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.

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

“Get By”: Michigan State 21, South Florida 6; 2nd CFB weekend takeaways

MSU DE Shilique Calhoun picks up a fumble before returning it for a TD in yesterday's tilt against South Florida. MSU won, 21-6.

MSU DE Shilique Calhoun picks up a fumble before returning it for a TD in yesterday’s tilt against South Florida. MSU won, 21-6.

Mama said there’d be days like this, but damn…I didn’t expect them to be nearly this ugly. A win is a win is a win, however, at some point it would be nice to see the Michigan State Spartans (2-0, 0-0 Big Ten) look like a complete football team. Anybody who has made that request will have to wait at almost another week, as yesterday’s offensive effort by Sparty was hard to watch.

Sparty took on the University of South Florida Bulls (0-2, 0-0 Big East) in East Lansing, MI, yesterday and won 21-6. It was the first-ever meeting between the two programs and honestly, if yesterday is any indication of how future matchups will go, I hope it was their last. USF was coming off of a 53-21 loss at home to FCS school McNeese St. Yes, I know there are some solid FCS football teams, but losing at home by 32 to one is virtually unacceptable. Sparty beat Western Michigan 26-13 the week before, in what was one of the uglier football games I’ve seen in a while.

After a rather abysmal performance last week, MSU head coach Mark Dantonio decided to bench starting QB Andrew Maxwell and replace him with sophomore QB, Connor Cook, who admittedly didn’t look all that much better against the vaunted WMU defense. In addition, Dantonio announced that redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor would be his backup and most likely see some game action. I assume Dantonio thought this move would spark the passing game and clearly, he was dead wrong.

Cook started and was barely average. O’Connor replaced him and looked…okay? Maxwell then got some game time and didn’t throw an interception, so that’s something. Combined, the three quarterbacks finished 12-24 for 94 yards. If it weren’t for running backs Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford and Riley Bullough combining for 24 carries, 137 yards and a score, I’d probably still be fuming today after a Sparty loss to lowly USF.

Fortunately, Sparty’s defense is damn scary. Sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun made his presence felt yesterday, and his team needed every bit of it. He recorded 2 tackles for loss, one sack and returned both an interception and fumble for touchdowns. USF’s offense was held to just 155 total yards, with only 66 of them coming through the air. The Bulls punted 9 times and converted only 1 of 13 third down attempts. USF starting QB Bobby Eveld was named the starter for this game by head coach Willie Taggart after Matt Floyd stunk it up against McNeese St., and he was downright awful. He never seemed to have a grasp of the offense and completed only 6 of 25 passes for 66 yards and an interception. The only bright spot for the USF offense was RB Marcus Shaw, who ran for 94 yards on 23 carries.

Next up for Sparty is Youngstown St., who has already defeated South Dakota and Indiana St in 2013. Dantonio previously worked on the Penguins’ staff under former Ohio St. head coach Jim Tressel, and the Spartans won their last meeting with YSU, 28-6, in September of 2011. I’m hoping that the MSU offense will show some life against the Pens’ defense, and assume that either Maxwell or Cook will get the call to start. Some fans are wondering whether true freshman QB Damion Terry will at least get some time against YSU, and he probably will, and should. Expect a win, but less ugliness from Sparty’s offense. Go Green. Go White.

  • Florida head coach Will Muschamp clearly isn’t into offense. Former Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was great in his role with the Longhorns and was widely regarded as one of the best assistants or coordinators in all of college football when he worked under UT head coach Mack Brown. So when he was hired to be the new skipper of the Florida Gators, most assumed that he would bring his knowledge and unique intensity to Gainesville and turn Florida into at the least, a defensive powerhouse. Well, Florida has had an elite defense during his tenure, but the offense has been another story. Florida was plagued by a somewhat inept offense last season and that certainly applied to the passing game, which was one of the worst in the entire country. I saw every second of their sloppy ’13 opener against Toledo and knew that their offense would have to scrap just to get by. Against a very good Miami defense, Florida’s offense actually had some success, amassing 413 total yards of offense, but their power running game was ineffective and inefficient and QB Jeff Driskel was shaky early on. They’ll play Tennesee in two weeks, which has won their first two games by a combined score of 97-20. There’s gonna be trouble, trooouuuble…
  • Lee Corso has become a freakin’ sideshow. Lee Corso is a clown. I once enjoyed his analysis and good-spirited nature, and definitely loved his propensity for rockin’ mascot heads. But, ESPN’s College GameDay has become somewhat hard to get into, and not just because former Michigan WR Desmond Howard and former Ohio St. QB Kirk Herbstreit have anything to do with it. I get it: Let’s laugh at the outrageous old man who seems to pull opinions out of his ass and analysis from a vat of randomness, but it’s become tired now. His act has jumped the shark (no Fonz) and I’m not sure if many others share my opinion. It would be nice if either Corso would tone down his act or College GameDay would be scrapped. Yeah…let’s go with the former.
  • Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has his unit doing work. Former Western Michigan head coach and offensive mastermind Bill Cubit always led a proficient offense during his time with the WMU Broncos. After being hired by Illinois head coach Tim Beckman to be the Fightin’ Illini’s new OC, I figured their O would certainly see a bump in production, but didn’t expect them to make it look so easy, albeit against teams like Southern Illinois and Cincinnati so far in ’13. The Illini have racked up almost 1,000 yards of total offense in their first two games of ’13 and have scored a combined 87 points. They’ll play Washington at Soldier Field this Saturday in what should be a tougher test for their offense, but I expect them to pass with flying colors. Illinois still doesn’t frighten me, even with MSU being almost entirely one-dimensional to this point, but if they go out and carve up Washington, I’ll act like they’re not Rodney Dangerfield and show ’em a little respect.