Michigan State, as well, got off to a quick start last season. The Spartans started 4-0 with wins over Alabama-Birmingham, Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, and at Notre Dame. Then MSU hit a skid and lost five of six, including two in overtime. The Spartans bounced back to win the final two games of the season at Purdue and at home versus Penn State. MSU lost a close 24-21 battle against No. 14 Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl, but the signs of success were already shown under first-year head coach Mark Dantonio.
Strawberry Canyon at night.
Sophomore Jahvid Best is top skill position player on the Cal roster, and very well could be the best in the Pac-10 conference. Nonetheless, he will be looked upon early to supplement Riley and the rest of the offense as the Bears break in a new receiving corps. The talent level is high but the entire group has only 13 combined career receptions. Of those 13 receptions, 10 were by senior LaReylle Cunningham. Redshirt freshman Mike Calvin is expected to be the top target early on. However, Riley just might be the biggest playmaker on the field Saturday.
"Well, we prepared for both," Dantonio said. "We didn't really know who would play, so both those guys are very good quarterbacks, both those guys have had great success there this past year. They've got good touch on the ball. I don't think from what I've seen their play calling is that much different. I'm sure they have certain things they like to use."
"[Riley] is a little bit more mobile in the pocket, so we have to contain him a little bit more in that respect. They're both very good players, and I don't see their offense really changing that much. It's not they're going to all of a sudden go to an option attack because he's in there or a quarterback-run type of thing as much. As a matter of fact, I was just watching cutups last night and [Nate] Longshore was running the option on third-and-short down near the goal line or something, and you would think the other guy would do that. I think that they're equally capable at quarterback."
Michigan State senior Brian Hoyer is one of the top returning signal callers in the Big Ten. While he does not posses the same play-making ability as Riley, he is much more experienced. But he will be adjusting to new receivers too per se. Senior Dell Curry and true sophomore Mark Dell combined to start 18 games last season. However, their combined production (44 rec, 420 yds, 3 tds) did not equate to half of what departing leading receiver Devin Thomas put up (79 rec, 1,260 yds, 8 tds) in 2007. Furthermore, Curry has been pushed from the starting spot by redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham.
It is just another reason the Spartans might rely on Ringer, including possibly lining him up at kick returner.
"I think he's the feature guy ," Dantonio said of Ringer. "He's the guy that's done it, not just for one year but for probably the two previous years as well." "I think that's going to be a game time decision for us," Dantonio said of using Ringer as a kick returner. "We may put him back there. We'll just sort of look at that as we go through this week of practice and work towards our special teams. We want to make sure he handles the situations properly and all those type of things."
"Somebody is going to elevate their play on this football team, and we're going to find out who it is. In reality, if you look at our wide receiver position, we're a much stronger at the position than we were last year coming into the season. We have more depth, we have more experience. Now, how it unfolds, I can't tell you that."
Best is one of the best kick returners in the nation, which will help garner much needed field position in a game that could be won in the trenches. Cal returns three starters on the offensive line but returning LT Mike Tepper has not practiced in camp and is not playing this Saturday. Despite some shifting, the Bears will field a strong o-line led by All-American C Alex Mack.
The Spartans also return three starters up front led by LG Roland Martin. Overall, MSU has been nicked up in camp up front, but has a good combination of veterans and newcomers.
"We weren't real deep there last year, but somehow, we managed to find pieces and move people around," said Dantonio.
"I think Brendon Moss is going to have to be a guy that plays, I think Joel Foreman is going to be a guy that plays. You'll see him playing on Saturday, as well, and that's for sure. And he's another redshirt freshman, so it'll be an exciting day for him."
"These guys are all going to grow up, and they're all going to be great players. Jared McGaha is going to be a great player for us. He's a redshirt freshman backing up a right guard. You think that's sort of a norm; when you're a great football team, those are the things that you see, those redshirt freshmen in there playing for their first time or having an opportunity. They're usually at positions of depth."
Both defenses will be grading their defensive front lines this Saturday. The Bears have turned to sophomore Derrick Hill to man the critical nose tackle position. Cal's top defensive lineman is junior Tyson Alualu, who started all 13 games last year can play inside and outside depending on the formation. Senior Justin Kershaw leads the Spartans' defensive front. He started every game last year and recorded 34 tackles. But MSU will rely on a couple of former Cincinnati Bearcats to make an impact – sophomore NT Oren Wilson and junior DE Trevor Anderson.
The respective offensive fronts should have the advantage in this contest. It will leave both teams to rely on their linebackers to help shore up the run defense, which favors Cal's strong linebacking corps that compliments their 3-4 defensive package.
Zach Follett, Worrell Williams, and Anthony Felder form arguably the top trio of linebackers in the nation. MSU counters with true sophomore Greg Jones, who will contend for All-Big 10 honors this season. He can play either inside or outside but is slated to start at strong side backer with fellow sophomore Eric Gordon starting at the weak side. Junior Adam Decker will start in the middle.
"He's a very emotional guy," Dantonio said of Jones. "He plays at a high level of intensity and has leadership skills, and because we are a young football team, he's a young leader. And I think that sort of helps in that area."
"As far as SAM, MIKE, he can play either, and probably will throughout the game, because I think the other guys have proved that they're sort of in the mix, as well. One thing we did last year was play a lot of people and that's helped. That helped us in terms of the late season and in terms of the bowl game. So we'll continue to do those types of things."
"So we're just going to play our best three, and I think Adam Decker probably has a little bit more knowledge of the entire package right now, but it doesn't mean that Greg won't play there. Greg will probably see opportunities at MIKE, as well."
The secondary is strength for both teams. While the Bears return one of the best corners in the West in Syd'Quan Thompson, the Spartans have four corners that started at least four games last season. However, the only corner to start over four games, senior Kendell Davis-Clark, has moved to free safety. Moreover, senior strong safety Otis Wiley has 19 career starts. Regardless of where Davis-Clark lines up the talent and experience is abundant in the MSU secondary.
I hope he is," Dantonio said of Davis-Clark being ready to start his first game at free safety.
"First of all, Kendell is a very physical player, explosive. He's a good tackler, got excellent ball skills. He's been working that position for about two and a half weeks. He played that position in high school, so it's a little different, but I think that he's up to speed and will continue working this week."
Cal and MSU have questions that will be answered Saturday night, but the fact the Bears open at home gives them an advantage. The Spartans are capable of controlling the clock with their strong running game and have an aggressive defense than can give the Bears fits. Cal cannot afford to make too many early mistakes against this defense and expect to win. However, as long as Cal takes care of the football, a victory is imminent. The Spartans are a solid ball club, but are not good enough to beat a mistake free Bear team in Memorial Stadium.
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