Spartan Football: The Outlook Moving Forward…Northwestern

Jonathan Schopp

After their 55-3 blowout over Indiana on Saturday, the Spartans now travel to Evanston for the season’s final contest with the Northwestern Wildcats.

Offense

The Spartans took full advantage of the inexperienced and overmatched Hoosiers. With their best half of the year, MSU featured the explosive passing Offense that Spartan Nation was expecting to see in 2011, and got a little momentum going on the ground as well. The goals for Northwestern appear simple: stay healthy, and stay in rhythm.

This unit has recently shown signs of improvement, likely a result of a healthier Offensive Line that has now played together for most of the regular season now. Their best game might still be ahead of them, all things considered. That’s an encouraging sign for Spartan Nation, as the Offense will have to be consistent and effective if they are to win their final three games. The Offense cannot disappear and expect the other units to cover for them in down the stretch.

MSU does not need to win Saturday, but they’d like to play well, and of course they’d like to win. The most important thing to get out of Saturday for this unit is health, especially up front. Expect to see a good shuffling on the Offensive Line in the 2nd Half if things are going the Spartans way, and also throughout the skill positions. They are good enough and deep enough to beat the Wildcats on the road, even if they mix up their lineup and encounter the occasional false starts/steps that tend to accompany such rotations.

Kirk Cousins looked great against Indiana, and should look good again against a Defense that can be had. Cousins should not be hell bent on staying in against Northwestern the entire game unless he’s getting proper protection. It’s understandable that Spartan Football wants to win again Saturday, but it would be inexcusable to put Saturday’s interests ahead of the following week’s contest for the Rose Bowl. This game has more of a cost-benefit element to it than any Michigan St. has been a part of in years, if not ever. One would expect the Offensive Coaching staff will act in kind.

Defense

This unit has come a long way in a short time. At the beginning of the year, it was far from a sure thing that the Spartans would get a consistent pass rush from the front four. After all, such a rush has been pretty much absent since the 2007 season. Only a few months later, these Spartan Dawgs have consistently gotten after Quarterbacks, and continue to improve each week. The rush from the front four is perhaps the single biggest difference in the Defense this year.

The Defense’s domination doesn’t stop there though. In fact, the Spartans feature dominant players at all three levels. Ray Lewis recently told Jon Gruden that a dominant Defense is one with great players at all three levels. The Spartans feature playmakers at the Linebacker position with the speed of Denicos Allen, the football IQ of Max Bullough, and the unique talent mix of Chris Norman.

On the back end, the Spartans probably feature more than one future NFL player. Trenton Robinson clearly leads the unit back there, which includes big time playmakers like Johnny Adams and Isaiah Lewis. Yet, that’s not to say anyone on the back line is perfect, as each of the underclassmen have clear room to raise their individual games to another level. But Spartan Nation has no doubt taken notice of the stark difference between the big play allowing units of the first few Dantonio years and the fourth ranked Passing defense in Division 1 Football in 2011.

Special Teams

This unit was not greatly tested against Indiana, though Nick Hill continued to build confidence with his near kick return for a TD. Hopefully each aspect of this unit will get reps at Northwestern to stay sharp. The most important thing for a Special Teams unit in a “Championship” setting is to avoid a critical mistake. Games against the best competition aren’t as often won on special teams as they are occasionally lost (see Wisconsin ’10 for an example). The past wild weekend in College football was riddled with such examples. Hopefully that caught the attention of this unit so they will steady their attention to execute the fundamentals with an attention to detail.  

Overall

Has this season been fun or what? But I don’t know if anyone saw the Legends wrapped up before the final weekend. This team has already validated last year’s success, and has at the same time delivered a statement to the entire (College Football) country about Michigan State Football. It’s back, and not going anywhere anytime soon. In the two post-season contests to come, this team will have a chance to elevate this program to a national level not seen in more than 25 years. Their primary focus going into Northwestern should be to protect that opportunity.

It’s not that anyone shouldn’t play as hard as they have all season, it’s that they must be sure to play smart. No one wants to see a player go down for the Big Ten Title game (or more) because they foolishly tried too hard or did something wacky on a 2nd and 8 early in the 2nd Quarter (for example), coming up hurt. This team has come too far to be derailed like that now.

If the Spartans play well Saturday, they should pull safely away from the Wildcats sometime early in the 2nd Half. Make no mistake, however, Northwestern will be coming. Last year the Cats came off a bye week, prepared quite well, and got up on MSU by a relatively safe margin. If not for the sequence of setting up to punt, taking a time out, then getting NW to “take the cheese” via the Mouse Trap to Bennie Fowler, the Spartans probably lose and their Big Ten Championship doesn’t happen.

At this point, there’s nothing too bad that can come out of Northwestern other than a major injury/disqualification that would impact the post-season tilts. Though they’ll no doubt play to win, the Spartans need to stick most with what they’ve been doing for a long time now: “Prepare for the Rose Bowl.”

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. Spartan Football: All Access is a phenomenal look inside the MSU program that has quickly become can’t miss TV for the Spartan Nation. In the past, there’s been a mish mash of relatively uninteresting and unoriginal shows that haven’t provided anything too extraordinary to look at. This show does, it’s cutting edge. And though it would still be nice to have an exclusive “Coach Dantonio” TV show too, All Access is fantastic new development for Spartan Football.
  2. Brady Hoke is the Big Ten Coach of the Year, by a mile. Michigan has five to seven wins of talent in Ann Arbor, yet their record will show at worst, a nine win season. That’s all Hoke, and the staff he’s surrounded himself with. While they might get rolled against Ohio St. this Saturday or get waxed again in a Bowl game, neither would take anything away from what Hoke’s already done this year. He led a Michigan team that got a major break in the form of another Brian Kelly-Notre Dame melt down, and took full advantage of it to overachieve by more than two wins. Give Hoke the credit he’s earned, he’s the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year.

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

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