White Wills Spartans Over Wildcats in 24-14 Comeback Victory

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MSU rallied from a 7-0 halftime deficit to produce a sound second half effort and reassuring victory this afternoon in front of a proud Homecoming crowd. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect, but it was MSU’s 11th Big Ten victory out of its last 14 Conference games. The Spartans important comeback was led by their Sr. WR Captain Blair White.

Rock Baker Lost His Redshirt!  Photo Courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

Rock Baker Lost His Redshirt! Photo Courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

White led the team on the field today, willing his way to his best statistical performance of his career, grabbing 12 catches for 186 yards, and 2 “man’s game” TDs. White’s gutty performance helped propel the Spartans in the thick of the now wide open Big Ten race. The Spartans know what’s on the line next week, and as Blair White said in the locker room late this afternoon, they’re ready for it. “We’re so excited to play in Spartan Stadium at night.”

Next week’s night game with Iowa has just the type of importance Mark Dantonio once envisioned Spartan games would have come late October. But even he might not have seen such big opportunities coming in only his third year leading the Green and White. Coming off today’s second half comeback victory against Northwestern, Spartan Football is suddenly in position to have a great finish to 2009.

The Momentum Eraser Early

As Coach D told Spartan Nation early this week, when you’re playing against NW, it’s critically important to control the game’s tempo. Therefore, the decision to take the ball on the opening kick was clearly the best choice. And it looked even better after the opening kick was taken back into NW territory by So. Trenton Robinson. From there, the Spartans pounded the Wildcat Defense all the way inside the 5 yard line, where they suddenly hit a wall and came away empty.

It’s still hard to believe Fr. RB Larry Caper didn’t get in on the 3rd and goal try, but the replay didn’t show enough to reverse the call on the field. On the 4th and goal snap, Rs.-So. QB Kirk Cousins didn’t have his best sneak effort, and seemed to rush the play, falling short of the goal line. The Spartans’ overall intensity took a noticeable nose dive after the sudden crash on the goal line. After all, the Spartans are a run-based football team, and we’re stopped short at their own game. From that point, NW took the momentum all the way through half time, opening up a 7-0 lead that at times looked like it was going to be stretched another score or two.

NW is a tough Offense to stop. In fact, it’s a high percentage output. The nature of their Offense is to take little bits of yardage at a time, and hope that at some point they’ll be a missed tackle or assignment which can open up a big gain. Though Northwestern moved the ball on the Spartans in the first half, the Spartan D held MSU in the game, stopping the Wildcats enough to keep the lead at 7.

Though MSU has played the tiring NW Offense better in the last two years, there’s still room for improvement. Due to the nature of the Wildcats fast paced Offense, they are inherently draining for a Defense to play. There’s not much time between plays to reorganize, correct, and sometimes even get your breath. During Northwestern’s 80 yard first half TD drive, MSU should’ve used a time out at some point in its progress.

A time out would’ve disrupted the NW rhythm, even if only by taking them off the field for a couple minutes. A time out would’ve also given MSU a chance to get off the field and regroup themselves. I’m not saying a time out would’ve prevented a score on that drive, but a time out after maybe the third first down would’ve made a score harder to come by and given MSU a far better chance to stop the Wildcat’s TD. Timeouts don’t usually do a team good if they’re left unused, but can help a lot if used shrewdly.

The first half was not impressive offensively for MSU. Any momentum that was slowly regained after the early turn over on downs was drained back out after the Fr. RB Edwin “Rock” Baker mishandled a red zone handoff from Cousins and NW recovered. To that point, the MSU offense had legitimately struggled. Their timing was shaky, and Cousins play was unsettled till the end of the half.

Many in the Spartan Nation were suddenly longing for the luxury to bring in the injured Rs.-So. QB Keith Nichol. If nothing else, Nichol would’ve provided a different look, different rhythm, and perhaps a jolt into a stalled out Spartan O. Though not looking healthy enough to play today, with a big black protective sleeve on his left arm, Nichol was fired up on the sideline throughout the game today. He looked as into the game today as he’s been all year.

Who knows who will start next week, though it’ll probably be Cousins. I’m not completely sure it matters. But I do believe MSU will need both QBs healthy and playing well to have their best shot to knock off Iowa for a second straight year at Spartan Stadium.

Making matters worse, MSU failed to find even one completion to a TE all half. This team has four of them that play and contribute to the pass game. The Spartans must work to prevent that from happening again this year. There’s just too much pass catching talent at that position.

Though the first half was not good offensively, the Spartans were only a TD down thanks to the stingy play of the Spartan D, led by Jr. LBs Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Jones did what Jones does, make plays all over the field, levy big hits, and read offensive plays at a very high level. Gordon was simply all over the field today versus the Wildcat’s spread attack. I felt Gordon struggled a bit during the first games of this season, but has come on impressively as the Spartan D has come together and played much better.

Second Half Spartan Surge

The second half didn’t start much better than the first half ended, as So. Andre Anderson took a foolish and embarrassing Personal Foul on the opening kick. That penalty was not appreciated by the Spartans’ Head Coach, who got about as upset on the sideline with Anderson as you’ll ever see him get. It was not the start MSU needed.

But from there, the 3rd was all MSU. The Defense picked up for the Anderson gaffe, and the Offense then started to roll. Cousins and White began to find a better rhythm and space, connecting for two TD passes of 22 and 47 yards respectively. Caper and Baker began to find room to run on the bending Wildcat D in the second half. And though Cousins didn’t have a good first half, he excelled and threw a much better ball in the second. Perhaps the most impressive Cousins stat of the day was a zero in the turnover category. An MSU turnover early in the comeback might have been just enough of an opportunity to spurn another really bad Spartan loss.

The game really broke open on a unique three play stretch. MSU All-Everything PK Brett Swenson kicked a record making FG at the end of the 3rd to make it 17-7 MSU. On the ensuing kickoff, NW So. Jeravin Matthews badly booted the ball, which was recovered by this games Special Teams standout, Trenton Robinson. One the third play of the game deciding sequence, Fr. RB Larry Caper again showed remarkable maturity for a back in only his seventh collegiate game, taking it to the house again and putting this one away for the gang in Green.

On his sixth TD run of the year, Caper had the field presence to freeze behind the line for a second or two, to give the big guys up front enough time to open up a hole. After wisely pausing for the hole to open, Caper darted through it untouched and put the Spartans out of reach for good. The game had suddenly gone from competitive to a very comfortable lead for MSU. As Coach D pointed out immediately after the game, “that’s a 14 point swing right there.”

The Spartans handled the lead well enough from that point to keep Northwestern sufficiently out of reach, and knocked off the persistent Wildcats to set up a big time Big Ten battle next Saturday under the Spartan Stadium lights.

Baker Back for Good, Back with a Passion

The Red Shirt is officially off Fr. RB Edwin “Rock” Baker, and he seems to like it. The Spartan back that chose MSU over a host of other national football powers ran today like a player let free. Though Baker had only played in limited action early, he looked much more confident and passionate on the field this afternoon. Even though he was only off the field for a relatively short time, Baker seemed to appreciate playing even more than he might of coming into the year.

Coach D explained the decision to play Baker shortly after the game. “We looked at people (during the practice week) and kept evaluating…if we could guarantee him 10 or 12 reps of a game, it would be worth it.” So expect Baker’s opportunities to increase the rest of the way. “He almost broke it out 2 or 3 times today, and has the ability to break a big one each time,” Dantonio added. “There’s no doubt he’ll be a fixture here in the future.”

The Stretch Run Now Begins

The Spartan Nation really began buzzing late this afternoon with the Spartans’ fine second half comeback, and the other happenings around the Big Ten. Suddenly the Spartans are right in the thick of the conference race, with a chance to separate themselves a bit next week when hosting Iowa. After Purdue’s stunning home win over Ohio St. this afternoon, Iowa is the only unbeaten team in the Big Ten.

The Hawkeyes were very impressive this afternoon, going into Camp Randall Stadium and coming back from an early 10 point hole to beat Wisconsin 20-10. The Badgers had won 15 straight in Madison when starting at 11 a.m. local time. Don’t forget Iowa’s season took a big hit last year when Spartan LB Adam Decker stopped All-American Hawkeye RB Shonn Greene year on that famous 4th down stand. So the Hawks will come into Spartan Stadium as motivated as possible, sitting alone and undefeated at the top of the Big Ten.

Next Saturday night will be a night to remember for the Spartan Nation. Anytime MSU plays under the lights, it’s a memorable event for the program and fans. Coach D might have summed up the Spartans’ opportunities from this point best by saying proudly, “we’ve got a lot to play for in this conference, this season.”