2013 Michigan State Football: Looking at the past, then present.

Senior MSU QB Andrew Maxwell can't duplicate his 2012 performance if Sparty wants a shot at the Big 10 title.

Senior MSU QB Andrew Maxwell can’t duplicate his 2012 performance if Sparty wants a shot at the Big 10 title.

The 2012 Michigan State Spartan football team came off of a 2011 season that was one of the best in school history. The 2011 squad finished 11-3 overall and 7-1 in Big 10 play in the first year of the Leaders and Legends divisions within the conference. Two regular season clunkers against Notre Dame and Nebraska aside, MSU was very impressive throughout 2011, even in their 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big 10 conference title game. From that roster, QB Kirk Cousins, RB Larry Caper, WRs B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin, S Trenton Robinson and DT Jerel Worthy were 2012 NFL Draft picks. More importantly for the future, the 2011 MSU team was able to redshirt 19 true freshmen.

The 2012 team was not so successful. Many would look at their 7-6 overall record and immediately label that squad as the epitome of mediocre. If you watched each game, however, you’d come away knowing that MSU dealt with bouts of mediocrity and some inconsistency, especially on the offensive end, but this was still a mostly above-average football team.

2012 Offense.

Offensively, the 2012 Spartans could be hard to watch most times. If it weren’t for current Pittsburgh Steeler RB Le’Veon Bell, the team would have had an even harder time putting up 20 points a game, good for 110th (out of 124 teams) in the country. Bell was the definition of a workhorse, leading both MSU and the entire nation in rushing attempts (387) and total plays from scrimmage (414). He also finished 5th in the country in rushing yards (1,793) and 8th in total yards from scrimmage (1,960) while finishing first on the Spartans in both categories. And when Sparty needed a win in their final regular season game against Minnesota to become bowl-eligible, Bell turned in arguably his finest performance of 2012, carrying the ball 35 times for 266 yards and a score in a rather ugly 26-10 win.

While the running game was more than solid, it was the passing game that elicited many groans from Spartan fans. Cousins and Co. had a very good 2011 through the air, as the offense was much more balanced and efficient than it was in 2012. Coming into 2012, there were some who felt that then-junior QB Andrew Maxwell was actually more talented than his predecessor. He would be missing some weapons from the WR corps, but with Bell back and supposedly a good offensive line in front of him, it was predicted by a few that the passing game could be even better. Well, that wasn’t the case. At all.

Maxwell was not great in 2012. He was not very good. He was not good. For the most part, he struggled to be average. But some of his woes can be put on his receivers’ ability to catch the damn football, or lack thereof. Sparty dropped an estimated 66 passes last year, which is a hair above 5 drops a game. If those drops are reduced by even just 2, Maxwell’s completion percentage for 2012 would have been 57.4% instead of 52.5%, an increase of nearly %5. Cut those drops by 3 a game, and Maxwell’s completion percentage would have been 58.5%. We can also assume that with less drops, Maxwell would have racked up more passing yards, touchdowns, and a higher yards per attempt average. In addition to his inaccuracy at times, Maxwell’s offensive line wasn’t much of a help, either. What was supposed to be a strength turned out to be a weakness of sorts, as Maxwell was sacked 21 times (5th most in the Big 10).

2013 Offense.

Not that things were all-time awful on this side of the ball in 2012, but the effort and production in 2013 need to be much better if MSU wants to play in their first Rose Bowl in 25 years.

Redshirt freshman Riley Bullough, a former linebacker, will be one of a few RBs counted on to replace the departed Le'Veon Bell.

Redshirt freshman Riley Bullough, a former linebacker, will be one of a few RBs counted on to replace the departed Le’Veon Bell.

Andrew Maxwell doesn’t have to be perfect in 2013, but he has to at least be…good. Head coach Mark Dantonio pulled Maxwell in favor of then-freshman QB Connor Cook in last year’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl 17-16 win against TCU. Neither was anything to write home about, as Maxwell finished the game 6-15 for 28 yards and Cook, 4-11 for 47 yards and a TD pass that finally put Sparty on the board in the second half. While Cook’s final line wasn’t all that much better than Maxwell’s, the offense seemed to have some life when he was under center. In addition, his TD pass capped a 14-play, 90-yard drive that was not only the longest MSU scoring drive of the season, but its longest in bowl history. Maxwell will probably be the starter in the opener, but don’t be surprised if he gets a quick hook if he struggles early and Cook gets the call.

Bell is gone, and replacing him will be redshirt freshman (and converted linebacker) Riley Bullough and juniors Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford. Bullough impressed in the spring game, carrying the ball 11 times for 46 yards. Despite this and being the first running back picked in the spring game senior draft, it will probably be Hill (21 rushes, 48 yards, TD in 2012) who gets the start for the first game.

The much-maligned WR group of 2012 will return senior Bennie Fowler (41 catches, 524 yards, 4 TD in 2012), juniors Keith Mumphery (42-515-1), Tony Lippett (36-392-2) and sophomore Aaron Burbridge (29-364-2). Dion Sims dealt with injuries during 2012, but still finished with a line of 36-475-2 from the tight end position. Sophomore Paul Lang (3-8-1) will replace him for Sparty in 2013.

The offensive line had some injury problems of its own in 2012, which certainly contributed to some poor play. Collectively, this unit should be much better in 2013. Guard Chris McDonald is gone and tackle Skyler Burkland left a year early, but there is still talent in the cupboard. Fifth-year senior guard Fou Fonoti is completely healthy after a foot injury marred his 2012 campaign. Fellow senior guard Blake Treadwell hopes to build on last season, when he started 7 games and had 26 knockdowns. Former freshman All-American center Travis Jackson will look to be the anchor of the OL after a knee injury and broken leg limited him to only 5 games in 2012.

2012 Defense.

If you’d like to call the Michigan State defense of the last season or two elite, feel free to do so. Sparty was not just elite defensively when compared to their conference counterparts, but every other team in the nation as well. Along with MSU, only Alabama, LSU, Florida and Florida St. ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense the past two seasons. In 2012, Michigan State’s defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in:

  • Touchdowns allowed (2nd, 16)
  • Pass efficiency defense (3rd, 98.8)
  • Total defense (4th, 274.4 ypg)
  • Pass break-ups (T-8th, 4.8 pg)
  • Rushing defense (8th, 99.6 ypg)
  • Passing defense (9th, 175.8 ypg)
  • Scoring defense (9th, 16.3 ppg)

Going into ’12, I was not alone in thinking that the defensive line, even without Worthy, would be a problem for all

DE William Gholston, now a Tampa Bay Buc, didn't dominate in '12, but made his fair share of great plays.

DE William Gholston, now a Tampa Bay Buc, didn’t dominate in ’12, but made his fair share of great plays.

opponents. DE William Gholston, an extremely poor man’s Julius Peppers, did not meet expectations, but still made significant contributions as he racked up 13 TFL and knocked down 10 passes. The DL as a unit did not rush the passer well at all, but its depth is what made the difference. Former Spartan defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White was a key cog in the middle of a defensive line that was one of the best in the country in terms of run prevention.

Senior linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen were key defensive players in 2012, as most would assume. Bullough finished 2012 with 111 tackles, 12.5 of them for loss. Allen, who has great athleticism, registered 79 tackles and 3 sacks and will more than likely improve his production in 2013. Chris Norman, who graduated, was nothing flashy but got the job done, nevertheless.

Sparty’s secondary in 2012 was outstanding and partially made up for a rather anemic pass rush. Cornerback Johnny Adams was chosen by Big 10 coaches as a member of the All-Big 10 first team, as was fellow corner Darqueze Dennard. Safeties did a great job in both pass and run support and the entire secondary didn’t give up many big plays. Sound and very aggressive, the secondary was key to Sparty’s overall success in 2012.

2013 Defense.

On the defensive line, the 2012 honorable mention All-Big 10 DE Marcus Rush will be counted on to do a little bit of everything in 2013, as the junior did in ’12. Seniors Micah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover will both see time at defensive tackle, while senior DE Denzel Drone and sophomore DE Shilique Calhoun will attempt to provide a steady pass rush that was missing in 2012.

Allen and Bullough lead a very talented LB corps that will look to make more of an impact in 2013 than it did in 2012. While Allen is certainly a significant contributor, it is Bullough who makes this defense run. The 6’3″, 252-lb middle linebacker is on the 2013 “watch list” for the Bednarik, Butkus, and Lombardi Award, as well as the Lott IMPACT and Nagurski Trophy. The ‘backers are good in pass coverage, and very stout in run support. 4-year LB Chris Norman is gone, but junior Taiwan Jones will take his place, and actually, should be more productive at the weakside linebacker spot. Waiting in the wings are two 4-star freshmen linebackers, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke. LBs who will also get valuable playing time are sophomores Darien Harris and Ed Davis. Without question, this LB unit is deep, talented and should intimidate the entire hell out of opposing offensive coordinators.

Obviously, the loss of all-conference corner Johnny Adams will hurt Sparty’s secondary, but senior CB Darqueze Dennard is back. The first-team All-Big 10 selection had 52 tackles, 3.5 TFL, intercepted 3 passes and broke up 10. On the opposite side of Dennard will be sophomore Trae Waynes, who mostly saw time on special teams last season. Senior safety Isaiah Lewis was an honorable mention All-Big 10 selection in 2012, but he will definitely have some help from fellow safety, junior Kurtis Drummond. Behind those two are redshirt freshman free safety Demetrious Cox and sophomore strong safety, R.J. Williamson.

2012 Special Teams.

Kicker Dan Conroy will no longer draw my ire, as he has graduated. It’s a bit unfair that I was as upset with Conroy as I was last season, upon looking over his 2012 numbers. He made all 25 extra point attempts (a start) and was 23-32 on field goals. A field goal percentage 67% isn’t anything to brag about until one realizes that Conroy attempted 15 of his 32 overall field goals from 40 yards and beyond and connected on a respectable 66% of them. Conroy attempted so many field goals from 40 yards and beyond mostly due to an offense that was plagued by stalled drive after stalled drive. East Lansing isn’t Honolulu, Hawaii, and weather conditions can be pretty…crappy. Sorry I didn’t realize you weren’t so damn awful sooner, Danny boy. Mike Sadler punted almost 80 times in 2012 and did a very solid job. That’s good enough for college football.

Running back Nick Hill returned all but 4 kicks for Sparty last season, averaging nearly 22 yards a return. He and wide receiver Andre Sims, Jr. split punt return duties and didn’t cost the team any games, which, is also good enough for college football.

2013 Special Teams.

Replacing Conroy as the placekicker will be senior Kevin Muma, who handled kickoffs for MSU in 2012. I don’t remember anything spectacular about his kickoffs, but I’d much rather see great accuracy than 65 yards with plenty of room, but wide left. Sadler will retain his job as the team’s starting punter and hopefully, he won’t have to punt the ball away 5, 6 times a game.

Hill has more experience as a kick returner, but sophomore Sims, Jr will probably get his opportunities in that part of the game in 2013. Sims, Jr. caught only 3 passes last year, but the 5’9″, 185-lb flanker did average a modest 8.4 yards on 11 punt returns. Fellow flanker DeAnthony Arnett, a Tennessee transfer before the 2012 season, could/should also be an option in the return game.

The coaches.

The only big news was that defensive line coach Ted Gill’s contract would not be renewed and that Jim Bollman would be hired as the team’s new co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach. Dantoni also shook up his coaching staff a little bit, promoting defensive coordinator Tom Narduzzi to assistant head coach, which should provide a boost to player morale, especially on the defensive side. In addition, former quarterbacks coach Dave Warner will run the offense with Bollman, and former running backs coach Brad Salem will now coach the quarterbacks.

2013 Outlook.

Overall, fifteen starters return. Four of the top five receivers will also be back, along with five or six of the top eight defensive linemen. Although workhorse Le’Veon Bell won’t be around anymore to carry the offense and Johnny Adams will no longer be creating havoc in the secondary, this is still a very talented team. Whether or not they can consistently execute, is the obvious worry.

Sparty played arguably one of the toughest schedules in both the Big 10 and the country in 2012, and were the victim of some close, heartbreaking losses. Only one of their six losses was by more than four points and their five conference losses were by a combined 13 points. Ohio State is not on the schedule this year, Notre Dame will take a step back from last year, and the rivalry tilt against Michigan will be played in East Lansing. Some fans may have made a big deal about the number of close losses, but it’s also important to remember that this team also won four games by just one possession. A first down or defensive stop here, made field goal there (Conroy’s missed 38-yarder against Michigan still stings a bit) and maybe MSU would have finished with a win total closer to 9 or 10 instead of the 7 they ended the 2012 campaign with. Being fair, though, Sparty was also a few plays from finishing 2012 with 8 or 9 losses.

It’s natural to expect progression from Maxwell and the offense, but it’s somewhat refreshing to know that Cook has at least scant experience in pressure situations. The running game won’t be as potent as it was last year, but it will be fine, especially if Maxwell is acknowledged as a threat to throw. Every receiver simply must catch the damn football, period.

The Sparty defense is gon’ Sparty defense, barring injuries to half the starters.

Max Bullough, older brother of MSU RB Riley, is arguably the most important player on the team and one of the nation's best linebackers.

Max Bullough, older brother of MSU RB Riley Bullough, is arguably the best and most important player on the team and one of the nation’s elite linebackers.

If Muma can be just a bit more accurate than Conroy was last year, he will be among the most popular students on campus. Again, Sadler, just don’t screw anything up.

I like Kool-Aid and all, but I haven’t had any in more than a while. Still, it’s not impossible to fathom Sparty being 8-0 heading into their November 2 game against Michigan in Spartan Stadium. Road games against Nebraska, then sneaky Northwestern follow. MSU last had a similar 3-game stretch in 2011, when they played then-11th ranked Michigan, then-4th ranked Wisconsin and then-13th ranked Nebraska, with the last coming on the road. Preceding those three were an ugly road win against Ohio State. The Spartans beat Michigan and Wisconsin, but got spanked by Nebraska and their faint national title hopes were officially dashed. The 3-game stretch in 2013 isn’t nearly as daunting, and MSU plays Illinois the weak before Michigan, but Sparty will still have to come to play.

Sparty was better than mediocre last year, and this was clearly to spite my prediction that they would be a BCS bowl candidate by season’s end. I will predict the same this year, but with much more confidence. I just can’t see how Sparty doesn’t head into their Michigan game with any more than one loss and if there are no/not an inordinate number of “Sparty, No!” moments, could very well find themselves playing Ohio State (sorry Wisconsin and Penn State) in the conference’s third title game. Winning, is another matter.

Anyway it goes, Sparty football will be back Friday as the Michigan State Spartans take on the MAC’s Western Michigan Broncos (alma mater versus alma mater!) in East Lansing, and I’m excited to see what this team brings to the field in 2013.



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