If Michigan State is to open the season with a win at Cal, MSUâ€™s passing game is going to have to shine. What am I talking about you may ask? I thought this Cal game was about old fashioned, â€˜dot the Iâ€™ black and blue MSU football, versus the high speed, high octane spread offense of the Bears. I believe that if MSU has it their way, it will be a game that is decided by rushing yards. I just donâ€™t think Cal will yield any until MSUâ€™s receivers prove they can beat anybody. If I were Tedford, this would be my game plan.
All that I would need to see is Boston Collegeâ€™s defensive performance against the Spartans last season and try to make Hoyer and his young receivers uncomfortable. Nothing gets a team into the flow of the game than successfully running the ball, but nothing derails a team faster than turnovers and dropped passes. Hoyer is going to have to be razor sharp. He is not going to have all day to throw the ball and MSUâ€™s receivers are going to have to make some big plays early in the game.
Calâ€™s new defense features four linebackers and three down lineman as their base defense. I have heard more than one football guru say that Calâ€™s four backers are the best four backers playing together in college football. For Michigan Stateâ€™s run game to be effective, Hoyer will have to get MSUâ€™s vertical passing game on track early. Michigan Stateâ€™s young and largely untested receivers are going to need to grow up immediately. If the football analysts are truly right about Calâ€™s LBâ€™s, than Cunningham (RS fr.), Dell (so.), Curry (sr.), Martin (fr.) and Smith (fr.) have got to make big plays down field. There is nothing that turns a defense into a prospectorâ€™s sieve more than a potent vertical passing game.
So what is a potent vertical passing game for those of us that know little about coaching speak? Well, it is fairly simple. When a QB fires the ball short on the left or the right sides of the field to a fullback, tailback, tight end or receiver, it is called throwing the ball into the flat. Usually this involves taking advantage of a gap in coverage between the secondary and the linebackers. With Cal having four fast LBâ€™s, this may be a difficult area to work. Many spread offenses utilize this in order to create one on one mismatches that turn a six-yard throw into a sixty-yard gain. To better understand this concept, look at last yearâ€™s Northwestern tape and youâ€™ll understand the idea rather quickly.
A vertical passing game stretches the defense and makes them cover receivers deep down field. Devin Thomas was the consummate example of a receiver that shined in the vertical passing game as was Plax and Charlie Rogers. Michigan State is going to need to occupy Calâ€™s safeties and make them respect the passing game if we are to run the ball effectively. We cannot allow Calâ€™s safeties to meet Ringer and company at the point of attack. Our receivers must be respected. Cal has to fear the big play. Who among the MSU receivers will deliver Saturdayâ€™s big play? I am going to say that BJ Cunningham has to be the guy.
Cunningham was redshirted last season due to some early dents and dings. It is widely known that he could have played last season and helped this team. Cunningham is not quiet as big as Thomas, (6â€™2â€ 205# vs. 6â€™2â€ 218#), but he has shown flashes of brilliance in practice that will need to translate to Saturday afternoons. Cunningham is an all around athlete and is known for elevating above defenders and taking the ball out of the sky. He was an exceptional high school basketball player in addition to being a football standout. I donâ€™t think many around the Big Ten know much about Cunningham, but theyâ€™ll find out soon enough. I believe that MSUâ€™s receiving corp will be firmly on the Big Ten radar after Saturdayâ€™s game. If MSU wins on Saturday, it will be largely due to a balanced attack that featured big plays from Cunningham, Dell, Martin and Smith.