Spartans Bounce Back Big, Slam the Golden Gophers at Home, 31-8

Jonathan Schopp

On a borderline-cold but sunny day, a less than capacity crowd (perhaps a hint to start more games at 3:30?) at Spartan Stadium settled in to watch the Spartans bounce back from last week’s Iowa City embarrassment. They were not disappointed. Michigan State won its 9th game of the season for the second time in three years, and only the third time since 1999. That is Spartan Football these days.

MSU handled the lame duck Golden Gophers without the blistering initial start that some in the Spartan Nation were hoping for. Still, when MSU punched in their 3rd TD just a second before the end of the 1st half, the Spartans led 21-0 going into the break, and the game’s ultimate fate was really no longer in doubt.

The bottom line for Spartan Football today was to get their 9th win of the year, and get out of the game healthy. It wasn’t a beauty contest, or showcase to flash and dash the pollsters and BCS hardware system. This was MSU’s 10th straight game of the year, without a bye. That’s realistically more than three months straight of going at it hard (including pre-season camp). This was a tired team that simply needed to do enough today to win convincingly. Mission accomplished.

If some in Spartan Nation were expecting more, I would say you might have had misguided expectations. This program isn’t to the point where they can be expected to simply blow a Minnesota team, given the circumstances, in little more than a quarter. People shouldn’t have expected to see many new wrinkles from the Offense, newly designed blitz packages, or perhaps another “named” trick play. That material is saved for when it is needed most, like at Penn St. with a Big Ten title on the line, or maybe in a Rose Bowl game.

This was a Minnesota program that hasn’t even begun to clean up the mess left from their recent implosion. The Gophers called for the Spartans to show only what was needed in order to take care of business. The simple recipe was to hit the ground running, and keep the Gopher Offense grounded.

By the end of the 1st half, the Spartans had run up a 21-0 lead off the strength of the Spartan Defense, and Edwin “Rock” Baker (So. RB). Baker put in a game’s worth of production into just one half (14 carries, 118 yards, 3 TDs), and got The BBC back on track after they had lost transmission at Iowa last week. Baker is on his way to becoming a star in the Big Ten, probably sooner than later.

Baker had a career day as he ripped off 27 carries for 179 yards and 4 TDs. Again, that’s a stat line you can win championships with. Baker and the blocking scheme led the dominant performance, which honestly left relatively light work for the rest of the Offense. The Defense held Minnesota to only one score, and shut them down 10 out of 12 times when it was needed most (3rd down).

The Spartans again have the latest “bye” of any Big Ten team, and they need it. From inside out, this program needs a break. They need time to heal, and time to refresh. Perhaps the biggest reason they have 9 wins right now instead of 6 or 7 is the quality of their depth. For years we’ve heard that the difference between MSU and other Big Ten powers was the quality of depth needed to withstand the beating of an intense Big Ten schedule. In year 4 of the Mark Dantonio era, it appears that Spartan Football is beginning to approach that point. When you look back at some of the key series of 2010, you’ll see that the Spartans have used 3 different RBs (The BBC), more than a half dozen DBs, and of course healthy handful of pass catchers. That’s depth you can compete with, and most of it still has eligibility moving forward.

Today, the 2010 Spartans are a 9-1 football team. Not even the biggest of guzzlers of the the Green Kool Aid probably saw that coming back in August. The Spartans came to play again today, and played hard for all 60 minutes. That's how they've gotten to this point, and that's how they've earned the bye week. They need this bye week, and they should thrive from the bye week into the final two games of this 2010 championship run.

The Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

The clear goal of the Offense coming into the week was to re-establish the running game, and strength of the Offensive Line. The line had tired over the past couple of weeks and was handled better as the competition level increased. Today they bounced back well against the overmatched Golden Gophers.

Edwin Baker (So. RB) ran inspired today, reminding many of the 2008 All-American performance by sideline visitor, Javon Ringer (Tenn. Titans RB). Ringer looked on as Baker ran up the 179 yards and 4 TDs, and saw some of the explosive burst that makes Baker a game breaker. It’s too bad he wasn’t healthy for all of 2009, and too bad his Red Shirt was burned for a team that went 6-7. But Rock Baker moved on, like all of the 2010 Spartans, and is now making up for lost time.

It’s hard to miss the mix of power and speed that made Rock Baker a “national” recruit. Have you seen the running games at Texas, Georgia, or Tennessee? You can see why they wanted Baker so badly. He runs aggressively, but also with a patience now that is not normally seen out of a back in his second college season. He reminds us of Ringer in the way he breaks tackles and keeps his legs moving. Perhaps he’ll remind us even more one day if he continues to show the type of game needed to one day become an All-American type back.

Kirk Cousins is a Captain and clear leader of the Spartan Football program, but he is not perfect, and he’s already been the first to say so. We first talked about some of the issues facing Cousins after the big Wisconsin win. Some of those have recently become a concern once again. Cousins had neither overly impressive, nor overly concerning numbers today, but he did show some concerning foot work.

Cousins knows he can’t keep throwing off his back foot, and over the bye week, he must find a way to stop it. In the last couple of weeks, he’s thrown far too many passes with poor and unbalanced foot work. Perhaps that is a sign of fatigue, be it mental or physical. What else could explain throwing off his back foot so much throughout the game today?

While a couple back footers in the 1st quarter didn’t do much damage today, they killed MSU last week against a Big Time opponent, and could again cause real damage in the final push for the Big Ten title. Spartan Nation should trust Kirk Cousins to fix this issue, as he’ll likely regroup to again “trust it” a little more, and simply step into every throw moving forward.

Yet, if you remember back to our discussions at the beginning of the year, I believed that if MSU could average around 250 yards on the ground, they’d be in a position to win 10 games on the year. After Minnesota, the Spartans are now averaging about 177 yards per game and have two chances to get that special 10th win. Looking back, perhaps my number was a bit too high. But regardless of the exact numbers, the primary goal of the 2010 Spartan Offense (running the ball) has clearly been accomplished to date.

Defense

The Spartan Defense came out today looking to dominate. While their play didn’t completely “jump off the page” with each snap, they shut the Gophers out completely for the 1st quarter, 2nd quarter, 3rd quarter, and into the 4th until the 10:58 mark. That’s what the scoreboard says, folks. Give the Defense their due. They might have closed on the complete game the shut out had the Spartans not turned it over deep in there end, giving the Minnesota Offense field position just outside the Spartan Red Zone.

MSU gave up only 261 yards today in a performance nearly 180 degrees different from the wild and crazy ’09 shootout with Goldy in Minneapolis (42-34, Gophers, 505 total Gopher yards). The Defense was again led by the best LB tandem in the country (Srs. Greg Jones and Eric Gordon), who led the attack with 9 tackles each. It’s going to hurt pretty badly not to have them back again next year, but what a productive staple they’ve become during their time in East Lansing. Be sure to enjoy their final two weeks before the bowl season.

The Gophers were only 2 for 12 on 3rd down conversions today; a stat the Spartan Nation knows has been the big problem on the year for the Spartan D. And it seemed the Defense took this revenge match with Minnesota a little more personally than they might have let on during the week. It showed up pretty clearly in their overall performance today.

This Defense obviously features the classic set of LBs, but anchors for the Defenses of the coming years are now in place elsewhere. Young players like Jerel Worthy (So. DT), Blake Treadwell (So. NT), Tyler Hoover (So. DE), Darqueze Denard (Fr. CB), and Isaiah Lewis (Fr. FS) have the type of talent and athletic ability to make you think that the MSU Defense will develop into one of the Big Ten’s better in the coming seasons. That’s not total sunshine blowing on my part, that’s analysis based on the younger player’s performance and numbers in 2010. Let's look back at this statement sometime in 2012.

This Defense is a lot better now than it was a year ago, and even better than it was in September of 2010. Moreover, they should be considerably better come November 2011. That’s something else to keep the Spartan Nation looking forward with a smile.

Special Teams

In an odd occurrence, the Spartans didn’t pick up a yard off a punt or kick off in the first half. That is unusual. Nor did they give Dan Conroy (So. PK) a chance to kick a Field Goal until the 2nd half, where he did get work and converted a 24 yard try. Don't underestimate the importance of Conroy seeing some game time action. He will need to make a kick or two coming down the stretch, and no one wants to send a kicker out for a potentially championship deciding kick when he hasn't seen the field in weeks.

The most important thing for the Special Teams unit moving forward is to get Keshawn Martin (Jr.) back at full strength. Martin made arguably one of the five most important plays of 2010 when he took that punt back for a TD against Wisconsin. With a Big Ten title on the line, MSU needs its best playmaker on the field for the final two games. You just know Martin is going to have a shot to make a play somewhere that will live in the Spartan Nation’s memory for a lifetime.

The Kick Returning unit should be in good hands for years to come with the likes of Bennie Fowler (Rs.-Fr.) and others ready to step in once Martin graduates after 2011 and moves on to the next level. When you couple that with the Spartans’ kicking and punting future, MSU should have the kind of Special Teams unit to compete for Big Ten Championships in the years ahead.

Overall

Finally the bye week is here. And again, how many would’ve thought the Spartans would be 9-1 before taking their late season breather? Some though they’d only win 6 or 7 for the year. More than anything else, Spartan Nation should take some time to reflect on the special season that’s now ten-twelfths played out. How much fun has this run been, from “Little Giants” until today? And how sweet to realize that it's hardly over yet.

As a small aside, I have a feeling today’s game today would’ve been a lot closer had Glen Mason still been on the Minnesota sideline, and Greg Jones likely playing his Sr. year as a Golden Gopher LB. The Spartan Nation has “been there,” Gopher fans. We can empathize with the glaring leadership blunders of your Athletic Department that have left your football program completely imploded, and void of any identity. It was astonishing to see a school completely discard its identity, just as Mason had really established it on firm ground, and Minnesota prepared for its "new era" and stadium. Whoops! But at Michigan St., we’ve been down that road a time or two, though thankfully it seems like those days are in the past for good now.

The focus of the bye week has to be health. MSU is a darn good 9-1 football team. They’ve made plays in the clutch, and they’ve won close games. The players have accepted their roles, which has really done a lot to build this team's strong chemistry. The team that once struggled a bit early, on the big stage against Notre Dame, has grown up to become one of the better college football teams in the nation this year. That’s why MSU doesn’t seem to have too many concerns going into the bye week. They simply need to catch their breath, regain their legs, and rest up for what will seem, in many ways, like a completely independent 2 week season for the Spartans' 1st Big Ten Championship in 20 years.

*Interact with Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan or inside the Phalanx Forum

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