Spartans run the Bears out of East Lansing Quickly, smash Northern Colorado 45-7

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The Spartans Win One For Coach D!  Photo courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

The Spartans Win One For Coach D! Photo courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

Predictably, this one was close for a very short time. It was close in the same way that Colorado and Michigan are within an easy walking distance of each other. The Northern Colorado Bears appeared to get out of Spartan Stadium healthy, which is probably their highlight of an otherwise uncompetitive contest. It’ not that Bears didn’t try, or that the Bears were poorly coached, it’s just that Northern Colorado and Michigan St. do not compete on the same level. Other than playing by the same rules on the field Saturday, the Northern Colorado and Michigan St. football programs operate on fundamentally different platforms.

After a 35-0 1st Half, the Spartans got what they were looking for today in part; a shut out from the first string and a good chance to get “game action” for many of the younger and aspiring Spartan Dawgs. Behind the lead of Sr. All-American LB Greg Jones, the starting Defense kept the Bears to 141 yards, in the first half and produced 2 big turnovers. Even though No. Co. is a Div 1-AA opponent, producing multiple turnovers (4) for the second straight week is a positive sign for a Defense that was so anemic in turnover production in 2009. Turnovers seem to come in bunches. As a Defense, you always want to keep a turnover streak going, no matter who you play.

Jones had the kinda dominant game that Spartan Nation has honestly become accustomed to now, with somewhere around double digit tackles, his first two career interceptions, and a bunch of other influential moves that don’t always show up on the stat sheet. It cannot be said enough during his final season in Green and White; don’t take this guy for granted. Jones is the best Spartan LB in at least a generation (approximately 25 years) and is probably good enough to crack the “All-Time” Spartan starting 11 on D.

Jones has consistently given a Ray Lewis type effort from his very first play. He plays like Lewis, and Lewis plays like that old Energizer Bunny that keeps going, and going, and going, and going, and going. Jones is freak. His efforts are not the norm. If you had maybe two or three guys on the field simultaneously with that kind of unbreakable motor, you’d have a really competitive team.

So much of what Jones does now is essentially expected because everyone around the Big Ten has come to rightfully expect that “53” will have tackles numbering around the double digits, ranging sideline to sideline, and consistently show up as one of the best players on the field when he’s out there. Honestly, when’s the last time that Spartan Nation has been able to say that about one of their own, for an entire season or two? Today was a day to celebrate one of the Spartans’ all-time greats, and also to laugh once again at the various recruiting “star rankings” systems, which somehow missed a clearly 5-Star, “53.”

The Spartans’ ride on Easy St. is over now, however, as Bucky Badger sets his sights on Spartan Stadium and a run at another the Big Ten title. It’s time the Spartans leave the useless penalties and wasteful drops to die in the non-conference season. Those kinda plays will become oh so costly in the conference grinders of October and November. The margin for error has just dropped to a smidge.

Wisconsin arguably couldn’t come at a better time on the schedule for Michigan St. though. If the Spartans are ready to find out how they measure up with the upper crust of the Big Ten, they’ll get all they want with Wisconsin, on the Spartans’ home turf. MSU’s focus must be at a whole new level by Sunday evening (9/26), and must remain consistent out throughout the week. If the Spartans fail to keep up, they should keep an eye out for a firm spanking next weekend (see Wisconsin 70-3 over Austin Peay, 1 Wis. penalty).

In the Mark Dantonio era, the Spartans have consistently proven that they can play with just about anyone. Just look at how few games they’ve truly been “out of” before the very end. Yet, it’s one thing to be able to play with anyone, and a completely different reality to be able to actually beat anyone. Are the Spartans there yet? None of us are really sure. But we will find out where this team, and where this program is, by the end of Saturday evening.

The buildup in Spartan Nation for the Wisconsin game has undoubtedly already begun, as it should. Wisconsin is a “Top 10” team, and the Spartans are on a season long quest to regain some respect. As Spartan Nation knows, Big Ten titles are decided in November (see @Penn St. ’08). Saturday begins that annual journey once again for the Spartans and Badgers, in a game that will help define the true conference contender from the likely conference pretender.

The Spartans’ Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

The starting Offense did what they were expected to do; they pounded No. Co. on the ground with The BBC, and burned a couple through the air to make it a comfortable blow out. The BBC (Baker, Bell, & Caper) went for 201 yards today, and 4 TDs. They could’ve easily gone for more, but hanging big numbers on a 1-AA team wasn’t the primary goal of the day. The MSU running attack looked to sharpen up just a bit more to get ready for the Big Ten, and also wanted to get So. RB Larry Caper back in the flow. Caper went for 38 on the ground, and 30 yards with a TD, through the air. It’s awful nice to have him back out there, and The BBC back at full strength.

In truth, MSU was able to dominate the Bears so decisively that they really didn’t have to show too much offensively. If you’re wondering why MSU wouldn’t want to show too much of their Offense now, 4 weeks in, it’s because the games left ahead on their scheduled are collectively bigger than the 4 now behind them. MSU would ideally like to have something new for both Wisconsin and Michigan. To follow the old adage that must be scripted in the “Tressel Ball” handbook: why show everything when you barely need to show anything to bury an inferior opponent.

While the Offense looked pretty tight, they weren’t perfect. The MSU Offense committed unnecessary and sloppy penalties that slightly smudged an otherwise good effort. Rs.-Jr. QB Kirk Cousins looked fine today as he went 16/20 for 290 yards, and 2 TDs. And though Rs.-Fr. QB Andrew Maxwell finally got in to get some valuable reps, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 4th Quarter that he really took over for good. That didn’t seem right at all.

During the 3rd Quarter, Cousins was essentially leading the Offense behind the backup Offensive Line. Remember, one of the Spartans’ top goals of the afternoon was not to come out with any injuries. Not to doubt the Spartans’ 2’s and 3’s of the Offensive Line, but it’s hard to imagine why MSU would leave Cousins out there with anything less than the best protection. If Cousins would’ve gone down as a result of a miscommunication or inexperienced fueled mistake, would the Coaching Staff ever hear the end of it? Probably not, and the criticism would’ve been very well deserved.

If Maxwell is only a play away from being “the guy,” you would think that MSU would get him some more time with starters, in a game that was 35-0 at the half. Maxwell’s inexperience was evident when a hand off exchange with So. RB Larry Caper was botched early in the 4th on a play that exemplified exactly why Maxwell needed more time in the non-conference schedule. Maxwell needed more time to get used to the 1st team Offense, and the 1st team Offense needed more reps to get used to him.

Jr. TE Brian Linthicum continued his development today with 3 catches for 63 yards. Linthicum might be the Spartans best all around TE, and will have a big impact on the offensive success (run and pass) during the Big Ten season. Keep your on Linthicum and Sr. TE Charlie Gantt as the schedule moves forward. It’s not going to be enough for Spartan Nation to say “we’ve got really good Tight Ends,” we need to see it on the field in the Big Ten schedule. As routine as it sounds, the Coaching staff must do more to give the TEs opportunities to make plays. MSU simply needs more production out of its TE position.

Defense

The Defense did just about everything that was asked of them, on paper. Yet, too many MSU defenders committed too many unnecessary penalties that should cause concern moving forward. Traditionally, the adage goes that you “practice how you play, and play how you practice.” Well, the Spartan D has a tendency to take more penalties than they need. If they think they can turn up the restraint as the competition level increases, they should expect to take a sloppy penalty or two in the games moving forward. There’s no reason not to be at your mental best, each and every week. The Defense needs to sharpen up in that area, and sharpen up fast.

Another concern for the Defense remains the pass rush up front. MSU’s young line continues to struggle with over pursuit behind the line of scrimmage. On more than a few plays again Saturday, MSU’s front four had a shot to make a sack, but missed a seemingly open tackle. It’s not realistic to expect that a bull rushing Defensive Lineman or sprinting Line Backer will pull down a scrambling QB every time, but MSU’s front line defenders will have to complete sacks in the coming weeks. If they cannot get a consistent pass rush up front against No. Co., when can we expect one to realistically develop?

Special Teams

There’s probably never been a tougher Special Teams effort to follow than “Little Giants.” Today, Spartan Nation was looking for a clean effort from the Special Teams units. No turnovers, no penalties, and no gaffes. That did not completely occur, though with many different players getting experience in today’s game, it would be hard to expect a perfect performance. It was nice to see PK Dan Conroy get another shot at a FG, and keep his perfect streak going into Big Ten play.

Jr. WR Keyshawn Martin remains the Spartans’ most versatile weapon. Martin again had numbers today, going for 124 all-purpose yards, in just about every way you could possibly touch the ball. Martin’s importance will increase as Big Ten play begins, and rushing yards become tougher and tougher to get for The BBC. In short, field position is going to matter more and more as the fall becomes fuller. Special Teams can do as much to determine field position as any aspect of the game, and should not be underestimated.

Overall

Expect the focus and intensity to ramp up a big way as the Spartans prepare for Wisconsin. But will it be enough? MSU certainly shouldn’t be favored next Saturday, but should be able to hang with the Badgers if they get off to a good start. As we discussed before the season began, Wisconsin is a horse built to run from the front. Fall too far behind ole’ Bucky, and you’ll see nothing the rest of the day but the backs of the Badgers’ RB’s jerseys. Thus, MSU must stay tight at all times in order to have any shot of upsetting the Badgers. They cannot afford to fall a couple scores behind.

MSU will have to play its best game of 2010 in order to knock of Wisconsin. Though it is possible, the Spartans still seemed a good distance from their potential against Northern Colorado. They’ve yet to really put it all together for a Quarter, a Half, or let alone a complete Game. To expect it all to come together in time for a “Top 10” opponent, in just 7 days, will be a tall, tall order.

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