Thursday, October 15, 2015

UM week (as enjoyable as a trip to the dentist)

I was ready for UM week to be over the day it started.

The hype has been as over-the-top as I can ever remember it (probably due in large part to Facebook, Twitter, sports talk radio, 24-hour sports networks, etc.) and I've done everything I can to avoid it. I just don't much enjoy Michigan week, and with Harbaugh-mania in full swing, it's been even more nauseating.

I take this game very personally, probably TOO personally, and I tire of the complete lack of class and respect that goes along with it. I get sick of annually defending the honor of my alma mater against the legions of obnoxious (mostly "unaffiliated") Michigan fans. If this was a rivalry built on mutual respect and at least a modicum of goodwill, it would be much more tolerable and maybe even FUN.

I've gone back and forth on how I think this game will go. My skepticism has been tempered a bit as the week has gone on. MSU's success really hinges on three factors: the offensive line, the defensive backs, and special teams.

Connor Cook is a great quarterback with a strong arm, good vision, and a strong stable of receivers, but will the MSU offensive line give him enough protection to have time to make throws? If he's running for his life or getting hit every other play, like against Rutgers, he won't have time. MSU also has to be able to effectively run the ball to take pressure off Cook.

It will be necessary for MSU's front seven to slow down the run and get pressure on Jake Rudock. Get him out of the pocket and force him into (I hope) bad throws.

Is Michigan's defense as good as advertised? Three consecutive shutouts is darned good no matter who the opponent is, so I suspect it is. Their defense was good LAST year, the trouble was their offense was so abysmal that the defense got tired late in games.

So, I still don't know what to expect. My guess is that Conklin and Keiler will do everything they can to play. How effective they are is anybody's guess, and it's anybody's guess whether MSU can win this game or not.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Spartans survive again

"And Rutgers spikes the ball on 4th down (!) and MSU escapes like Houdini with a victory. The most patched together, beat up, vulnerable undefeated team in America."--My Facebook post immediately following the Michigan State/Rutgers game.

It wasn't the blowout I was hoping for. Once again, the Spartans fumbled and bumbled their way through much of the game, finally putting together a splendid drive in the last four minutes and change of the 4th quarter to go ahead 31-24. The game finally ended when Rutgers' quarterback Chris Laviano inexplicably lost count of the downs and spiked the ball on 4th down, turning the ball over to MSU with only a few seconds left on the clock.

I'll go through my "wish list" from a few days ago and see how it worked out.

1. Please Geiger, make all of your field goals and extra points. Geiger was an adventure with field goals, with one blocked and one that pinged off the upright and over. He did make all of his extra points, so I'll be generous and give him a B for this effort. However, it's pretty clear that place kicking will be an adventure for the rest of the season.

2. The secondary. It did not play as well as I hoped it would, but it's struggles were not unexpected. Leonte Carroo was as good as advertised and gave MSU fits all night. MSU's defensive backfield is a crazy quilt put together with duct tape and spit at this point.

3. Don't fall asleep in the 3rd quarter. Instead, MSU fell asleep in the second quarter and at other periodic intervals of the game. But, to their credit, MSU woke up when the game was on the line.

4. PLEASE NO MORE INJURIES! Well, there were more injuries. Madre London and Gerald Holmes were banged up in the game, so Delton Williams' redshirt was lifted. Kodi Kieler is obviously still ailing, though he valiantly played against Rutgers, and Jack Allen looks like he was hurt late in the game from a cheap shot by a Rutgers player. So, in short, injuries continue to be an issue with this team.

5. Consistency and creativity from the offense. The bright spot is that Connor Cook, though he made a few mistakes (in particular an ill-advised throw into triple coverage resulting in an end zone interception late in the first half), played well down the stretch and led MSU to its game-winning touchdown. MSU receivers made some brilliant catches, and L.J. Scott carried the mail on the game-winning drive. The Spartans have playmakers on offense--but the problem is that the offensive line is struggling due to injuries. They will need to have all hands on deck against Michigan. There is no way MSU's offensive line can struggle against Michigan, as it did against a much weaker Rutgers defense, and expect to win in Ann Arbor.

6. Don't give up big plays to Rutgers kick returners. They were a non-factor. No big returns allowed.

So, there you have it. Perhaps the most banged up, vulnerable, and least impressive undefeated team in America. MSU has yet to lose this season, yet it feels like they are about 3-3 and out of the top 25. They head to Ann Arbor this Saturday to play the much ballyhooed Wolverines who, quite impressively, have shut out three consecutive opponents.

The question is, how much more can Mark Dantonio squeeze out of this banged up, battered team? Can Connor Cook carry this team on his shoulders next week? Will MSU's offensive line be able to hold up against Michigan's defense? Has Michigan faced the type of offensive skill players that Michigan State possesses?

Next week's game is intriguing, and I have to be completely honest in saying I have no idea what to expect. Despite how rough and ragged the Spartans have looked this season, this is still a program that has won 32 of its last 35 games. They have shown an ability to face adversity and overcome it--and that's something that many of us old-timers haven't seen from MSU football in our lifetimes...until now. Whether that's enough to beat an upstart and imposing looking Fighting Harbaugh team, we shall see. At this point, I'm not feeling particularly confident about MSU's chances on October 17.