Let's get hockey out of the way first. Lucia has a mess to figure out (three shutouts, and three losses and a tie in four games so far) and he needs to do it quick before the season spins out of control. The Seawolves provide a nice opportunity to right the ship. Here's a preview from Gopher Puck Live. If things develop this weekend in the rare Friday - Sunday series and warrant a review, you'll get one here.
Now, football. The Michigan State Spartans are coming to town. Gopher Nation talked with The Only Colors yesterday about some aspects of the game tomorrow. It's a critical game for both teams, and it's obviously Sparty's first trip to TCF. It's also another opportunity for Sparty to have a SPARTY NOOOOOOOOO moment.
Don't know what I'm talking about? If any fan base can relate to the SPARTY NOOOOOOOO moment, it's Minnesota. It's the combination of coaching, player, and scheme meltdowns that lead to a ridiculous late-game loss. Sparty has had this happen in comical ways over the years - obviously, having goofs like Bobby Williams and John L. Smith as your coach lead to comedy (on that note, can you believe Nick Saban once coached there?). For a good example, think the 2006 Notre Dame - Sparty game. Sparty surrendered a 37-21 fourth quarter lead in a pouring rainstorm. At home. Good fun - watch it here.
Sparty is having one heck of a run of SPARTY NOOOOOOOO moments this year, though. Take your pick as to which one is the best. Was it against Central Michigan, where the Chippewas recovered an onside kick and got to rekick their last-second field goal after Sparty was offside on a block, shocking the Spartans at home for the third time? Was it against Notre Dame, where Kirk Cousins missed a wide open receiver in the end zone on the game's penultimate play, and threw an INT across his body, on the run, into the center of the defense, on the final relevant play?
How about against Michigan, where Sparty shackled the Wolverines for 56 minutes, but let Tate Forcier construct two touchdowns to Darryl Stonum and Roy Roundtree, one with :09 left in the driving rain with Forcier completely exhausted, before midnight struck for Forcier in overtime? Last Saturday, however, may take the cake. Up by 4, Sparty coach Mark Dantonio decided to revert to a three-man rush until the game's last play, where he rushed seven. Kirk Ferentz called his bluff, motioned Tony Moeaki across the formation, got Marvin McNutt on a one-on-one situation AT THE THREE YARD line, ran a slant, and look at the picture above. Again, ONE ON ONE and a three yard SLANT pass was wide open? Truly, SPARTY NOOOOOOO. The Dantonio face after the TD catch was priceless, and totally deserved for the bitter Spartan coach.
Minnesota can relate to these kind of moments, however (Iowa 1994, Northwestern 2000, Michigan 2003 and 2004, Wisconsin 2005, Texas Tech 2006, the month of November 2008). The rules of college football now dictate that even if both teams wet the bed, someone has to win the game. Who is going to choke less? We'll find out tomorrow.
Before getting to some stats and predictions, a couple notes. First, all the best to Eric Decker. He is proof that the Scout and Rivals guys cannot quantify hard work, talent and perseverance. Think of all the fine receivers Minnesota has had over the years. Decker is the finest this university has ever seen (and Brewster, no, it's not an "excellent opportunity" for your team - losing Decker sucks - you ought to know this from November 2008). Unfortunately, that weird step he took on the out pass against Ohio State will directly affect his financial and football future, as it seems he'll need 5-8 months to recover from surgery on the foot. Whoever drafts this guy is getting a steal. Vikings or Lions, please pick him up.
In case you were wondering, had Glen Mason remained as coach, the Gophers' wideouts this year and last would have been Decker and Wisconsin WR David Gilreath. Gilreath, who decommitted after Mason was fired, would have been nice to have around in Decker's absence, both last year and this.
And if you shutter an envious eye at Spartan LB Greg Jones, the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, don't be too mad when you realize that Jones also de-committed from Minnesota after Mason was fired. Of course, Mason was a terrible recruiter, so this doesn't matter anymore. Jones and Campbell are similar players in production this year. However, Jones is but a junior while Campbell is gone in 2 months. (also, if you remember seeing starting Cal LB Devin Bishop, well, he had committed twice to Minny before Mason was fired, and he then decommitted to go to Cal.)
Alright, on to Saturday. When I previewed this game in August and debuted the term "Wild Rodent," I predicted a 23-20 win for Michigan State. Things haven't really changed this year to change my prediction in any significant way.
The teams line up pretty well in regard to scoring stats. Michigan State averages 27.25 ppg (57th nationally) and gives up 20.75 ppg (39th). On the other hand, Minnesota averages 21.13 ppg (101st) and gives up 25.13 ppg (70th). Based on these stats, empiricists would expect a 26-21 final score in favor of Sparty. Let's throw a couple more statistical and aesthetic logs on the fire:
(1) The biggest log, of course, is the absence of Decker. There are a couple ways this could go. On the one hand, Weber could look lost without his security blanket, will struggle, causing fan unrest (and let's face it, drunken students and fans will not be quiet on Halloween) and causing the coaches (if they're not oblivious) to play more Gray. On the other hand, Weber may feel more comfortable to spread the ball around to everyone, in turn making the Gopher offense more diverse and dangerous. Of course, this will require the Gopher WRs (Brandon, Stoudermire and Carpenter, in particular) to make plays. The chances are there, although without the Decker double-team, Sparty can commit more defenders to the rush. Spreading Sparty out with the pass may be the way to success.
(2) Michigan State has no such issues in the passing game, which could make tomorrow very depressing for Gopher fans. Sparty is 22nd nationally in passing offense, averaging 273.50 ypg. The Gophers, in contrast, are 77th nationally in pass defense, averaging 229.63 ypg. This despite playing Air Force and a first-time college QB (Paulus) in the opener. Sparty has a quality set of wide receivers: walk-on Blair White (who, conveniently, is also white), Mark Dell, BJ Cunningham and TE Charlie Gantt. As Minnesota gives up one passing touchdown each week where no Gopher defender is within 15 yards of the receiver (Air Force, Purdue, Penn State, Ohio State), expect a similar breakdown or two this week.
(3) Go back to #1. How much will MarQueis Gray play? If he does play, remember a couple of things: (a) Gray led his touchdown drive against the second-string Buckeye defense that had called off the dogs. Sparty's first-string defense is top quality. (b) Gray won't progress much past the first option and will be subject to a tough pass rush. Expect growing pains. (c) Remember, if Gray is in, Greg Jones will likely spy him. I'm not sure that will end too well for Gray. Perhaps Illinois's porous defense is a better week in which to further integrate Gray into the game.
(4) The night experience. Who knows how this will go? On the one hand, drunken students make for a raucous crowd. Will they keep the faith if things go wrong? Will they verbally assault Brewster and Fisch if the playcalling (probably) goes haywire? Will the cold sap the life out of the crowd (I saw this first-hand in Iowa City this year - their Homecoming crowd was dead after the second play of the game, a Stanzi INT for TD. The cold also played a large part in it. Frankly, so did playing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" when the Hawkeyes re-entered the stadium in the second half.)
Well, both teams are 4-4, which is what we thought they were in August. Sparty needs to recover from its SPARTY NOOOOOO moment last week, and needs to recover to meet its preseason bowl expectations. Minnesota continues to build toward success in 2011 (and fans, stop asking for it, because Tim Brewster's going to be here at least until 2011).
I'm not sure what to expect (though when Dantonio's team falls apart at some point tomorrow, I hope you yell SPARTY NOOOOOOOO), but I do know this. If Sparty gives up more than 20 points in 2009, they lose. I don't think it happens tomorrow (at least in regulation):
Michigan State 24 - Minnesota 20.