Across the Field: Michigan State

By Elika on September 27, 2012 at 12:02p

A year ago, Ohio State was 3-1 and hosted Michigan State for its first conference test of the year. Going into that game, many weren't sure what to expect of the team in B1G play without its decade-long leader Jim Tressel. Though it was apparent that changes needed to be made at the quarterback position, fans remained optimistic that the Buckeyes could rebound from a disappointing loss at Miami and have a fairly successful season. Unfortunately, the Michigan State game was a sign of painful moments the 2011 season had in store.

This time around, with a more proven leader in Urban Meyer and a more talented starting quarterback in Braxton Miller, Ohio State gets its first conference and first road test against the Spartans. Truthfully, both teams have underperformed compared to their preseason hype. Ohio State sits at #14, more of a formality reserved for a traditional powerhouse that has gone 4-0, but still has many things to prove on the field.

To help us take a look at this B1G opener between the Buckeyes and Spartans, who both have something to prove this Saturday in the only matchup this week of top 20 teams, Chris Vannini of The Only Colors shares his insights into this Michigan State team.

Michigan State is 3-1 this season. How does this compare to your preseason predictions for this team? What has been a key factor in any differential between your expectations and reality?

I think a 3-1 start fits a lot of preseason predictions. Most people didn't know what to make of the offense entering the season, and problems were expected, especially in the passing game. Those familiar with the program expected Le'Veon Bell to have a breakout year, but I don't think anyone expected this much this quickly. Now, part of that is because he's the only reliable part of the offense, but 200 yards is 200 yards, and Bell has been spectacular this year. The issue moving forward is that this is the first time he's been the feature back and many are worried he won't be able to keep up this pace. If the passing game improves, hopefully some of the load can be taken off his shoulders. But right now, that doesn't look good.

MSU lost in disappointing fashion to Notre Dame and even struggled against Eastern Michigan last week. What are some of the takeaways from those games that you'd like to see corrected by this Saturday?

The biggest problem is the passing game. Against Notre Dame, MSU's offensive line was blown up by the Irish, and quarterback Andrew Maxwell was constantly under pressure (also sacked four times). When Maxwell was able to get off a good throw, the receivers dropped some balls, including a touchdown. Bell only had four carries in the second half (none in the fourth quarter) as MSU moved to a hurry-up offense. The problem was that meant the receivers were the key to the offense, and that caused problems. Against Eastern Michigan, it surprisingly was much of the same. The receivers have dropped at least six passes in each of the last two games, including two touchdowns. It's a really young group, and this seems to be a mental issue. Does that bode well in front of another national audience? I don't know. Maxwell hasn't been perfect, but he still has OK numbers given there has been no one on the outside who has been reliable.

Le'Veon Bell and William Gholston aside, who are some key players, on both sides of the ball, that OSU fans should look out for on Saturday?

On offense, it's tight end Dion Sims. The 6-foot-5, 285-pounder has 22 catches for 277 yards and two touchdowns as the only guy Maxwell has faith in throwing to. He was expected to be the safety blanket as Maxwell got accustomed to game experience, but he's the No. 1 target now. He'll obviously be a point of interest for the OSU linebackers.

On defense, linebacker Max Bullough is the leader of everything. The junior is a captain and leads the Spartans in tackles and TFLs. He had nine tackles and one TFL in the game in Columbus last year. He'll be blitzing up the middle with frequency, but when he's not, he'll certainly be keeping an eye on Braxton Miller all day.

Le'Veon Bell is a man.

What are this team's biggest weaknesses that you're hoping don't get exposed by the Buckeyes on Saturday?

In terms of the defense, it's the tendency to over-pursue and be too agressive. Notre Dame had a couple long runs from the running back on some misdirection. With all the blitzing MSU does, this is a group that is always swarming to the ball at full speed, but a couple delay runs to the weak side could work. I normally wouldn't say straight runs to the outside off tackle would be very effective, but Notre Dame also had some success with that in the second half, sealing off MSU's offensive linebackers. Given Urban Meyer's offense is built on speed, I'm going to be very interested to see how MSU's defense deals with the sideline-to-sideline plays.

On offense, it's basically the passing game. I'm sure Ohio State will load the box, and Andrew Maxwell is going to have to make some throws (and receivers catch) in order to win.

Michigan State leads the Big Ten in rushing, passing, total and scoring defense. What are some of the reasons this defense has had success so far?

The biggest reason is because of the communication and knowledge of MSU's system. In Mark Dantonio/Pat Narduzzi's first few seasons, they stuck with the 4-3 set and were burned by spread teams. It didn't seem to be working. But once the coaches got their players in, things changed. MSU has speed on the ends of the line and the linebackers. This means a lot of blitzing. The cornerbacks are very physical, and the safeties need to be extremely smart when it comes to reading plays, especially when the backers blitz. The players love the freedom they're given in the system, but that comes after Narduzzi trusts them. After last year's breakthrough season, nine starters returned from the Outback Bowl, yet they're still a young group. MSU only played one scholarship freshman last season, so the depth has been built up, and even if (when) Narduzzi leaves, the defense should be stout for quite some time.

Both teams have had their struggles so far this season, but what do you see as the most favorable matchup for the Spartans in trying to beat the Buckeyes on Saturday?

Back to the defense, it's containing Braxton Miller. Narduzzi's system and players have shut down running quarterbacks over the last three years. I saw a stat from one of our writers that the longest QB run against MSU over the past 43 games was 26 yards by Ricky Stanzi. As I mentioned above, the ends have the speed, but they've been great at containing run-first quarterbacks (Denard Robinson, Miller last year, Tre Roberson [although, Indiana...]), and the speed by the outside linebackers complements that. Where they've struggled is with mobile quarterbacks who rely on their arm first (Russell Wilson, MarQueis Gray, Everett Golson kind of). Miller is going to need to make throws.

What are your thoughts and predictions for the game?

Man, I really don't know who to pick. I feel like you could flip a coin. I'm going to 13-10 MSU. This game really is a strength vs. strength and weakness against weakness. MSU is No. 1 in the Big Ten total defense and No. 7 in total offense. OSU is No. 4 in total offense and dead last in total defense. Whoever's weakness is stronger might be the difference. I haven't watched a ton of Ohio State this year, but it seems like big plays have been the biggest problem on defense. That's also been MSU's biggest problem on offense. Last year, following poor offensive performances, MSU seemed to do a good job of refocusing on what they're good at. This game was ugly last year, and I think it's going to be the same this year.

Do you have any things to do, sights to see, or places to eat for our readers that will be making the trip to East Lansing for the game?

The place for everything is Grand River Avenue (which will be right near College Gameday, for those of you coming up). Instead of the details, I'll give you the EL Visitors' Guide that one of our writers put together last year. It's got everything from lodging to tailgating to night life and everything you need to know about coming to our city.

Enjoy your time.

Thanks to Chris Vannini of The Only Colors for his time. You can read more on all things Sparty by checking out the links below:

Twitter: @theonlycolors and @ChrisVannini

Facebook: TheOnlyColors


Comments Show All Comments

OSUBias's picture

Tight end that is good in the passing game vs our linebacking corp which has been pretty horrible in coverage = scary. Also a good stat about them shutting down running QB's.
That conversation definitely lowered my optimism. It was mentioned in another thread, and I think it's a really good point: by Saturday night at least we'll know what we have. All of the uncertainty is tough to deal with. We can convince ourselves that we're going to be really good and were holding back, or that we're too raw and undisciplined and it will be another rough year. By the time the clock hits 0:00, we'll know one way or the other. I'm excited to find out.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

hodge's picture

I thought the exact same thing about the tight end: uh oh. 
I agree with your second point, as well.  I think Urban's going to let Braxton be Braxton come Saturday afternoon, and I think that will pay dividends in East Lansing.  We're going to see the real "potential" of this offense, even if it takes us another season to realize it.

Denny's picture

Worst thing about the tight end in my opinion is the notion that getting burned by the tight end was one of the most glaring shortcomings of the old Heacock defenses. We've seen it before, to pretty devastating effect.


hodge's picture

It's almost worth giving them a hearty dose of the Nickel, just so we can replace get Ohrian Johnson in that shallow zone, hopefully up against that TE.  But that involves dropping Grant/Klein, who will be needed to stop Bell.  Hopefully we can put up a lead early (crazy thought, I know), and have them playing from behind in the second half: this will mean Maxwell is throwing more, and more Nickel.

BUCKfutter's picture

that is all.

the kids are playing their tail off, and the coaches are screwing it up! - JLS

Sgt. Elias's picture

"Okay -- I've got an El Camino full of rampage here." 

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Wish he were still their coach. At least you'd likely never see him on a motorcycle with with a Hog Hunny........

J.Mo's picture

I remember when Ohio State was in the running for Dion Sims (and Ra'Shard Hangeman from Minnesota) to fill TE spots. Would have been awesome to have landed one of them.

dja.ohio's picture

The East Lansing Visitor's Guide is a nice resource.  Good work on that site addition Sparty!
I'm looking for our D Line to get a few TFL's on Bell.

hodge's picture

I would love to see a community effort here (with staff approval, of course) to create a Columbus visitors guide.  Perhaps subdivide it into sections, according to neighborhoods?  I know Alex put one together a few years back, but it would be cool to see it stickied to the front page in the "site links", that way we could constantly keep it updated.  Hell, it would even be awesome for our Buckeye fans abroad when they make their annual Hajj to Columbus.
There's a crapload of data that this community's already aggregated, but it would be really cool to see it loaded into one official place.  
When I was in Ann Arbor this year, Brian's Visitor's Guide to Ann Arbor off Mgoblog was downright exceptional.

OurHonorDefend09's picture

I could definitely add some student perspective if that's something someone seriously wanted to do.

Don't give up... Don't ever give up.

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

Hopefully, our own, and better, version of Dion Sims...Jake Stoneburner...will show up on Saturday.

I like cookies.

German Buckeye's picture

Interested to see if our corners press their WR.  Pretty sure RDS can cover a 280 lb TE out of the backfield.  I think everything is predicated on press/man on man corner coverage - we do that = long day for Sparty. 

bassplayer7770's picture

On Coach's call in show, he did say we would see more press coverage than we've seen all year.

OurHonorDefend09's picture

yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. Especially against a struggling QB, the worst thing OSUs defense can do is to give him free yards and easy confidence, while in turn, negating any type of pass rush.

Don't give up... Don't ever give up.

LouGroza's picture

We can only hope. How can they not try it at least? If it fails it fails but we could find out it turns the D into the best in the conference. Don't know until it's tested. Press gents, presssss.

3technique's picture

I still like our chances. I have watched the UAB game a couple of times (my 4 year old love the touchdown where miller spins) and I can say that most of the poor tackling/bad play was do to being"passive". I will begin to question everyone if OSU plays without passion this week. I also think MSU will be the most predicatable team we play until Wisconsin. The less our young LBs have to think the better they will play. Just my two pennies..

headina's picture

I believe the bucks put up more points than people expect. They have been holding back on O. 


Grayskullsession's picture

Im not quite as pessimistic as a lot of other people on here. I think we stand a chance in this one and it will be a tight game.

"if irony were made of strawberries, we' d all be drinking a lot of smoothies right now."

builderofcoalitions's picture

Why does this post read so closely to the one at Land Grant Holy Land? I mean, it's the same predictted score and everything. That's at least 3-4 times this week LGHL and 11W have mirrored each other. Is Luke stealing from you or the other way around?

Because we couldn't go for three.

gravey's picture

Great Minds Think Alike!

gravey's picture

...and fools seldom differ.

Elika's picture

Considering the posts were put up 10 minutes apart, I'm going to assume this isn't a serious question.

How firm thy friendship... OH-I-O!

Crimson's picture

I've been wondering for a while, why isn't the time posted on the stories?  Every comment, yes, but not on the stories themselves.

Buckeye_Mafia's picture

I don't care how bad we are or how great Michigan State may be as far as ranking and productivity goes on the grid-iron or hardwood, tOSU is a MUCH BETTER place than MSU.  Those are just sour grapes and justification by the MSU players if they are saying that.  I am sure in their hearts they want to believe that because that is where they are playing, what school they are representing, etc., but ultimately, they are saying it because they felt slighted by not getting an offer from tOSU.  If they were from Indiana and grew up a Hoosiers fan, I doubt they would be echoing that sentiment if they went to a school they felt was better overall.  They are just taking shots IMHO...

"At critical moments throughout the season, we learned about the character of this football team.  This was a team of true character, of true resilience." -- President Barack Obama

headina's picture

Well said


headina's picture

Even though there is no such thing as a Hoosiers football fan


Crimson's picture

When you see "Hoosiers fan," there's only one thing you could possibly think, and that's basketball.  Anything else is just drunk talk :)