With all due respect to WMU, Sparty’s season starts tonight

The Spartans led at one point in last year's MSU/Oregon game in Eugene, OR. Then...Mariota. Steve Dykes -- Getty

The Spartans led at one point in last year’s MSU/Oregon game in Eugene, OR. Then…Mariota. Steve Dykes — Getty

In the written world of sports, no competitor, no matter how skilled, should ever overlook an opponent, no matter how inept. To be fair to the 2015 Western Michigan University football team, they are not an incompetent one. Picked by the media (by one vote) to finish second in the MAC West behind Toledo, the Broncos completed their second regular season under head coach P.J. Fleck with an 8-4 record before losing to Air Force in the 2014 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, 38-24. With 16 starters returning, among them the MAC’s reigning passing efficiency king, Zach Terrell, it wouldn’t be wise to write them off especially when playing them in Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, MI…even if you are the fifth-ranked team in the country, coming off of 42 wins and 4 bowl wins in the last 4 seasons.

In the unwritten world of sports, Michigan State simply wanted to escape Kalamazoo with a somewhat resounding win and healthy team so they could finally, openly narrow their focus on the seventh-ranked Oregon Ducks. The same Ducks that soundly beat them 46-27 last season up in Eugene, OR, and put an early dent in the Spartans’ national title hopes. A Ducks team that would be traveling to East Lansing, MI, for this matchup, hopefully going home with their national title dreams seemingly all but lost.

MSU’s opponent on Saturday is definitely a strong one, but not quite as strong as the Ducks team that pasted them last year. The catalyst of those Ducks, QB Marcus Mariota, is set to begin his first NFL regular season with the Tennessee Titans, and Oregon lost CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, DE Arik Armstead, and SS Erick Dargan among a few others to the NFL as well. Still, Sparty knows this is a matchup between two top-10 teams based on merit so to speak, and not just name.

Oregon could have certainly dealt with the loss of Mariota by promoting from within. Junior QB Jeff Lockie backed up Mariota for two years and had a clear advantage on the other returning quarterbacks before spring practice was to begin. Sophomore walk-on Taylor Alie, the team’s holder on field goal and extra-point attempts could have snuck in to win the job. Or, Oregon could take advantage of a somewhat quirky NCAA rule and scour the transfer market for a starting QB, like Eastern Washington graduate Vernon Adams, Jr.

Adams, Jr. spent the last three seasons terrorizing the Big Sky Conference to the tune of nearly 10,500 passing yards and 110 touchdown passes. Not quite the dual-threat QB Mariota was but still plenty dangerous outside of the pocket, Adams, Jr. also managed to scamper for over 1,200 yards at a 4.1 yard per carry clip. Eastern Washington did some winning with Adams, Jr. as the signal-caller, too. As a three-year starter, Adams, Jr. finished his career at EWU with a record of 34-9 and three first-place finishes in the conference.

Alas, Adams, Jr. is no Mariota. Hell, he may not even be close considering he racked up such ridiculous numbers against the likes of Cal-Poly, Idaho St., Portland St., and, sorry Spo, UC-Davis. I don’t intend to take away from what he accomplished, but rather provide context to the situation by explaining that in terms of football, the Big Sky Conference isn’t exactly a “Power 5” group.

Michigan St. head coach Mark Dantonio knows this. He also knows that Adams, Jr. is surrounded by far superior talent than what he was surrounded by during his time at EWU. There is also the issue of the MSU secondary, and whether it can recover from a rather subpar performance against WMU. Terrell completed 33 of 50 passes for 365 yards and receivers Daniel Braverman and Corey Davis both finished with over 100 yards receiving. It’s important to note that WMU was pressed into throwing the ball so many times because their run game (23 rushes, 18 yards) was basically non-existent, but it’s still worrisome that Terrell and Co. enjoyed the success they did. If the Spartan secondary had problems against WMU, it’s frightening to think of what Oregon’s QB and speedy receivers could do.

Hopefully, the game will come down to offense, which is a weird sentiment considering MSU still trots out a starting QB in Connor Cook who is seemingly afraid to complete 60% of his passes and one who didn’t even complete 50% of them against WMU’s defense. Making up for Cook’s inaccuracy is senior WR Aaron Burbridge and the two-headed monster at running back, freshman Madre London and sophomore Gerald Holmes. The three combined for 330 yards of total offense and 3 touchdowns in the season-opening win over WMU and will be counted on even more against Oregon tonight. MSU’s offensive line is still extremely stout in pass- and run-blocking situations and while Cook isn’t a surgeon in the pocket, he tends to not cost his team too many drives and scoring opportunities.

MSU won’t throw for 438 yards against Oregon the way EWU did, but Oregon also won’t run for 485 yards against a Sparty defense that for the last several years has been one of the nation’s best against the run. After sacking Terrell 7 times last week in what looked to be a pared-down defense of sorts, it could get extremely hectic very early for Adams, Jr. if MSU’s pass rush proves to be effective. And after beginning his Ducks career at home against a cupcake, Adams, Jr.’s first road game will be a nationally televised, prime-time event in the home of the nation’s fifth-ranked team.

The result of this game will obviously mean a lot for both teams, although it’s important to remember that the closer the final score, the less damage and good a loss and win would provide, respectively. A win for Sparty would immediately place them in the conversation of teams with a legitimate (albeit very early) shot at competing for a playoff spot and the national title. A loss for Sparty would…not be good. At all. So, with all due respect to Western Michigan University, a school I spent my first year as an undergraduate at and institution I still have very fond memories of…   GO GREEN. GO WHITE.

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Finally recovered from the best/worst damn Cotton Bowl of my life.

Sorry, Baylor.  Rod Sanford  --  Lansing State Journal

Sorry, Baylor. Rod Sanford — Lansing State Journal

Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas, January 1, 2015: 5th-ranked Baylor University Bears versus 8th-ranked Michigan State Spartans. 83 points, 21 of which came in the final 12 minutes of regulation. 1,135 total yards of offense. 11 touchdowns. A “fat guy touchdown.” 18 penalties for 180 yards. 54 first downs. A blocked field goal. A “Vine”-worthy hit…by MSU WR Tony Lippett. ELATION.

Offense: Don’t be fooled by the 552 yards of total offense MSU racked up against Baylor or 258 yards amassed in the first half. After scoring touchdowns on their first two drives, Sparty’s next five possessions ended like this: Punt, turnover on downs, punt, downs, punt. To make matters worse, Baylor scored 24 points after scoring a touchdown on their first possession of the game.

Fortunately, QB Connor Cook (24-42, 314 YDS, 2 TD/2 INT) and Co. made just enough plays in the second half as the offense scored 28 points, despite Cook throwing two picks, including this beauty with MSU down 13 and in Baylor territory. With all seeming lost, the Spartans scored 21 in the final 12:09 of the game, tying the game on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Cook to WR Keith Mumphery with 17 seconds to play.

To be fair, RB Jeremy Langford (27 CAR, 162 YDS, 3 TD) was once again outstanding, notching his tenth straight 100-yard effort, running for a 1-yard score to bring his team within seven with just under five minutes in the game. Mumphery (4 REC, 87 YDS, TD) was the Spartans’ leading receiver, probably in part due to 1st-team All-Big Ten WR Tony Lippett (5 REC, 74 YDS) splitting duties as a receiver and cornerback (2 TKL, PBU). Nine different Spartans caught a pass, and TE Josiah Price caught Cook’s other touchdown pass, an 8-yarder to make the score 41-27 early in the fourth quarter. MSU finished with 238 rushing yards (131 more than Baylor allows on average) on 46 carries, and Cook was sacked only once.

Defense: While MSU ran all over what was a very good Baylor run defense (10th-best run D in nation), Baylor’s run game (29th-best in nation at 215.5 YPG) managed only 38 yards on 22 attempts against the Spartans. That’s the only area the Spartans defenders can feel good about themselves in this game, because Bears’ QB Bryce Petty (36-51, 550 YDS, 3 TD/INT) and the third-best passing offense in the country absolutely tore MSU’s secondary apart. Baylor receivers KD Cannon and Corey Coleman, a freshman and sophomore respectively, caught a combined 15 passes for 347 yards and 3 scores, and six different Bears caught a pass for 25 yards or more.

Yes, this actually happened.  Brandon Wade -- AP

Yes, this actually happened. Brandon Wade — AP

Despite the fact that Petty was able to dissect MSU for over three-and-a-half quarters, soon-to-be University of Pittsburgh football coach (and former (?) defensive coordinator) Tom Narduzzi’s guys were up to the task over the final 21:50 of the game, holding Baylor to 86 yards and zero points on their final four possessions. Petty, sacked five times, was downed twice in a row on the Bears’ final drive to start their possession. On the next play, Petty was picked off by LB Riley Bullough to seal the victory for the Spartans.

1st-team All-Big Ten CB Trae Waynes (3 TKL, PBU) and 1st-team All-Big Ten S Kurtis Drummond (7 TKL, 2 TFL) were part of a secondary that certainly endured their share of struggles during the contest, but made plays at the end when they had to. The front seven helped make Baylor’s offense one-dimensional and was able to get pressure on Petty when it counted most. DE Shilique Calhoun, also a member of the 1st-team All-Big Ten Defense, registered 1.5 sacks, and LB Ed Davis brought Petty down once.

Special TeamsIf I were into the grading thing, I would give MSU’s special teams unit an A+ just for this. And also, this.

Oh, Callahan...  Sarah Glenn -- Getty Images

Oh, Callahan… Sarah Glenn — Getty Images

Mainly, the first clip, but the second was some icing on the cake. Even though many will focus on Baylor K Chris Callahan and his blocked kick, Callahan’s 46-yard attempt hit the upright with 14:18 to play. A conversion would have given the Bears a 44-21 lead, and potentially put the game out of reach for Sparty. MSU K Michael Geiger was good on all six of his extra point attempts and the golden-legged god, P Mike Sadler punted only three times for an average of 39.7 yards per boot. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary in the return game for either MSU or Baylor.

What’s Next: The 2015 season, and whatever that may hold. Junior QB Connor Cook is allegedly set to return, but the team will lose 17 players to graduation, including Lippett, Langford, Drummond, Mumphery, LB Taiwan Jones, and RB Nick Hill. Calhoun could return, as he is a lock to be drafted, but could probably improve his draft status with a more impressive season than the one he had in 2014. Somewhat shockingly, fellow underclassman Trae Waynes has apparently decided to leave MSU early and declare for the NFL Draft, which will definitely leave a void in the secondary should he see that plan through. Sparty is looking to build on a top-35 recruiting class, but will likely count on returning players to carry the brunt of the workload in all three phases of the game. The Spartans’ schedule in 2015 doesn’t look particularly daunting, save for their second game of the season, a tilt against Oregon in East Lansing, and a road game on November 21 to play the Ohio St. Buckeyes in Columbus. 2014’s final 11-2 mark signals the program’s fourth season in five years in which it has won 11 games or more, and “momentum” doesn’t appear to be slowing for head coach Mark Dantonio and his squad.

GO GREEN. GO WHITE.

Sparty On.  Tom Pennington -- Getty Images

Sparty On. Tom Pennington — Getty Images

Game 9 recap: #14 OSU dashes #8 MSU’s playoff hopes in E. Lansing, 49-37

J.T. Barrett does not care about your alleged elite defense, people.

OSU QB J.T. Barrett beats MSU LB Ed Davis to the end zone during the first quarter of yesterday's OSU 49-37 win over MSU in E. Lansing.  Andrew Weber -- USA Today Sports

OSU QB J.T. Barrett beats MSU LB Ed Davis to the end zone during the first quarter of yesterday’s OSU 49-37 win over MSU in E. Lansing. Andrew Weber — USA Today Sports

Okay, so maybe that’s somewhat of a stretch. While the Ohio St. freshman has been very impressive in place of injured QB Braxton Miller, he hasn’t been gunning down top-10, top-20, or even top-50 teams every week. However, all a player can do is execute against the competition and so far, Barrett has done that and then some.

I gave the 14th-ranked Buckeyes (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten East) a bit less than a puncher’s chance to escape East Lansing with a victory, and naturally, they went into East Lansing and pretty much trounced my 8th-ranked Michigan St. Spartans (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten East), 49-37. There were 86 points and over 1,100 yards of total offense between arguably the Big Ten’s two best teams, in a nationally televised night game, no less. There are those who will call this win an upset for Ohio St., but that’s really based on ranking, only. Clearly, the gap, if there is one, is not large at all.

Offense: You’d think that if the Spartans racked up 536 yards of total offense, in any game, that they’d come away the victor. Right? The problem is that while it appears Sparty’s offense was wildly effective, it actually wasn’t. Jeremy Langford had a great day (18 CAR, 145 YDS, 3 TD), but seemingly wasn’t utilized enough, especially considering MSU was somewhat in the game until early in the fourth quarter. QB Connor Cook (25-45, 358 YDS, 2 TD) continued to struggle with his accuracy, never really getting into a solid rhythm despite posting impressive game numbers. WR Tony Lippett was injured early, and was limited to just 5 catches for 64 yards. Fellow WR Macgarett Kings, Jr. and TE Josiah Price both hauled in 5 passes for a combined 136 yards, with Price hauling in a 16-yard TD catch after the game was pretty much well in hand. The offense did not turn the ball over, but went nearly an entire quarter in the second half without scoring a point, while the Buckeyes scored 14 in that time frame. As a result, the score jumped from 28-24 to 42-24. Cook was sacked only once, but faced good pressure at times. One of the more frustrating moments of this season came late in the second quarter, after the Buckeyes lost a fumble during a kick return. Sparty recovered and three plays later, Langford had a rushing touchdown negated because of a holding penalty. Two plays later, K Michael Geiger missed a 39-yard field goal and on the first play of the ensuing OSU possession, Barrett threw a 79-yard TD pass to WR Michael Thomas to knot the score at 21. Little did I know, the game was basically over at that point.

Defense: The defense was absolutely terrible. While I knew Barrett was no slouch, I had no clue he would have the type of game he had, against this MSU D, in what I believe can be a very raucous environment (especially when Sparty is, you know, good). All Barrett did against what was believed to be one of the nation’s top defenses was pile up 408 yards of total offense and 5 touchdowns, two of them coming on the ground. Barrett completed 16 of 26 passes for 300 yards and carried the ball 14 times for 108 yards. Similar to the Oregon game, whenever MSU’s opponent needed a play to be made, it seemed they could just dial up their QB’s number and get the necessary yardage or score. Buckeyes RB Ezekiel Elliott (23 CAR, 159 YDS, 2 TD) was a problem for Sparty, too, as was one of OSU’s top receivers in school history, Devin Smith (6 REC, 129 YDS, TD). Safeties Kurtis Drummond and RJ Williamson led Sparty with 11 tackles each; it’s never a good sign when your safeties lead the team in tackling. DE Shilique Calhoun was relatively quiet, but did manage to register 1.5 TFL and half a sack. My favorite defensive series: In the beginning of the second quarter, OSU faced a daunting 3rd and 23 from its own 36. Barrett completed a 43 yard-pass to Smith. Five plays later, on fourth and goal, Barrett powered it in from one yard away for six.

Special Teams: Nothing to report here, except that maybe it’s time for a new kicker?

What’s Next: At Maryland (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten East), 8 PM ET. Big Ten newcomer Maryland is just one game behind Sparty in the divisional standings and would love to have its first signature win as a conference member this upcoming Saturday night. Senior Terps QB C.J. Brown has been mostly serviceable as a dual-threat QB of sorts and offensively, there isn’t much behind him in the way of an actual threat. Maryland’s D is not very good, but is probably gleaming after allowing only 19 points in a trip to Penn State. Then again, they did allow 52 the week before in Camp Randall, so it’s possible Maryland is prime to give up another huge offensive output to its opponent. If Sparty doesn’t show up in College Park, MD, seething mad and ready to absolutely obliterate the Terrapins, I’ll be dumbfounded. Sparty’s chances of making the playoffs are over unless something absurdly miraculous happens, but head coach Mark Dantonio will make sure his squad finishes 2014 on a strong note.

GO GREEN. GO WHITE.

Game 3 recap: #11 Michigan St. obliterates Eastern Michigan, 73-14

Michigan St. QB Connor Cook (left) and WR Tony Lippett celebrate Lippett’s first half TD catch during yesterday’s MSU 73-14 win over Eastern Michigan in East Lansing, MI.  Al Goldis — AP

Before Michigan State was set to take on Eastern Michigan yesterday afternoon in East Lansing, MI, I figured that Sparty was still sore after their 46-27 road loss to Oregon over two weeks ago. In that game, Michigan State lost a 9-point lead in the second half as Oregon QB and Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota led his team to a comeback victory in Eugene, OR. With that loss, Sparty effectively saw their chances of participating in FBS’ inaugural playoff go down the drain. Obviously, the season didn’t end, but to lose such a pivotal game so early in the season hurt. Bad.

No worries were in my system as the Associated Press’s 11th-ranked Spartans of Michigan St. (2-1, 0-0 Big Ten East) and the Eagles of Eastern Michigan (1-3, 0-0 MAC West) squared off on the gridiron yesterday. The only thing that slightly concerned me was the potential for injury to one of Sparty’s key players. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries as MSU routed EMU, 73-14.

Offense: Well, the offense was great. Then again, they were going up against an EMU D that doesn’t exactly scare anyone, even in the Mid-American Conference. Sparty got off to a hot start in the first quarter, racing out to a 28-0 lead behind a pair of touchdown passes from Connor Cook (5-6, 83 YDS, 2 TD) to Tony Lippett (3 CAT, 45 YDS, 2 TD) that followed a 4-yard TD run by Cook to open up the scoring and 21-yard TD run by RB Jeremy Langford (9 CAR, 60 YDS, TD) that gave the Spartans a 14-0 lead with 8:03 left in the first quarter.

WR AJ Troup (2 CAT, 43 YDS, TD) made a great play to finish off a 33-yard scoring reception that opened up the scoring in the second quarter, and rushing TDs by RBs Delton Williams (10 CAR, 103 YDS, 3 TD) and R.J. Shelton (3 CAR, 9 YDS, TD) gave Sparty a 49-0 lead by halftime. By that point, MSU piled up 320 yards of total offense.

The O slowed a bit in the second half, but that was largely attributed to MSU head coach Mark Dantonio giving his backups the majority of playing time. Backup QBs Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry saw the field–they also saw some PT in the first half, as well–and Williams added two more rushing TDs in the fourth quarter, including an 80-yard run that cemented the score at 73-14. MSU’s offense racked up 496 total yards, with 336 of them coming on the ground. Ten different Spartans carried the ball and nine different Spartans were credited with a catch, while seven different Spartans scored a touchdown. The unit also picked up 24 first downs and committed only one turnover. To cap it off, the 73 points scored were the third-most in Spartans history, behind a 76-point showing against Northwestern in 1989 and 75-point offering against Arizona in 1949.

Defense: In the first half, EMU didn’t pick up a first down. Not. A. Single. One. As if that’s not atrocious enough, the Eagles were in possession of the ball for a mere 8 1/2 minutes and managed to total just one yard of offense. Just. One. Eagles QB Rob Bolden (10-29, 115 YDS, 2 TD, INT), in his first start for EMU, didn’t inflict any serious damage until the game was well out of reach and of six Eagles who registered a carry, only one averaged more than 1.5 yards per carry, backup QB Reginald Bell, Jr. Fifty-two of EMU’s 135 yards of total offense came on two late scoring plays, including a 43-yard TD pass that was largely the result of blown coverage by MSU. I’m not even sure if the defense broke a sweat during the game, as EMU didn’t threaten until the game was basically over.

Special Teams: Kicker Matt Geiger was good on a 30-yard field goal try and converted all ten of his extra-point attempts. Punter Mike Sadler punted 5 times for an average of 43.4 yards a boot, including a 55-yard punt that did nothing but add to his golden-legged legacy. Shelton returned a kick for 39 yards and LB/FB Riley Bullough even returned two kicks for 23 yards. Macgarrett Kings, Jr. returned two punts for 54 yards, including a long of 43 that had Spartan Stadium rocking early.

What’s Next: Wyoming, in East Lansing. The Wyoming Cowboys (3-1, 0-0 MWC Mountain), of the Mountain West Conference’s Mountain Division, slipped by Florida Atlantic yesterday at home, 20-19. A Stuart Williams 18-yard field goal with 15 seconds left gave the Cowboys the final edge. The week before, they were routed 48-14 by Oregon in Eugene. Until yesterday, Wyoming starting QB Colby Kirkegaard had been solid, even looking serviceable against the Ducks. For the Cowboys to have any chance against Sparty, however, RBs Shaun Wick and D.J. May will have to not only be effective, but proficient. On defense, Wyoming has a group of four linebackers and defensive ends–DEs Sonny Puletasi and Eddie Yarbrough, and LBs Jordan Stanton and Mark Nzeocha–that will look to create havoc, especially with some key members of the Cowboys secondary who have departed due to graduation. This will be the last game for Sparty before conference play begins at home against Nebraska next Saturday. Look for Dantonio’s guys to iron out the kinks and coast to a huge victory.

GO GREEN. GO WHITE.

“Homecoming”: Michigan State 42, Illinois 3; 9th #CFB weekend takeaways #MSU #Sparty

MSU QB Connor Cook fumbles the ball into the end zone near the end of the first quarter of yesterday's road 42-3 win over Illinois. It would be one of only a few mistakes Cook would make all day.  Bradley Gleeb - AP

MSU QB Connor Cook fumbles the ball into the end zone near the end of the first quarter of yesterday’s road 42-3 win over Illinois. It would be one of only a few mistakes Cook would make all day. Bradley Gleeb – AP

Generally, FBS schools from BCS conferences schedule a “cupcake” (if they can) for their homecoming football game. I still don’t quite get the concept of homecoming, because it’s not like athletic teams spend all but one game of the season on the road, but I just know that it’s a time in which students are supposed to show a disgusting amount of school spirit and the home team is supposed to kick ass.

The University of Illinois Fightin’ Illini (3-4, 0-3 Big 10) scheduled Michigan State Spartans (7-1, 4-0 Big 10) for this year’s homecoming game, and one could argue that a team of Sparty’s caliber would find that insulting. Of course, that argument would be wrong because MSU isn’t Alabama or a team that has even been to a BCS bowl in the last 25 years, but you can be sure that MSU head coach Mark Dantonio wanted his guys to give the Illini fans absolutely nothing to cheer about on homecoming.

For about the first 15 minutes of yesterday’s ballgame, it seemed as if Illinois would be able to do just enough to hang around until the end of the matchup, and then use their underdog powers to steal a victory from MSU. An Illinois field goal with less than 10 minutes left in the first quarter put Illinois ahead 3-0, but that would be all the scoring from the home team we’d see yesterday.

Before Sparty actually got on the board, QB Connor Cook (15-16, 208 YDS, 3 TD) gave away a great chance of scoring when he fumbled into the end zone on a keeper play. Illinois took over at their 20 and seemed to gain a bit of “momentum.” The play was especially frustrating because it was RB Jeremy Langford (22 CAR, 104 YDS, 2 TD) who singlehandedly got the Spartans from their 44 to the Illinois 7 by running the ball powerfully and effectively. Suddenly, with a great chance to score inside the 10, the Spartans offense decided to get cute and Cook lost 7 points on the drive, potentially.

After a 1-yard TD run by Langford in the beginning of the second quarter, it was all Sparty on both sides of the ball. Illinois opened with a 12-play, 53-yard drive that ended with those 3 points, but ran 22 plays for 75 yards the rest of the game. With the Illini getting nothing from their run game (21 CAR, 25 YDS total), the onus fell on QB Nathan Scheelhaase (13-21, 103 YDS, INT) to move his team down the field and it’s safe to say that he failed. The Illini pass for nearly 288 yards per game and average 477 yards of total offense under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, but did next to nothing against a hungry Sparty D. On a key early fourth down attempt, the Spartan D stifled Illinois with only one yard to make the first down, and that was the end of that chapter for the Illini offense.

While it took a bit for the offense to get going, once it did, the unit put up arguably its best performance of the season. Cook set a school record for single-game completion percentage (minimum 10 attempts) before leaving early in the fourth quarter. In four Big 10 games, Cook has put up a line of 75-116, 827 YDS, 7 TD and 2 INT…all wins. Granted, the wins have come over Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois, but it’s good to see Cook seemingly get better as the season progresses. Langford was one of three running backs to rush for at least 70 yards against the Illini and 10 different Spartans caught a pass. Sparty picked up a whopping 29 first downs, was 14-16 on third down and possessed the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game, 39:06, compared to the Illini’s 20:54 time of possession. The offense tallied 477 yards of total offense, with 269 of them coming on the ground.

This was exactly the kind of performance and win that Sparty needed before it begins a rough four-game stretch at home against Michigan, followed by two road games against Nebraska and Northwestern and then wrapping it up at home against Minnesota. Just weeks ago, it was only supposed to be a tough three games before the regular season finale at home against Minnesota, but the Gophers have beaten Northwestern and Nebraska in consecutive weeks and have clearly forgotten that they’re not supposed to do those kinds of things.

Currently, MSU leads the Legends division by a game and a half over in-state rival, Michigan. I’m not yet sure of the math, but I do believe that a MSU win over Michigan along with Nebraska losing to Northwestern and Iowa losing to Wisconsin would essentially wrap up the division for the Spartans. Michigan’s offense is better than MSU’s and if Sparty can’t contain Wolverines QB Devin Gardner, it could be a long afternoon for the Sparty defensive unit. However, Michigan’s defense is clearly the weak link and Cook and Co. must find a way to take advantage. Michigan has had an off week after last Saturday’s offensive showdown with Indiana that ended with Michigan winning, 63-47. I’m pretty sure Sparty would love to hang 47 on Michigan, albeit coming in a victory. Hell, MSU may not even score 23 on Saturday, even in East Lansing, but I still expect them to grind out a victory in what could be one of the uglier MSU-Michigan games in recent memory. Go Green. Go White.

  • Never trust Northwestern football. The good people of Chicago want a college football team to support so bad, that they’ve taken their hopes and dreams to Evanston, IL. Illinois, in Champaign, is further away, and let’s face it, they stink. The Northern Illinois Huskies may have the best collegiate football team in the state, but they play in the woeful MAC and put up a clunker in last year’s Sugar Bowl. Southern, Eastern and Western Illinois have football teams? Oh. Notre Dame doesn’t, and shouldn’t count, people. So, that basically leaves Northwestern, the elite academic institution that just so happens to have an athletics program. The football team had a great 95-96 two-year run, appearing in the Rose Bowl, then Citrus Bowl. Since, the program has been up and down. Lately, there’s been this notion, however, that NU is ready for the spotlight. They fooled people last year after starting 5-0, although those wins came against Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana. This year was about the same, with NU once again fooling folks after beating Cal, Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine to begin the season. But then it came time for them to deal with Ohio St. at home and the spotlight wasn’t kind to them as they lost, 40-30. The following week, NU went to Camp Randall Stadium and got housed by Wisconsin, 35-6. A 20-17 home loss to Minnesota and 17-10 overtime road loss to Iowa later, and this Wildcats team has suddenly gone from trendy pick to reach the Rose Bowl to fighting for their bowl lives heading into Week 10. Maybe NU fans won’t allow a good start over bad teams to fool them next year. Maybe.
  • Jameis Winston for Heisman. The Florida State redshirt freshman QB is the man on one of the nation’s top teams and the Seminoles are currently undefeated and a top-3 team in the AP, coaches and BCS poll. Winston has completed a hair over 71% of his passes, has thrown for 20 TDs against just 3 INT, averages 12 yards per attempt and leads the entire country in passing efficiency. Yesterday’s 49-17 win over Maryland marked the seventh consecutive time that FSU has scored at least 41 points and sets up a showdown between the Seminoles and seventh-ranked, undefeated, in-state rival Miami Hurricanes in what could be a preview of the ACC title game. Obviously, when it comes to Heisman candidates, there are a few. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota and Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel easily come to mind. But Mariota benefits from a very innovative offensive scheme while some just don’t want to see Manziel take home the hardware for the second year in a row. If FSU beats Miami, especially in convincing fashion, they have a schedule (save for the finale against Florida) that could enable Winston to win and put up video game numbers at the same time. A redshirt freshman (who is also an outfielder and pitcher for the baseball team, by the freakin’ way) tearing it up for a program that has returned to prominence? That’s a Heisman story.
  • Notre Dame vs Air Force. Zzzzzzzz…

“Blankin’ Out”: Michigan State 14, Purdue 0; 8th CFB weekend takeaways #MSU #Sparty

Several Spartans celebrate after yesterday's 14-0 win over Purdue in East Lansing, MI.

Several Spartans sing the alma mater after yesterday’s 14-0 win over Purdue in East Lansing, MI.

Last week: RB Jeremy Langford ran for 109 yards and scored 4 TDS, while QB Connor Cook went 22-31 for 235 yards with 2 TDS against one interception as the Michigan State Spartans outpaced the high-powered offense of the visiting Indiana Hoosiers, 42-28.

This weekAfter Sparty put up 473 yards of total offense on Indiana’s defense last week, including 235 on the ground, I assumed that their offense would have no problems whatsoever moving the ball against arguably the worst team in the Big 10, the Purdue Boilermakers. Clearly, Sparty had other plans yesterday, but were still able to leave Spartan Stadium with a grueling 14-0 win.

Michigan State came into the game as nearly 28-point favorites, and for good reason. Purdue began yesterday with a record of 1-5 overall, and 0-2 in conference. Purdue started 2013 by getting annihilated by Cincinnati, 42-7, and before Big 10 play started, were manhandled by MAC powerhouse Northern Illinois, 55-24.

Yesterday’s game was essentially full of almost nothing but offensive ineptitude and no scoring until Spartan senior DE Denicos Allen recovered Purdue freshman QB Danny Etling’s fumble and returned it 45 yards for a score and the game’s first points.

It wasn’t until the fourth quarter, when Sparty finally advanced past the Purdue 32-yard line for the first time all afternoon, that Sparty was able to put the game away. On second and goal from the Purdue 5, MSU ran what looked to be an end-around with junior WR Tony Lippett, but Lippett completed a pass to a wide open Andrew Gleichert, a junior TE, in the end zone to insert the dagger in Purdue’s heart, even though there were roughly 9 minutes left in regulation.

Senior QB Connor Cook was okay overall, but had a very rough start. At one point, he had completed 9 of 18 passes for a measly 33 yards. Fortunately for their cause, he did not turn the ball over. More fortunately, the run game was extremely effective. Spartan runners combined for 41 carries for 182 yards. Junior RB Jeremy Langford accounted for 24 of those carries, as well as 131 of those yards. It would have been nice to see this offense carve up one of the worst defenses in the country, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Despite picking up 21 first downs, the unit amassed only 294 yards of total offense against the Boilermakers.

Defensively, Sparty was stout once again, despite Purdue finding success here and there in the first half. The second half was a different story, as Purdue was completely shut down. Freshman QB finished the game 14-25 for 160 yards and was picked off once, by senior safety Isaiah Lewis. A team that started yesterday as one of the nation’s worst when running the ball (76.1 ypg, 119th) didn’t stand a chance against MSU’s run D, as Purdue finished with 66 yards on 34 carries.

Up next for Sparty is an Illinois team that honestly shouldn’t pose much more of a challenge than Purdue did, even though this one will be played in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois has an improved offense under first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, but is still otherwise a below-average football team. The Fightin’ Illini have lost their first two Big 10 games to Nebraska and Wisconsin, 39-19 and 56-32, respectively. It’s entirely possible that the Illini could get their O rolling next Saturday, but against arguably the best defense in the country in Michigan State’s, that’s highly unlikely. Sparty doesn’t have the offensive firepower to simply go down to Champaign and blow Illinois away, but they should come away with a rather easy victory anyway. Go Green. Go White. 

  • Thanks for nothing, Clemson Tigers. Yesterday’s matchup between the third-ranked Clemson Tigers and fifth-ranked Florida State Seminoles was supposed to be the kind of game that would make college football fans finally recognize that the ACC is not a joke when it comes to football. Clemson, led by senior QB Tajh Boyd, began 2013 by knocking off SEC “power” Georgia, 38-35, and was beginning to look like the conference’s best shot at a national title. But, redshirt freshman FSU QB Jameis Winston and his squad had been rolling too, and he and his teammates carried their strong play into yesterday’s game as FSU pasted Clemson, 51-14…on the road. Maybe Clemson was never really this good. Maybe FSU caught Clemson on a very, very, very bad day. Maybe FSU is just this damn good. Regardless, Clemson can kiss their hopes at a national title goodbye and Winston may want to start preparing a Heisman acceptance speech. The two-sport star (RF on the baseball team) finished yesterday with a line of 22-34 for 444 yards, 3 touchdowns and just one interception. I decided to watch to see a slugfest and ended up getting a massacre.
  • Ranking? What ranking? Yesterday wasn’t a good day for several ranked teams, especially a few in the SEC. Third-ranked Clemson lost. Sixth-ranked LSU lost. Seventh-ranked Texas A&M fell (albeit to another ranked team). Ninth-ranked UCLA lost (to 13th-ranked Stanford). Eleventh-ranked South Carolina fell in Knoxville. 22nd-ranked Florida will find itself on the outside looking in after getting dominated by 14th-ranked Mizzou. 15th-ranked Georgia will be lucky to stay in the 20s after losing on the road to Vandy. Finally, 20th-ranked Washington, strong defense and all, got crushed by Arizona State on the road, 53-24. Certainly, there will be some shuffling in both the AP and coaches rankings tomorrow. The first BCS standings will be released tomorrow, as well, and a few of those losers will be wishing they had decided to put up a stinker much earlier in the season, or better yet, simply won yesterday.
  • Notre Dame vs. USC. Zzzzzzzz…

“Stressed Out”: Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 13; 3-0 Chicago Bears?!

Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford, left, battles with Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson to pick up yardage during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford, left, battles with Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson to pick up yardage during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

I probably shouldn’t have been as upset as I was after Michigan State lost to Notre Dame on Saturday, 17-13, on the gridiron. However, I believe that this was a game that could have gone Sparty’s way if not for some awful play-calling, a little more proficiency from the quarterback and a few pass interference calls against Sparty that even some Notre Dame fans on my Twitter timeline felt were…controversial. Now, “If ‘if’s’ were fifths, we’d all be drunk,” and that’s true. But, damn, if there was ever a time for Sparty to crap a game away, this past Saturday simply wasn’t the time.

The good is that MSU’s defense was once again very stout, although no one would mistake ND’s offense for those run-n-gun Florida offenses of the 90s. Nevertheless, in their first road game of the season, at Notre Dame Stadium, no less, they were up to the task. ND QB Tommy Rees (14-34, 142 yds, TD) was under constant pressure and when he wasn’t, seemed to make decisions as if he were. While I didn’t think Rees had a chance to sit in the pocket and dissect the Sparty defense, I for some reason knew that he would hit on a couple of lucky passes downfield, which he did. The Sparty secondary held ND receivers DaVaris Daniels and TJ Jones (who caught Rees’ lone TD pass) to a measly 5 catches for 21 yards, but it was freshman WR Corey Robinson (son of former NBA center David Robinson) who answered the call early. The 6’5″ receiver caught 3 passes for 54 yards, all of them coming on third down, leading to a first down each time. Besides that, ND’s offense didn’t do much of anything. As a team, the Irish ran the ball 32 times for 78 yards and one score, and ND racked up just 220 yards of total offense.

The bad is Michigan State’s offense, especially their passing game. Connor Cook (16-32, 135 yds, TD) got the start under center and was awful in the first half, completing only 5 of 15 passes for 44 yards and a score, a 12-yard TD pass to WR Macgarett Kings, Jr. midway through the second quarter. He was slightly better in the second half, and helped lead a 15-play, 75-yard drive that used up over 8 minutes of clock and resulted in 3 points. The game was tied 10-10 and it looked as if Sparty had regained a little momentum after giving up a TD to ND right before the first half ended. So, of course, on the next drive, head coach Mark Dantonio decided to reach into his bag of tricks…and failed. Terribly. After running back Jeremy Langford (14 car, 68 yds) rushed for 11 yards and first down to the MSU 47, Cook handed the ball off to freshman WR RJ Shelton, who then rolled out and appeared to want to throw downfield. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. His target, WR Bennie Fowler, was surrounded by ND defenders, but Shelton threw the ball anyway. Interception, Irish. And after a personal foul penalty on MSU, ND had the ball at MSU’s 37. ND scored after the turnover to go up 17-10, but all was not lost…until Dantonio decided to try his lucky hand again.

With 2:11 to play in regulation, Dantonio replaced Cook with Andrew Maxwell. After 3 incomplete passes and 2 penalties, it was 4th and 20 for Sparty at their own 23. Maxwell dropped back and…yes…ran for a gain of 8 yards. Ballgame.

Michigan State was whistled for four defensive pass interference penalties, and three of them appeared to be pretty bogus. A few of them helped ND sustain scoring drives, but anyone who pinned the loss on the refs didn’t watch the game. Sparty was flagged 10 times, for 115 yards, so keeping their hands off of ND receivers wasn’t their only issue. It’s clear that while we can expect MSU’s D to produce at a high level, this offense, and the passing game especially, has a ways to go in order to catch up.

Up next for Sparty are the 3-1 Iowa Hawkeyes, who pasted Western Michigan at home on Saturday, 59-3. The Hawkeyes struggled in their first 3 games, losing to Northern Illinois in the opener, before putting it together against the MAC’s WMU Broncos. Iowa runs the ball well, while MSU stops the run well. Consecutive road games will be tough for Sparty, but I like their chances to rebound and somehow get out of Kinnick Stadium with a win. Go Green. Go White.

Chicago Bears RB Matt Forte steps out of bounds past fallen Pittsburgh Steelers S Troy Polamalu in the first quarter of last night's Bears win, 40-23.

Chicago Bears RB Matt Forte steps out of bounds past fallen Pittsburgh Steelers S Troy Polamalu in the first quarter of last night’s Bears win, 40-23.

Wait. The Bears?

I have been a Chicago Bears fan for as long as I can remember, and have waited for their offense to show some semblance of proficiency, even against the crappier teams in the league. Well, the offense is still a work in progress under first-year head coach Marc Trestman, but the unit doesn’t give me ulcers the way it has in years’ past.

Last night, the Bears went into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers, 40-23, at Heinz Field. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 400 yards and 2 TDs, but also threw 2 interceptions and lost a fumble that was returned for a late score by Bears DE Julius Peppers. Total, the Bears forced 5 turnovers and S Major Wright returned an interception 38 yards for a score about midway through the second quarter that pushed the Bears ahead, 24-3. Pittsburgh eventually pulled within 4, 27-23, after a 44-yard field goal by kicker Shaun Suisham, but the Cutler-to-Bennett connection worked again, this time on a beautiful throw-and-catch that resulted in a 17-yard score, putting the Bears up, 34-23.

Cutler (20-30, 159 yds, TD) wasn’t great, but he took what the oft-confusing Steelers D gave him. Also, Cutler did this. Forte (16 car, 87 yds, TD and 4 rec for 24 yards) was huge early, as was WR Alshon Jeffery (7 rec for 51 yards). After going up big so soon in the game, it seems the Bears D fell into a bit of a soft Cover 2, but made big plays when they were needed. The Steelers are now 0-3 and have struggled all year, but it was still good to see the Bears go on the road and beat one of the league’s premier teams, in spite of said team’s early-season struggles.

Detroit Lions QB Matt Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson play host to the Bears next in what will be an important divisional matchup. It will be interesting to see if the Bears’ O ratchets up to match the production of the Lions’ offensive unit. Besides Megatron, Lions WR Nate Burleson has been impressive this year as well, and there’s always the prospect of Lions RB Reggie Bush creating havoc. A loss won’t doom the Bears just like a win wouldn’t cement a playoff spot. Still, it will definitely be an exciting game to watch. Bear Down, anyone?