An Almost Timely Early Look at the 2009 Schedule - Week 9 vs. Michigan State

Previously: Syracuse, The Air Force Academy, California, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State, Ohio State.

Michigan State: At a glance:

Location: East Lansing, Michigan

Stadium: Spartan Stadium (size: 75,005)
Expected Attendance: 0. The game's in Minneapolis.
Undergraduate population: 36,337.
First season: 1896
Number of Big Ten Titles: 9 6
All-time record: 592-403-44
All-time bowl record: 7-11.

Most awesome alum: undoubtedly John C. Holmes, who .... oh wait, that's not him? Oh.

Well, then I guess it's a close race between Jimmy Hoffa and honorary alum Robert Mugabe. Yes, the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was once in possession of a Michigan State honorary degree (alas, it was revoked in 2008).

Most awesome Michigan State fan site: The Only Colors. Runner-up: Spartan Tailgate.

The Quad has Sparty as preseason # 31.

Jump with me.....

The Big Ten Network could care less if you have kids if you're a Gopher or Spartan fan. This game is slated for a 7:00 CST start on Halloween, which means 4 second row tickets in section 109 may go unused at the Vault, and instead of going overboard on beer at TCF Stub N Herb's, I'll load up on Sweet Tarts and Dubble Bubble. Thanks alot BTN - I may go trick or treating as Gerry DiNardo (XFL edition, of course) and scare all the neighborhood kids.

This will be Minnesota's first game against Michigan's agricultural school since 2006, when Minnesota won 31-18 in East Lansing. The teams' last meeting at Metrodump was in 2005, when Amir Pinnix rushed for 206 yards in a 41-18 victory. Of course, you can't talk 2005 Michigan State football without talking about John L. Smith and the bumbling coaches.

Times are changing, of course, and the dour, unhappy elephant Mark Dantonio is now the coach. He has instilled discipline, technique, and resolve to a team that found the second-half meltdown to be a rite of passage as the year got colder (something Coach Brewster has yet to solve for the Gophers). Last year, State went 9-4, losing to Cal, Ohio State, Penn State and Georgia. Most notably, Michigan State beat Michigan for the first time in 9 years (Plaxico?) and for the first time at Michigan Stadium since 1990.

While State has a number of pieces in place, there are a few significant questions marks that need to be solved and of course, they start with:

Michigan State on Offense: Brian Hoyer was the two-year starter and has now departed. Think of him as Bryan Cupito, and you'll realize how little he did or was noticed, and how his departure didn't even cause shoulders to shrug in central Michigan. This year has seen Oklahoma transfer (this guy couldn't beat out Sam Bradford at QB? FAIL) Keith Nicol and Kirk Cousins battle for the starting job. The position remains open as fall camp approaches.

Ever heard of Javon Ringer? If you watched every snap of every Michigan State game last year, you would have heard his name called 418 times, 390 of those on rushing plays. He's now backing up Chris Johnson and the tequila-free LenDale White in Tennessee, and leaves a significant hole in the MSU backfield. The returning rushers should be rather fresh as they only received 7% of the rushes. Andre Anderson, who got 26 of those in 2008, probably is first-string at this point, though incoming freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caple will probably get significant time as well.

State returns all but one of their top 9 wideouts and tight ends, including Blair White, BJ Cunningham, Mark Dell, each of whom had over 35 receptions last year, and TE Charlie Gantt.

Finally, on the O-line, State loses multi-year starters Roland Martin and Jesse Miller on the right side of their line, and will probably fill those spots with seniors Brendan Moss and John Stipek.  The other three positions will probably be filled by Rocco Cironi, Joel Foreman, and Joel Nitchman.

Bottom Line: Michigan State's Offense: Think Ohio State. Think Iowa. Michigan State runs a conventional pro-style offense focusing upon the run game first, field position, conservative play-calling and play-action. The Spartans will be breaking in a new quarterback and new running backs the first part of the season, which could lead to problems when they play, say, Notre Dame. However, they should be aided by a strong defense that will give them good field position. By the time of the Minnesota game, the offense should be good for 23 points or so.

Michigan State's Defense: The defense is very solid, returning 8 starters. Dantonio's defensive focus (he was Ohio State's defensive coordinator when they won the 2003 BCS championship) has solidified what had been a porous unit in the past for the Green and White.

On the defensive line, MSU loses two starters, Long and Kershaw, but the best one, Trevor Anderson, returns. He had 30 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 8 sacks in 2008.

As for linebackers, all 3 starters return, but look for junior Greg Jones, the pre-season Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year. He had 127 tackles in 2008, calls the defenses and is almost unblockable. Also returning are the other two starters, Eric Gordon and (in a weird way, a meld of the Gophers' offensive attack) Adam Decker. Behind the returning starters is incoming freshman Chris Norman. This is probably the strongest part of the entire team. It will be important for Stommes, Wills and the other Gophers linemen to get releases from the defensive line and attempt to put a block on these linebackers - otherwise, the Gophers' rushing attack is going to get stalled due to the Spartans' stellar linebacking play.

The defensive backfield is also deep and talented, and in comparison to the Gophers, runs eight deep. Starting S Otis Wiley has departed, but Chris L. Rucker, Jeremy Ware, Marcus Hyde, and Dan Fortener return.

Bottom Line: Michigan State's Defense: State's defense is experienced, stout, and disciplined. If the Gophers' rushing game expects to have any success, it needs to put blocks on those solid Spartan linebackers. MSU also seems to have enough quality defensive backs to be able to deal with a 4 or 5 WR look should the Gophers choose to attack through the air. Finally, if the Gophers attempt to use MarQueis Gray in a WildRodent formation, well, he'll have to shed Greg Jones. I fear this is a match-up that the redshirt freshman QB will have difficulty with.

Michigan State on Special Teams: Both specialists return. Brett Swenson does the kicking, has a long of 50 yards, and is used to kicking in the cold and at night. The punter, Aaron Bates, punted 71 times in 2008, averaging over 41 ypk. Importantly, Michigan State is deep at wide receiver and at defensive back, meaning that some quality wide men will be on the kickoff and return teams. This unit I feel will be better than, say, Penn State's, and they may have the experience to stop Troy Stoudermire from having a big day.

Bottom Line: What to Expect: These are the kind of games that Minnesota is going to have trouble with: a well-drilled, disciplined team which plays the field position and punting game. Obviously, Minnesota is trying to move to this style of offense, but in year one, at game nine, they may not be there yet. Further, this is a serious trap game. The Gophers will be returning home after games at Ohio State and Penn State. It's Halloween night, so the players may be thinking ahead to the parties that evening (Sparty will be flying home and won't have that issue). The high-powered Illinois offense is at TCF seven days later. Michigan State may be an afterthought, as silly as that may seem for a team ranked third in the preseason prognostication for the Big Ten.

Looking at this game on August 5th, there are two keys for the Gophers to have success against the Spartans: (1) score early and force Michigan State to play catch-up; and (2) minimize Greg Jones's influence on the game. If they can do either of these things, the game stays close. If they do both, the chance of winning is very good.

However, I don't see it happening.  The Spartans have the depth, experience and guile to combat the Gophers' offense, and it will have just enough offense to get the points it needs. The Agricultural School of Michigan will win its first trip to the Vault.

Michigan State 23

Minnesota 20

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