How come I get the feeling that the national sports media hasn’t accepted what is taking place in East Lansing? The Game Day crew from ESPN continue to place MSU on upset alert while commenting about the Spartan year end collapse that is sure to come after having played Michigan. The point that many in sports media are missing is that since Mark Dantonio arrived this has essentially become a moot subject. Those late season collapses were a result primarily of talent and depth issues, combined with the stellar coaching of Bobby Williams and John L Smith. It is as if they can’t come to grips with MSU’s success and shaking the label of “Same ole Spartans.”
So why is this 2010 version different than all the other teams they preceded? To begin, let’s understand that Mark Dantonio is 4-0 after his teams have played the Wolverines, and are 6-2 in the month of November the past three seasons. Not quite the record one would expect from listening to the “Three men and a baby” crew on ESPN. By the way, Desmond Howard is the baby in that group. Wouldn’t one agree that a fourth consecutive reversal of this once frustrating trend has finally laid this myth to rest? That was the old MSU, not the one now coached and recruited by Mark Dantonio. The depth issues that plagued this team in the past when injuries would mount are no longer a problem.
Now that Dantonio has slain this dragon he now faces an even greater challenge, maintaining his teams focus. When you are one of a handful of undefeated teams and rated in the top 10 in the national polls rest assured that every opponent will give you their “A game.” That means that there is no rest for the wicked, and MSU will have to bring it every weekend. This is the next step, where teams struggling to prove their worthiness continue to elevate their game so that an upset will not occur. This team has that capability. They have remained relatively healthy because of their depth and the ability to rotate players so that no one is hitting a performance wall due to fatigue. That’s what the good teams have done for years, and now MSU has that capability.
This weekend MSU travels to Evanston to play the Wildcats of Northwestern, taking another step in their maturing process. Aside from the first year overtime loss 48-40, MSU has managed to contain NU’s spread offense, allowing an average of 17 points in the last two contests. I don’t have the fear and trepidation of encountering the spread this year as the defense has continually stepped up their game the last three weeks. MSU played at a championship level last Saturday, holding the Illini without a touchdown the entire game and scoreless the second half.
The defensive line in particular have become more dominant, occupying blockers so that the line backing corps can make tackles as well as finding a renewed pass rush allowing the need for blitzing to be diminished. When you include the front fours ability to disrupt a quarterbacks sight line when their arms are raised and batting down passes, the job of the back seven is greatly reduced. MSU will need that kind of performance on Saturday and every weekend going forward. Greg Jones’ 14 tackle game against Illinois can be directly attributable to the fact that he was allowed to roam relatively unimpeded, making him even more of a threat and more difficult for offensive coordinators to scheme.
Seeing how MSU was able to bottle up mobile quarterbacks Robinson and Scheelhaase these past two weeks Persa should be a less daunting task running wise. Passing, Persa has the ability to make you pay, but as I explained above, the MSU front four is becoming a more disruptive force. I believe the Spartans could realistically hold NU to under 275 yards of offense, and create a few takeaways.
Offensively MSU will need for the offensive line to rebound from its performance this past weekend. Illinois’ front four seemingly played the first half in the Spartan backfield. They were able to make some head way in the second half, but more is required from these five. I don’t expect MSU to face another combination of defensive linemen and linebackers with the quickness, power and speed possessed by the Illini. Northwestern has a serviceable defensive line, backed by a solid group of linebackers. If Foreman and MacDonald are able to get to the next level and disrupt the Wildcat linebackers, the trio of Baker, Bell and Caper will have numerous runs of 8 yards or more. Once the NU safety’s creep up to commit to the run, Cousins should be able to hit Cunningham, Dell or Martin for scores. I also expect both Linthicum and Gantt to play a substantial role in the offense this week, particularly finding open spots in the middle of the field for intermediate gains of 10 to 15 yards.
Expect MSU to win by no less than three scores if the defense continues their mastery and the offense pounds the ball.