle makes both players dangerous. I think this aspect of the game is critical for MSU. They might need to jam up the tight ends a little and not give them free releases, otherwise the Spartans have the potential to pay dearly in this area by allowing drives to be kept alive. A little press coverage here and there would also give the pass rush an extra second to get there (to the QB). Spencer Ladner is a highly-touted newcomer making an early impact here.

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Wide Receiver: This is a deep and equal group and playing time is competitive. Sean Young is having a “great camp” and could be the go-to-guy in red zone situations, and especially in overtime opportunities (if fall practice is any indication).  LaReylle Cunningham and Michael Calvin are in the mix. True freshman Marvin Jones is  big and fast. Nyan Boateng is the highly-touted transfer from Florida and can split a seam. Verran Tucker caught some balls in the closed scrimmage and is coming on. In fact, there are eight players bidding for serious time. I just want to see if MSU’s defensive backs have formation and play recognition, and can cover guys in space. This will tell us much.

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Offensive Line: This may be among the premier offensive lines in the country at the point of attack led by All-American center Alex Mack. He decided to come back to Cal and make the NFL wait another year and Bear fans are happy. I watched this guy on film and he is a road grader. You don’t want to get locked up with him. In fact this whole line is considered the top of the league and among the finest in the country, giving up only eleven sacks last year, which was 3rd in the nation. Tackle Mike Tepper kind of excited Spartan fans when he said there won’t be a problem blocking 245-pound defensive ends. Of course he broke his right fibula in 2005, broke a leg in 2006, and is at 80% or less for the opener and may miss this game. Perhaps he should stay on the field a little more before running smack.
Right guard Noris Malele is equally solid and reminds me of those great USC guards, and this group paved the way for 4.9 yards per carry last year on the ground. Mitchell Schwartz is playing well. So not only can they protect the passer, but they can move the ball on the ground. I think MSU will do okay against the run, but can they rush the passer? This will be key.

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Keys to Stopping the Cal offense:
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  1. Stopping the run first and making them one dimensional will be first priority.
  2. Tackling in space, especially the speedy Best, will be critical.
  3. Making some plays when the ball is in the air is important. MSU was a little too lax last year, especially against Northwestern and other opponents, in allowing short passes to be caught in front of them and then trying to make the tackle.

In fact, it might even help MSU this year to jam receivers and give the defensive line a chance to get to the QB once in a while.

  1. Keep an eye on the tight ends and backs in the passing game. I would jam the

      tight ends in and not give them a free release. They seem to be a favorite
      passing target this fall.

  1. Get off the field. I don’t think you want that Cal offensive line on the field all

     day wearing MSU down. MSU must be up to the challenge, especially on 3rd
     down.
     6.  Force some turnovers. Tedford is 27-2 when winning the turnover battle and
           11-18 when they lose it.
     7.  Be physical on the defensive line and attack, attack, attack.