Michigan State and Rutgers will play each other for the seventh time in their series history this Saturday, but only the second as Big Ten East divisional foes. The all-time series is tied 3-3, with Michigan State evening things up with a 45-3 win last season. There is a lot going on with the #4 ranked Spartans, including a litany of injuries and sub-par performances to start their season. I was fortunate this week to speak with MSU insider Austin Smith (@acsmith06) from The Only Colors. Our conversation is below, and make sure to check out their site to catch up on this weekend's opponent.
Obviously Michigan State came into the season with national championship aspirations. After a 5-0 start without playing their "A" game so far, is that fact more of a concern they aren't as good as hoped or is it actually a good sign that better performances are ahead? What is the pulse of the fan base at the moment?
Right now, the MSU fanbase is very high-strung -- and with good reason. On one hand, yes, you're 5-0 and haven't turned in anything close to a dominant performance thus far. Theoretically, things can only go up. On the other hand, all of the victories have been ugly in one way or another and the same problems keep creeping up week after week. We refer to this as ‘The Other Shoe’.
The offense looked fantastic in the first half last week against Purdue, getting out to a 21-point lead before losing their third offensive tackle of the year, redshirt freshman Dennis Finley to a nasty broken leg. After that, the skies opened up and the Spartans went into full-blown "just get the win and get out of here" mode and it nearly cost them. Given the injury luck MSU has had so far (I'll get to that in a minute) it's hard to blame Mark Dantonio for taking that approach.
The offense isn't nearly as big a concern as the defense, especially the secondary. The defensive line has been about as dominant as you could ask for and the linebackers are a solid, deep group. They need to shore up their tackling but injuries have kept them from being full-go in practice and it's shown up on the field. That said, aside from a 68-yard rushing TD, Purdue only averaged 3.1 yards per carry and didn't do a whole lot through the air, either.
Despite holding Purdue to 136 yards passing, the secondary is a massive area of concern. The talent is there, it just doesn't look fully marinated. Not helping is the fact senior safety RJ Williamson had surgery for a torn bicepon Monday, which will keep him out until at least the last game of the regular season. His replacement, the VERY talented sophomore Montae Nicholson was benched just last week and looks inexplicably lost at times (watch the angle he takes on that huge TD run. Hint: IT'S BAD), the other three starters have all been shuffled and the depth remains largely untested. I'll go to bat for corners Darian Hicks and Arjen Colquhoun and say they both (finally) played pretty well last week, albeit in a rainstorm...against a quarterback in his second career start…and a team that has won five games in the past three seasons. *drinks all the beer*
We are still only five games into this season, so I'm not panicking yet. But it sure would be nice to see a complete game from this team sooner rather than later.
Michigan State has been flooded with injuries. Please identify the starters lost and what concerns there are regarding the depth on both sides of the ball. Has the rash of injuries changed expectations for the season?
Oh god, where do I begin?
On offense, MSU has had several casualties. Starting tight end Josiah Price missed last week (precautionary, but still) and wideout MacGarrett Kings also went down in the game (on the depth chart this week, but still). The real issue is the Spartans have had three, count em, three offensive tackles go down including Finley, starter Kodi Kieler and potential first-round pick Jack Conklin. #AMSUOLHG is real and he is vengeful.
Trying to fit a line together without those three last week was an experiment. After Finley was carted off, none of the offensive lineman on the field were playing the same position where they started the year. Think about that. Five games in and not ONE starter is still playing his "correct" position. That's not great! MSU has a versatile group that managed to make due but the depth chart is getting thin. Both Conklin and Kieler are listed as co-starters this week so they may play but don't expect them to be rushed back if sitting out one more game means getting them to 100%. If those two can return healthy, this group should be the dominant force it was expected to be. If not, we're going to see more conservative gameplans like last week.
Defensively, things are even scarier. The pre-season knee injury to linebacker Ed Davis was bad enough, but since then MSU has lost starting corner Vayante Copeland to a season-ending neck injury and Williamson to his torn bicep. They've bounced back well from the loss of Davis, although they do miss his blitzing ability, but the secondary is where things get weird, fast.
Depth was suspect coming into the season and after losing Williamson and Copeland, the deck is being shuffled big time. As mentioned, Nicholson is switching over to Williamson's safety spot, while Demetrious Cox, who began the year as MSU's top corner, fills in at the other. Colquhoun and Hicks are your new starting corners and while both played well last week they also have a lot of non-stellar tape to their names. Behind each of these four starters is a true freshman. No, really. Right now, redshirts are being burned like kindling in East Lansing (NOT COUCHES, YOU GUYS) but when you have Playoff ambitions, the future is now.
I’ll say this: the injuries haven't changed my expectations just yet, but they have made the margin for error much smaller.
How much does the defense miss Pat Narduzzi and how much concern is there that his loss, combined with injuries, will prevent them from reaching the level they achieved the past couple of seasons.
First of all, I think the demise of the Michigan State defense is a bit overstated. Are they the 2013 world beaters? No, they are not. They might not even be as good as last year's unit, but they are also far from bad.
They have yet to surrender more than 28 points and still have probably the best defensive line in Dantonio's tenure. The linebackers are a better group than a year ago, especially with Riley Bullough in the middle. The secondary is in major flux but remains talented enough to get by. Personnel is not the issue, even given the rash of injuries.
What is troubling is the lack of execution. The press-quarters scheme is unchanged, yet MSU is repeating some uncharacteristic mistakes. This is probably partially a function of their untested depth seeing its first on-field action, but I think it’s where you notice Narduzzi’s absence the most. Missed tackles, defenders taking bad angles and a seeming lack of awareness at times all make me think they miss Narduzzi in the meeting room during the week more than they do on Saturday itself.
The good news is that these things are correctable. Co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressell and Harlon Barnett know this defense and how to teach it, but between the adjustment to additional coaching and play-calling responsibilities and the injury plague, they have been dealt a rough hand early on. The bad news is that if these issues are not corrected, and soon, MSU is going to find themselves in positions like the one they were in last week more often than they would like and it may cost them dearly.
This unit will likely not reach the national heights of its predecessors, but if the offense can get healthy enough to approach its pre-season expectations, the d-line can continue to wreak havoc and they just play cleaner, it won't have to.
Was LJ Scott expected to contribute so much this quickly or has he been the biggest pleasant surprise to the season?
FINALLY, something fun. Scott is the most impressive True Freshman I have ever watched in my 27 years of Michigan State fandom. Usually with freshman you think "wow, think what can he be when he gets a few years in a college strength program" but he already looks like Le'Veon Bell did as a junior and he runs that way, too.
Scott is arguably the biggest recruiting win of Dantonio's tenure, selecting MSU over the likes of Alabama and his home state Buckeyes and with Jeremy Langford making his way to the NFL, opportunity was there. Expectations were set accordingly. He has exceeded them.
After watching him in the first few games, it was obvious that it was just a matter of time before he ended up as the top backfield option. He's just plain hard to tackle. For an offense that needs help making plays right now, it's nice to have a guy who the defense just doesn't want to (or can't) tackle.
There was a seemingly meaningless play last week that made me nearly jump out of my shoes. Connor Cook dumped the ball off to Scott from his own endzone and he managed a jump cut that would make Barry Sanders smile, leaving the Purdue defender grasping at air as he fell to the ground. He only got about five yards, but plays like that force opponents to take notice and fans to lose their collective shit. Yeah, I'm happy he's a Spartan.
You'll still see a lot of fellow youngster Madre London, who has had some impressive runs of his own, but after last week it's hard to picture anyone other than Scott getting the most work for the remainder of the season.
Connor Cook made a comment at the start of the season about "how it sucks to not be captain". That was surprising to hear publicly from the senior quarterback. Is there any concern that there are chemistry issues with this team? Could that be part of the reason they have had trouble putting teams away and not reaching their potential so far?
I'll be honest, I hate the "Cook isn't a captain" storyline. Yes, I was surprised to hear him say it publicly and, no, you don't love that he essentially created a story (read: distraction) for the national media, but I don't think it matters or that the team pays any attention to it.
Honestly, I'd be more concerned if he wasn't a little upset by not being captain. The quarterback is the leader of the program and he wanted that title, but I can't imagine him allowing it to affect his play or his relationship with his teammates. This team is loaded with seniors and not being named a captain over fellow three-year starters Jack Allen, Shilique Calhoun and the universally-well-thought-of Darien Harris wasn't as shocking to those who follow the program as it was to the national media.
I don't think chemistry with Cook has anything to do with why MSU hasn't been able to close games. Conservative play calling and lackadaisical execution are much more to blame. Check back with me if he punches someone.
Special Teams play has been a weakness for the Spartans so far. Is there concern heading into this week's game, with Rutgers playing well on special teams and their ability to return kicks? How successful has MSU been with touchbacks on kickoffs and will they be crazy enough to kick to Janarion Grant?
For all the talk about the secondary's struggles, Special Teams have been exponentially more worrisome. I tweeted this last week, but I think junior kicker Michael Geiger might just be bad now. He had a great freshman year, but since has been an absolute mess. The last two weeks he has missed chip shots with neither coming particularly close. It was raining and he did make a 30 yarder, but he's gone from weapon to liability in the span of a little over a season. MSU has no real replacement for him on the roster, so the job is his for better or worse.
True Freshman Punter Jake Hartbarger had actually been doing very well until last week’s keystone cops moment and kickoff man Kevin Cronin has been serviceable. That brings us to the coverage units. Oh, those wonderful coverage units. They were a nightmare early in the season but they have looked much better the last three games.
Despite that, Janarion Grant scares the hell out of me. Dude is just a great returner who can make something out of nothing. I'm sure the plan is to avoid him at all costs, but if Cronin can't boot all his balls out of the endzone this could be a problem. Rutgers needs to win the field position game and Grant’s ability to flip the field and take one to the house are hugely important to the Scarlet Knight’s chances in this one. If MSU can minimize his impact, it’ll go a long ways towards coming back to East Lansing 6-0.
How do you expect Spartans fans to travel for this week's game? Is the fan base aware that Rutgers is actually 3-3 against Michigan State in this series all-time and is there any respect for our football program?
MSU usually travels pretty well and has a good amount of alums on the East Coast, so I would expect a pretty decent turnout. I actually know three people going to this game, so I can guarantee there will be at least some Green and White in the stands. They’re looking for tailgate recommendations, if you’ve got em.
The "Rutgers Awareness Index" among MSU fans is pretty low. Actually, probably the lowest of all the teams in the Big Ten. Not out of animosity but simply because there are no real memories yet. Last year's game was a laugher and before that I suspect very few fans (possibly just me) remember the games in 2003 and 2004 when the schools split a home and home slate. Rutgers has a chance to stick in Spartan fan’s minds this week though. Given the current "sky is falling" state of mind amongst some of the MSU fanbase, the awareness of the Rutgers program will skyrocket if Saturday is a close one.
Also, for what it's worth, outside of that '04 game, I remember the days of Jeremy Ito fondly. Unrelated: I may watch too much college football.
Also, for what it's worth, I remember the days of Jeremy Ito fondly. Unrelated: I may watch too much college football.
What is your prediction for the game on Saturday?
I was hoping you wouldn't ask this but I guess I'll give it a shot. I've predicted a blowout for MSU each of the last three weeks and apparently am not clairvoyant. My mom must've meant something else when she called me "special" all those years.
On paper, this is a huge mismatch. Offensively, even possibly without Conklin and Kieler, MSU should be able to move the ball against a team that gave up 28 points to a woeful Penn State attack and is down four suspended defensive backs. On defense, the return of Leontee Caroo could cause some problems but MSU should dominate the line of scrimmage and force Chris Laviano into some mistakes.
What scares me is the fact that every other game, aside from Oregon, has been a huge mismatch on paper. I’m not sure what to believe. So much of it depends on the health of the offensive line. If Conklin and/or Kieler are good to go, MSU should finally be able to turn Cook and the offense loose and run away with this game. However, if neither of those two are ready and the offense is conservative, things could get interesting. Add in the night game atmosphere and Grant’s ability to catch lightning in a bottle and you have a potentially dangerous recipe.
That said, I think MSU is just too good to lose a game like this one, but after the way this season has gone, I won't be shocked if it’s closer than it should be. MSU still has kinks to work out but pulls away after halftime.
MSU 28 - Rutgers 10
I wanted to thank Austin for taking the time to give us insight on the MSU football team. To read the questions Austin asked me about Rutgers, click here.