The Outlook of Michigan State Football Moving Forward

Jonathan Schopp

The Outlook Moving Forward

Coming off a 10-7 road victory at Ohio St. Saturday, the Spartans now enjoy their bye week before hosting Michigan at home on the 15th.

Offense

Outside of Cousins to Cunningham, how much of anything really worked well on Saturday? And how much of it worked when it was needed most? It was not a good day for the Offense in closing out drives. In fact, it was one of their worst in recent memory. What should’ve been more than a two-score lead was never stretched to more than 10 points.

B.J. Cunningham’s legacy continued to grow on Saturday. His legacy will fit nicely into the lineage of “Wide Receiver U,” and Cunningham will be remembered as a guy who made the tough catches, often circus like, and often utilizing his leaping ability and hand skills. He’ll also go down having caught more balls than any Spartan to date, and as an outstanding example of the benefits of a Red Shirt year. Without that experience, Cunningham wouldn’t be the pass catching rock he is today.

The Offensive Line remains the primary concern on this football team, and must make the absolute best of the bye week. Their play appears the biggest threat to MSU’s attempt to make the Big Ten Title game, and honestly is now a threat in nearly all of the games left on their schedule.

Once again, The BBC (Running Back firm of Le’Veon Bell, Edwin Baker, and Larry Caper) was stopped short of being as effective as they needed to be, only tallying 85 yards on the ground. If their production gets shut down much further, the Offense will struggle for balance and consistency when it’s needed most.

Kirk Cousins’ number one job at Ohio St. was to manage the game and protect the football. His numbers didn’t necessarily tell the whole story though (20/32, 250 yards, TD, 2 INT).   It didn’t take long to recognize the gap between the foul weather control of a true Freshmen compared with a Red Shirt Senior. Cousins by in large managed the conditions, though one ball did slip out of his hands for the fumble.

Cousins threw two picks that didn’t need to be thrown, clearly costing MSU points. It seems that he sometimes tries to be too perfect and ends up forcing too often. He’s at his best when he sees the field and takes what the Defense gives him. He must avoid trying to fit many more balls into spots they have no chance of fitting into.

It would be nice to see the 5th year Senior go ahead and trust his well developed instincts a little more for the remainder of the season. He’s been preparing for this year and these next 7 games for long enough now. It could be a better bet to feel and trust it more than to get over anxious and look locked in with blinders on. He must also avoid trying to do too much, and simply accept that sometimes it’s better to play for the next snap.

But before anyone should criticize Cousins too much, remember the one stat that Mark Dantonio has said a QB should be judged by, his win-loss record. Cousins’ is still pretty darn good so far.

After coming a long way from the Alamo Bowl practices following the 2009 season, Keith Nichol was expected to be a heavy contributor to the 2011 Spartan attack. It was nice to see him involved on some key downs in Columbus as he caught 2 balls for 21 yards. He hasn’t caught the number of passes one might’ve expected through 5 games now, but look for him to come on as we enter the middle of the season and continue his “team first” brand of play.

Defense

Could it have looked much better? Having been at the ’99 game in Spartan Stadium when the Spartan Dawgs held OSU to only 79 yards and owned the Bucks during that 23-7 win (and it wasn’t that close), this was a bit of a different looking domination since it was in Ohio Stadium. Expect to look back at this performance as the “Opening Act” on the national stage for what should be a relatively dominant Spartan Defense over the next 3 years or so. This Defense is going to get much better before it even hints of getting worse.

The Defense broke OSU’s Braxton Miller into Big Ten play by getting after him, confusing him, and containing him well to avoid broken plays. When Ohio St. brought in Joe Bauserman under center, he didn’t do much different until very late when MSU prudently seemed to change their approach.

William Gholston (So. DE) came out to play on the Horseshoe’s big stage. While some have wondered how the former 5-star recruit has been progressing, since it’s hard to quantify the development of a Defensive End outside of a few statistics, he got around the Buckeye’s backfield early and often. He was all over the place catching Buckeyes form behind, blocking passes at the line, and quickly getting the full attention of the tentative OSU Offense.

This is just the kind of game that can jump start a young player into becoming something special. Gholston came to MSU for games like Ohio St., battles with Michigan, and trips to Nebraska. This is just the beginning for a guy who can become a difference maker on the edge.

Gholston’s efforts to get off the line were matched by Ohio natives Jerel Worthy (Rs.-Jr. DT), Marcus Rush (Rs.-Fr. DE), and a host of other Dawgs that swarmed all day. They’re all getting faster, more athletic, and more confident by the down. Yet, their next test will probably be a better barometer of just how good they are since Michigan’s Denard Robinson is a known Offensive quantity. You can imagine Pat Narduzzi and company are going to be plenty hungry again next weekend coming off their best performance in the Dantonio era.

Special Teams

This unit faced a challenge with the weather conditions on Saturday. Though the first snap to Punter Mike Sadler was an adventure, Sadler’s effort to even get the kick off (let alone for 37 yards) was an outstanding and probably one of the plays of the game. In a game where weather is as a factor, Special Teams often can make or break the result.

Sadler played at a championship level Saturday averaging 40.8 yards on his 6 punts and putting OSU inside the 20 on 3 of them. His performance in probably the toughest road environment in the Big Ten suggests he’ll probably be ready for trips to Lincoln and Iowa later this year.

Dan Conroy was put in a tough spot on his first try of the day into the wind and out of his range, but showed some “brass” toes on the 50-yarder that proved to be the game winner. Look for Conroy to build off that monster effort.

Kicker Kevin Muma didn’t have much work on the day, but as play gets tighter during the Conference season, Muma will need to do his job for MSU to gain an edge on Special Teams.

Overall

We’re now in the meat of the Spartan’s 2011 schedule, but we’re also into a bye week. This bye comes at a valuable time because this team needs to get healthier on the Offensive Line. While you might initially think a bye just before the season’s half way point isn’t ideal, it gives MSU a great opportunity to prepare for Michigan, Wisconsin, and their first trip to Lincoln in about 15 years. MSU has been hurt in the past because bye weeks have come too late in the year. Expect this well-timed bye to leave a fresher unit for these next three very key games.

This is a 4-1 team going into the bye week, and probably not far off, record wise, from where most in the Spartan Nation thought they’d be. October is the biggest month on their schedule, without a doubt. The question now is how many wins the Spartans will have come the end of Saturday, October 29th. If they end up with 6 or more, they’ll be a long way towards validating their 2010 record in the eyes of the rankings and national media. More importantly, they’ll enter November with a great shot to win the division and play to defend their Big Ten title.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

1.     Regardless of what happens in Columbus this offseason, Saturday was the Spartans’ and Conference’s true realization that the era of the vested Senator (Jim Tressel) is over. Tressel will go down as probably the best Coach in Ohio St. history, but also the one that went down in such a stunningly strange fashion. Though incredibly not Ohio St.’s first or even third choice to replace John Cooper as Head Coach, Tressel turned out to be the perfect fit for the Scarlet and Gray. It’s hard to believe his era is gone for good.

2.     Perhaps the answer to the NFL’s kickoff dilemma is to slow down the running head start for the kick coverage unit. The NFL should experiment with prohibiting the “run up” to the kick. If you look at a kick off, the kicking team’s players are allowed to get about a 5-yard running start as the ball leaves the tee. That distance may seem short, but it definitely helps build up the steam and momentum that makes those plays dangerous.

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

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