Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Minnesota

Jonathan Schopp

Coming off a sound 24-3 beating in Lincoln at the hands of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Spartans return home Saturday for a noon kick off with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Offense

This unit never got going on Saturday, and by the end of the day looked to have their confidence deflated after the previous two (Michigan & Wisconsin) solid performances. The numbers don’t lie (187 total yards, 3-14 on 3rd down conversions), but they also confirm that MSU ran into a buzz saw after the Huskers’ Blackshirt Defense took off following the early 1st Quarter INT of Kirk Cousins.

If you look back at it, that initial drive might have been the Spartans’ best looking of the day overall. It started from the ground up with Le’Veon Bell, and looked like it was destined for a decent shot at 7-points. Who knows what would’ve happened had the pass over the middle to B.J. Cunningham not been picked, but it doesn’t matter. The Offense wasn’t able to respond to the pick. That’s what matters most.

The unit looked dazed and slowed from that point. The walls consistently continued to close in on Kirk Cousins and the MSU running game from there. Though people have debated whether or not Offensive Coordinator Dan Roushar made any, let alone the necessary adjustments throughout the day, it’s hard to know whether that would’ve mattered much. The Blackshirts took the edge from the early pick and pretty much played downhill from there. Without the MSU Offensive Line able to get any real push at the point of attack, it’s hard to imagine any possible game plan adjustment would’ve been very effective at all.

This Offense is still good, though it clearly hasn’t clicked on all cylinders very often at all in 2011 yet. Given the injuries that have already occurred, there’s a better chance that never will. It feels like the O’s been operating around 3rd gear for the most part. Spartan Nation keeps waiting for this unit to have its break-out performance. Though the calendar is now turning to November, I wouldn’t completely sell this unit out yet. Their best might still come in the month of November. They’re still much more a work in progress than the other two groups (Defense & Special Teams).

Yet, the Offense’s success no doubt lies in the Line’s ability to get the push needed up front to get the running game going more than anything else. The better that happens, the more likely the Line will keep pressure away from Kirk Cousins when he drops back to pass. They shouldn’t be expected to have issues with Minnesota, Indiana, or Northwestern. But they will be tested once again in Iowa City against the school that consistently seems to produce better Defensive Lineman than probably any other school in the league.

Defense

The bottom line is, the Defense kept MSU in the game Saturday. In the past, that’s a game that might have gotten away from the Spartans in the 1st Half. But in 2011, and for the foreseeable future, expect the Snarling Narduzzis to keep MSU around towards the end in every single contest.

Fresh off suspension, William Gholston closed out his “coming out” month on the national stage like a true “5-star” talent. It took him only a Half to set personal records in tackles, and probably many other Defensive statistics. He’s beginning to blossom, yet it seems the surface is only being scratched for a guy who looks like he’ll one day be a man-beast chasing around opposing Quarterbacks into regular kneel-down sacks.

Hardly alone, other young guys up front like Marcus Rush and Denzel Drone continued to make plays Saturday, along with the interior help of Anthony Rashad White and potential All-American candidate Jerel Worthy. Spartan Football has had a 1st team All-American the last three years now (Javon Ringer, Greg Jones, Greg Jones), and it may be up to Worthy to keep that impressive streak together in 2011. Obviously football is the ultimate team game, and perhaps more so Defensively than in any other unit. But you can’t underestimate the impact from a recruiting perspective to state the fact that “…the Spartans, and even its Defense, have had a 1st team All-American for “X” straight seasons now.”

Look for the Defense to completely shut the Gophers down, and have a real shot at their first Big Ten shutout in a very long time. Thought Minnesota is making some progress as their season and lineup has begun to stabilize, it would be a real surprise if they scored more than two times on Saturday. This is quite simply the best Spartan Defense since 1999, if not longer.

Special Teams

Punter Mike Sadler looked shaky for the first time this year. His worst performance to date included a shank and kicking one well too far into the End Zone for a Touchback. But to keep things in perspective, his performance was far from a deciding factor of the Spartans’ defeat on the day. It’s just to note that Sadler too, is human. Expect he’ll take lessons from Lincoln and apply them forward in the coming weeks to close out the season. He’ll be counted on again as he was during the 3 wins of October, to win the Special Teams battle.

Place Kicker Dan Conroy got back into the act with a 1 for 2 effort. The first, in hindsight, probably wasn’t a kick you could expect him to make. It’s not that Conroy can’t make a 50+ yarder on an opponent’s turf, but rather that you can’t reasonably expect that kind of kick to be a sure 3-points. This isn’t the NFL. Perhaps the Spartans should’ve punted to pin Nebraska deep, but that’s not the reason they lost. Conroy may again be counted heavily in the game that should mean the most the rest of the way, Iowa. It was good he got a couple game reps again.

Nick Hill is beginning to hit his groove returning kick offs. We talked earlier this year about how we might see him break one this year. Saturday, he nearly got free for good on a 62-yard return which the Offense failed to capitalize on. Hill looks to secure the ball pretty well to go along with his jet speed and nimble elusiveness. His straight away speed seems to fit kick returns more, whereas Keshawn Martin’s quick-twitch-make-you-miss ability seems made for punt returns.

This unit made the difference against Wisconsin, and might continue to make the difference from here in the race to defend the Big Ten Title. It remains one of the better Special Teams units in the league.

Overall

Any wounds the Spartans must lick after their beating at Nebraska should quickly be healed Saturday against the hapless Gophers. It’s not new Minnesota Head Coach Jerry Kill’s fault, but rather the fault of the horrible judgment by Gopher brass to run off Glenn Mason after he had firmly established the foundation of a competitive Big Ten program. It could be another 5 years or so before Kill can realistically sniff getting back to that point, thus his recent contract extension.

Minnesota looks fit to be clobbered by MSU Saturday and the Spartans need to deliver a firm Knock Out punch, the earlier, the better. The final result should not be in doubt much past the early portion of the 3rd Quarter. And MSU stands to benefit greatly if they can rest some starters a good bit in order to be their freshest for the biggest game left on the schedule, the following week at Iowa.

Look for MSU to come out salty and sharp, and to get up on Goldy Gopher far enough early to bring the likes of Andrew Maxwell, Tony Lippett, Taiwan Jones, and other backups in for much needed Big Ten reps, while also giving the Spartan starters all the extra game rest they can get before the final 3-week sprint. All the Spartans’ goals remain ahead of them, and it’s still very reasonable to expect if they run the table, they’ll be headed to Indy on the first weekend of December, fighting for the outright Big Ten crown.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. Major College Football fans need to check themselves and realize that their team won’t win every game on their schedule. It rarely if ever happens. As dollars have begun to really pour into Athletic Departments over the last 15 years or so, the competition level in the sport has exploded exponentially.  Yet, more and more fans seem to think they are entitled to, and can simply demand victories. As a result, there’s often something like a “fire insert new Coach’s name dot com” created the day after the first tough loss, or two game losing streak. That’s nonsense. Today’s games are more competitive than they’ve ever been before. There’s dozens of examples of this across the Big Ten, and from sea to shining sea. If anything, fans of the old school powers should expect to lose more than they used to win, which is a fact that some have had a very hard time accepting. They should accept a greater level of parity, and not be foolish enough to insist on demanding perfection.
  2. In 2008 and 2009, the true National Championship Game was actually the SEC Title Game in Atlanta between Florida and Alabama. They were the best two teams each year, and appropriately split the series. This week College Football looks forward to its first Regular Season match up of the top two ranked teams when LSU goes to Alabama for the Saban Bowl-slash-best regular season game in 5 years. The last time we enjoyed such a clash was in 2006, only hours after the death of Michigan’s Bo Schembechler, when the #2 Wolverines lost by a Field Goal to the #1 Buckeyes. That   tight battle was not followed up by a rematch in the BCS Title game. So don’t expect a repeat of LSU-Bama come next January, no matter how close the final score late Saturday night might be.

*Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum

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