After a bye week following its victory against Penn State, Maryland (6-3) will host Michigan State (7-2) in an 8 p.m. bout in Byrd Stadium Nov. 15. MSU is coming off a 49-37 home loss against Ohio State Nov. 8. Despite the loss, the stalwart Spartans, led by seventh-year head coach Mark Dantonio, are sitting in the top 10 nationally in both total offense and total defense.
Michigan State’s offense, headed by playcaller Dave Warner, is a no-frills pro-style with a quarterback under center and a fullback and running back in the backfield -- and a clear stress on establishing the ground game. MSU uses plenty of two tight-end sets, and sometimes will insert an H-back to serve as yet another lead blocker. The Spartans have emphasized jet sweeps and receiver reverses more this year than in the past, but the philosophy remains the same: Run the ball downhill, grind down the defense, and then beat the secondary up top with play-action. Michigan State likes to keep a fairly balanced attack, although you’re much more likely to see “run, run, pass” than “run, pass, pass” or “pass, run, pass.”
For the season, the Spartans are averaging an eye-popping 44.6 points per game (sixth in the FBS), 246.3 rushing yards per (18th in the FBS) and 271.2 passing yards per (34th in the FBS). Their 527.6 yards of total offense is ninth best nationally, while their potent rushing attack has resulted in a 35 minute time of possession advantage (second in the FBS). Michigan State is also converting 48.1 percent of third downs (15th in the FBS), 85 percent of their redzone tries (49th in the FBS) and turned 74 percent of said inside-the-20 possessions into touchdowns. And their plus-14 turnover ratio (second in the FBS) has helped offset the 60 penalty yards per game they’re averaging.
Last week, Michigan State’s attack racked up 536 total yards and still managed to put up 37 points on a good Ohio State defense.
Second-year starter Connor Cook (Jr., 6-4, 218) has improved since his sophomore campaign, although he hasn’t been quite as efficient in Big Ten play compared to the non-conference games. Even so, Cook has mostly done well leading the team downfield, while making his share of big plays as well. He has a strong arm and can fling it around with the Big Ten’s best, although his accuracy has been up and down at times. Cook has also been known to take risks, trying to squeeze throws through tight windows, which has paid off on some occasions and led to interceptions on others.
For the season, Cook has completed 145-of-243 passes for 2,226 yards and 19 touchdowns against five picks. He’s averaging 247.3 yards per game, has a long of 71 and an efficiency rating of 158.3 (eighth in the FBS). Against Ohio State, Cook was 25-for-45 for 358 yards, two scores and zero interceptions.
Cook is entrenched as the starter, but both of Michigan State’s backups saw time this year during the non-conference portion of the schedule. Tyler O’Connor (So., 6-3, 220) is similar to Cook and probably won’t see any more action unless there’s an injury or MSU is up big, but Damion Terry (Fr., 6-3, 236) could be used in special packages. A dual-threat gunslinger, Terry will enter as a Wildcat type, or go in motion and act as a wideout. Terry has 11 rushing attempts for 59 yards this year (in addition to 12 completions for 88 yards), so he’s someone to watch if he comes in.
Michigan State features a three-pronged attack that’s helped the Spartans average 5.3 yards per carry, 246.3 yards per game and produce 31 rushing touchdowns.
The feature back, however, is Jeremy Langford (Sr., 6-1, 208), a do-everything runner who has developed into one of the Big Ten’s most potent weapons. A true workhorse, Langford has 178 attempts for 978 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and 13 scores this year. He picked up 137 yards on 18 carries and three touchdowns against Ohio State, to go along with one catch for 15 yards.
Langford’s long this year is only 36 yards, but he has home-run hitting potential. For a bigger back, he has some shiftiness to him, plus very good downfield acceleration. Moreover, he runs with a low base, making him difficult to wrap up, and has the power to push the pile. Last year, Langford wasn’t always patient following his blocks, but this season he’s done much better reading his keys, waiting for the play to develop, and then exploding to daylight.
The No. 2 back is Nick Hill (Sr., 5-8, 196), who is known for his pass-blocking prowess. He’s very good with blitz pickup, and is one of the reasons Cook has only been sacked a handful of times all year. As a runner, Hill’s small stature and stout base allow him to plow through arm tackles and bounce off defenders. He has some speed to him too, evidenced by a 76-yard jaunt earlier this year. For the season, Hill has 82 carries for 498 yards and six touchdowns.
The third runner, Delton Williams (So., 6-2, 228), is a burly pile pusher, who mainly sees time on third-and-short situations. A complementary runner who has the potential to develop into a feature back given his size-speed combination, Williams has 40 attempts for 285 yards and five scores this year. He’s coming off a four carry, 20-yard game against Ohio State.
Michigan State’s fullback doesn’t have a carry this year as he’s used almost exclusively as a lead blocker. Trevon Pendleton (Jr., 6-0, 249) has excelled at opening holes and clearing out linebackers, and he’s been decent in pass protection as well.
The Spartans have one clear breadwinner at receiver, but that doesn’t mean they lack for weapons. MSU consistently plays five wideouts, who all bring something to the table, and can go as many as six deep.
The clear No. 1, though, is Tony Lippett (Sr., 6-3, 185), who has become Cook’s security blanket of sorts. Lippett has really taken off in his final collegiate season and is now on the Bilentikoff Award Watch List. He’s a tall, physical receiver who positions himself well, possesses sound hands and has a knack for pulling down passes overtop defenders. Lippett isn’t the fastest receiver out there, but he’s reliable (he did have a third-down drop last week against OSU, however) and has terrific chemistry with Cook. So far in 2014 he has 47 receptions for 953 yards and nine scores (eighth in the FBS), and last week he pulled down five balls for 64 yards.
Michigan State’s two downfield threats typically split time, although Keith Mumphery (Sr., 6-1, 211) has gotten the starting nod over
Aaron Burbridge (Jr., 6-1, 201) to this point. Neither Mumphery nor Burbridge have track-star speed, but both can run by hesitant cornerbacks and make plays up top. They’re also fairly reliable in the 10-15 yard range, effectively settling in-between zones. Mumphery has 13 receptions for 223 yards and two scores this season, while Burbridge has pulled down 19 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown. Last week, Humphrey made a statement early with a 15-yard touchdown reception against OSU. He had thee receptions for 72 yards and a score overall. Burbrigfe recorded four catches four 41 yards last week.
The slot receivers, meanwhile, are R.J. Shelton (So., 5-11, 204) and
MacGarett Kings Jr. (Jr., 5-10, 186). Both have above-average short-area quickness and have been known to take a reverse around end, or explode upfield on wide-receiver screens.
Shelton, for his part, actually has more rushing attempts than receptions. He’s carried the ball 17 times for 135 yards and a score this year, to go along with 12 receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown. Kings has 21 catches for 229 yards and a touchdown, in addition to eight carries for 57 yards. Against Ohio State, Shelton had 18 total yards, while Kings tallied five receptions for 79 yards.
The other receiver to watch out for is A.J. Troup (Jr., 6-2, 218), who doesn’t see a ton of action but will get snaps. He’s a bigger possession receiver with soft hands. Troup has seven catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns this year.
The Spartans go three deep at tight end, though two of them see the majority of the action. The main guy, though, is Josiah Price (So., 6-4, 251), the team’s second-leading receiver. Price has solid athleticism, can get down the seam and presents a big target over the middle (and in the redzone). He’s also a pretty good all-around blocker, who has helped seal the edge when run blocking. For the season, Price has 21 receptions for 330 yards and five scores, and is coming off a five-catch, 72-yard, one-touchdown outing against Ohio State.
Jamal Lyles (So., 6-3, 251), meanwhile, could be just as effective in the receiving department as Price. Problem is he’s not a great blocker, and in Michigan State’s offense, if you can’t block, it’s hard to get on the field. Lyles is an athletic downfield weapon, though, with three catches for 46 yards this year.
Andrew Gleichert (Sr., 6-5, 264) has played plenty more snaps than Lyles, even though he doesn’t have one catch all year. Perhaps the unit’s best blocking tight end, Gleichert has been used out on the edge; as an extra lineman up front; and even in the backfield as an H-back. He’s another unsung hero, who has helped spur that potent MSU ground game.
The Michigan State offensive line deserve plenty of credit for the Spartans’ success this year, as the unit has allowed just six sacks all season (third in the FBS), while steadily improving its run blocking as the season’s moved along (see 246 yards per game, 5.3 yards per carry). MSU isn’t quite as deep up front as last year, but the Spartans do have about seven reliable linemen, who have all been battle tested.
The left tackle Jack Conklin (So., 6-6, 303) is an intriguing story, rising from freshman walk-on to a starter as a redshirt freshman. Now a sophomore, Conklin has developed into a potential pro prospect. He has yet to allow a sack, and has looked terrific in pass protection so far in 2014. Conklin’s also a potent downhill run blocker, who has consistently gotten a good push off the ball.
Left guard Travis Jackson (Sr., 6-4, 291), meanwhile, was banged up early during the fall, but is now back into the flow. A converted center, he’s developed into a reliable, steady left guard now that he’s over early-season back spasms. He's had some issues in pass protection, but his return has helped spur Michigan State’s running game, as Jackson typically gains leverage and creates creases.
The team’s second best offensive lineman, however, is Jack Allen (Jr., 6-2, 299), a nasty center with a mean streak, who routinely controls the opposition’s interior defensive tackles. He’s also a three-year starter with all the qualities typically associated with a solid center (cerebral, reads keys well, good chemistry with his linemates). Allen is considered an all-around good blocker, someone who keeps blitzers that shoot through the A-gaps at bay, while generating a consistent push off the ball too.
One of the reasons MSU’s running game got off to a relatively slow start was starting right guard Connor Kruse’s (Sr., 6-5, 325) injury. Since his return, though, the Spartans have excelled, and Kruse has helped key the attack. This 325 pounder is another big nasty up front, who has been known to open up bus-sized lanes for his running backs.
The right tackle, though, has had an inconsistent campaign thus far. Donavon Clark (Jr., 6-4, 306) struggled with run blocking when filling in for Kruse at right guard, and while he’s performed better at tackle, he’s still been up-and-down. Clark, however, does have a good kick step and has been up-to-snuff in pass protection.
The main backup at tackle is Kodi Kieler (So., 6-6, 304), who did a solid job filling in at right tackle when Clark shifted to guard. Kieler, like Allen, is known for his nastiness up front, and rotates in quite a bit when MSU’s playing power football.
One other lineman to note is guard/center Brian Allen (Fr., 6-2, 294), who is Jack Allen’s younger brother. Even though he’s just a freshman, Allen’s shown plenty of promise and has advanced technique for his experience level. Allen still has work to do, but he’s a reliable rotational guy, who has filled in at both guard spots, in addition to center.
Under renowned eighth-year defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State is once again stifling its foes’ offensive attacks. The Spartans sit 10th in the FBS at 311.4 total yards allowed per game, are holding opponents to 114.6 rushing yards per (14th in the FBS) and a 196.9 passing yard average (23rd in the FBS). Teams are scoring 23.4 points per game against MSU (41st in the FBS), but average just 5.1 yards per play and have converted only 31.7 percent of third downs (14th in the FBS). On top of that, the Spartans have produced 30 sacks (10th in the FBS) and have limited teams to a 24:35-minute time-of-possession average. MSU has allowed 17 redzone touchdowns on 24 attempts, however, which is one of the main reasons they're allowing 23.4 points per game. That said, Michigan State has demoralized offenses by racking up turnovers at a dizzying rate (10 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries).
At first glance, MSU sits in a base 4-3, but it’s technically a “4-3 Over” with quarters coverage, also known as a cover-4. Once in awhile the Spartans might show a 3-4 front, but the majority of the time they feature four down linemen.
The highly adjustable cover-4, predicated on gap-control, is designed to stuff the run and limit bubble passes. Typically the Spartans line their two safeties up in the box, acting as pseudo linebackers, while their cornerbacks sit on an island and play bump-and-run. Michigan State dares opponents to beat them up top with the pass, and while the Spartans have been burned a few times, for the most part they’ve had success.
While MSU is known for its disciplined, gap-control, read-and-react style, the Spartans will blitz (it’s almost always a zone blitz), typically sending a linebacker or safety through the A-gap. The Spartans also like to switch things up on third down, often opting for their “STAR” package. Sometimes they’ll bring in an extra linebacker (Mylan Hicks) to help defend in space, while on third-and-long situations they like to use STAR safety (Demetrious Cox) to limit downfield passing plays.
The defense’s most talented unit, this four-man front has stifled opposing running games to the tune of 3.8 yards per carry, while helping produce almost a third of the team’s total sacks.
On the exterior, defensive ends Shilique Calhoun (Jr., 6-5, 256) and Marcus Rush (Sr., 6-3, 251) have combined for 10 quarterback takedowns this year. Calhoun, for his part, is an NFL-caliber speed rusher who has 6.5 sacks, eight quarterback hits and 10 tackles for loss this year (40 total tackles). He’s also recovered a fumble and blocked a kick on special teams. An athletic specimen, Calhoun has an explosive first step, easily disengages and takes tight closing angles. He needs a bit more power at the point of attack, but he’s had his share of success against some solid offensive tackles. Calhoun used to be somewhat of a liability in run defense, but this year he’s improved, developing into a solid edge setter.
Marcus Rush, meanwhile, is a four-year starter who is closing in on the most starts in school history. He is currently playing his best football and may be the most consistent, reliable Spartan on the squad. He’s a heady end who reads well, is an avid run stuffer and can get to the quarterback (although not quite as often as Calhoun). Plus he’s athletic enough to defend in space and track backs down the line. For the season, Rush has 31 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, six breakups, four quarterback hits, and a forced fumble.
The starting interior linemen are defensive tackle Joel Heath (Jr., 6-6, 285) and nose Lawrence Thomas (Jr., 6-4, 309). Heath used to play defensive end, but he’s moved inside this year and been particularly disruptive. An agile, nimble tackle, Heath uses his quick feet and point-of-attack power to press the pocket and plug running lanes. Although not the bulkiest interior force out there, he does a decent job taking on blocks and freeing up the linebackers. Heath has 18 stops, two tackles for loss, a sack and three quarterback hits this year. Heath had a key sack last week against OSU.
Thomas, though, may be having an even better season than Heath. A former five-star linebacker, he’s made a smooth transition to the trenches. Thomas is explosive off the ball and has routinely gained a step advantage on offensive linemen this year. A backfield buster who can rush the passer, Thomas has 19 tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and a fumble recovery. Moreover, Thomas is big enough to take on multiple blockers, acting as a space eater if needed.
The main rotational lineman for Michigan State is defensive tackle Malik McDowell (Fr., 6-6, 286). This freshman has awesome length, gets into offensive linemen’s bodies and has generated plenty of pressure. He has 10 stops, 1.5 tackles for loss, a half sack and two quarterback hits thus far.
The No. 4 defensive tackle, Damon Knox (Jr., 6-5, 280), was supposed to be a starter, but has been working back from injury. Once he fully regains his form, though, Knox has the talent to start on most Big Ten defensive lines.
The Spartans go four deep at defensive tackle, but they’re a little thin at the end spots. Beyond the two mainstay edge rushers, no one else has really emerged as a rotational edge presence. Demetrius Cooper (Fr., 6-5, 246) has talent to him, but he hasn’t been consistent so far this year. He has seven tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in 2014.
Michigan State’s linebacker core had to replace three starters from last year, and the new guys did suffer through some early bumps. This group still has some inconsistencies, as seen against Ohio State, but they’ve progressed as the year has moved along.
Outside linebacker Darien Harris (Jr., 6-0, 231), a former DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) star, has good speed and has been decent in coverage. He’s had tackling issues, however, and isn’t the most reliable defender in space, although he’s made his share of momentum-swinging plays. For the season, Harris has 37 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a half sack, an interception, a breakup, two quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Middle linebacker Taiwan Jones (Sr., 6-3, 252) has steadily improved to the point where he’s taken control of the defense. He has solid speed and moves well laterally, but he’s most effective when plugging the gaps. Jones has proven to be a sound run stuffer, who diagnoses well and rarely allows leaky yardage. He’s been a consistent backfield presence too, either taking down runners behind the line or getting to the quarterback. For the season, Jones has 43 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, an interception, three breakups, a quarterback hit and a fumble recovery.
Ed Davis (Jr., 6-3, 242), meanwhile, mans the SAM linebacker spot and is the squad’s main pass rusher. He’s an elusive, agile blitzer, who slips by blockers and has developed a knack for getting to the quarterback. Davis isn’t the best at disengaging, but that hasn’t stopped him from racking up 38 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, six sacks and five quarterback hits. He also has two breakups and a forced fumble.
When Michigan State employs its STAR linebacker package, Mylan Hicks (Sr., 5-11, 197) is typically the go-to guy. Hicks did miss five weeks with a broken arm, but he should be back for the Maryland game. Hicks is a quick, speedy converted safety, who is known for his coverage abilities. In five games this year he has a dozen stops, a tackle for loss, a sack and four pass defenses.
Another rotational linebacker who sees significant time is Riley Bullough (So., 6-2, 227), who rotates in at SAM. Playing mainly on third-and-short situations, Bullough is a stout, blow-it-up type who excels at defending the run. For the season he has 19 tackles, two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.
Chris Frey (Fr., 6-2, 220) and Joe Reschke (Fr., 6-2, 236) both saw more time earlier in 2014, but they’ve mainly been relegated to special teams duty in Big Ten play. Frey still gets in a few defensive snaps, however, and he has 15 tackles and a fumble recovery so far this year.
Despite playing two safeties in the box, Michigan State’s secondary has held passing games to 196.9 yards per game and 6.5 yards per pass, while surrendering 11 touchdowns this year. The Buckeyes exposed MSU somewhat last week, beating them vertically and exposing the Spartans' field corner, but against most teams the cornerbacks have held their own in press coverage.
Field corner Darian Hicks (So., 5-10, 180), the No. 2 cornerback, had been decent in his first year starting. He’s on the shorter side, but he’s fast and had been fairly sticky, limiting downfield completions -- that is, until the Ohio State bout. Before the Nov. 8 game he'd been OK, but Hicks had had some fundamental issues and blew three coverages against the Buckeyes. Hicks has had a few fundamental issues, and has been caught peeking into the backfield, and as OSU proved, he can be beaten deep if matched up against an elite FBS wideout. Hicks has 22 tackles, one tackle for loss, a half sack, an interception and seven pass defenses this year.
The top cover man, though, is boundary corner Trae Waynes (Jr., 6-1, 182). A long defender with 4.4 40-yard dash speed, Waynes has excelled at shadowing wideouts, maintaining inside position and knocking guys off their routes. Waynes, who is relied upon in run support as well, does have to improve his tackling, but as a cover corner he’s become a shutdown defender. For the season, Waynes has 32 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, two picks, 12 pass defenses and a fumble recovery.
The two backup corners, Arjen Colquhoun (Jr., 6-1, 195) and Jermaine Edmondson (So., 6-0, 182), have seen action, but neither plays significant snaps. For the time being, MSU is choosing to ride and die with Waynes and Hicks.
At safety, Kurtis Drummond (Sr., 6-1, 202) may lead the team in tackles, but he hasn’t played up to his potential thus far. When offenses have had success against Michigan State’s defense, they’ve attacked the middle by getting the safeties to bite on play-action.
An in-the-box defender, Drummond has had some issues dropping back and recovering deep, despite his two interceptions. He does his best work coming forward, cutting down running backs or jumping routes in the flat. Drummond is adept at picking up tight ends who range into his area, but may struggle against quick-twitch, elite receivers who go up top. For the season he has a team-high 50 tackles, three tackles for loss, two picks, 16 pass defenses and a fumble recovery.
The strong safety spot features a rotation of R.J. Williamson (Jr., 6-0, 214) and Montae Nicholson (Fr., 6-2, 209), though Williamson has received the nod as of late. Williamson has played well recently, but he’s had eye-discipline troubles and been taken to task before. But, like Drummond, he’s a very solid tackler and gap stuffer, recording 45 stops so far in 2014. And while receivers have gotten behind him, Williamson has been opportunistic, snagging two interceptions and tallying 10 breakups.
Nicholson showed flashes of potential earlier this year, starting three games, but he too has had some pass defense struggles. He still gets his share of snaps, but for now Williamson sees the bulk of the action. Nicholson has 23 tackles and two fumble recoveries this year, including one last week.
The third safety, who comes in on third down when MSU employs its STAR nickel package, is Demetrious Cox (So., 6-1, 200). Much was expected of the supremely talented Cox, and while he’s been decent in his assigned role, he hasn’t done enough to unseat the starters. Sometimes Cox suffers judgment errors, drawing the ire of the staff, but he has big-play potential and has come up with two turnovers in 2014 (a fumble forced and a fumble recovery). Last week he had a big sack against OSU that stalled an early drive.
The Spartans’ special teams has been an enigma thus far, with issues in the kicking game and with their coverage units. Kicker Michael Geiger (So., 5-8, 189) missed field goals in five straight games, and his confidence seems to waver in pressure situations. Geiger was solid last season, but this fall his kicks have lacked power, while his accuracy has waned as well. Geiger is 8-of-14 this year, with misses from 39, 41, 36, 44, 42 and 36 yards. His long this year is only 42 yards.
Despite Geiger’s struggles, the MSU staff has maintained public support, thus far refusing to give kickoff specialist Kevin Cronin (So., 6-1, 213) a look. Cronin has sent half his boots into the endzone and looks to have a strong leg, but the staff has yet to hint he’ll be given a chance at field goals.
The punter, Mike Sadler (Sr., 6-0, 175), has had some issues as well, though not as glaring as Geiger’s. Sadler had knee surgery during the offseason, and some have surmised it sapped his strength. He’s done well placing the ball inside the 20-yard line (12 punts in the redzone), and he’s been fairly precise, but Sadler’s sent just two boots more than 50 yards and is averaging 40.4 yards per punt, putting him in the bottom half of the FBS for punters.
Michigan State’s return men haven’t busted out yet, either, but both have home-run hitting potential. Kick returner R.J. Shelton (So., 5-11, 204) is an explosive open-field runner, and if he’s given a seam it’s off to the races. Shelton has a long of 59 yards this year and is picking up 22.1 yards per bringback.
Punt returner MacGarrett Kings Jr. (Jr., 5-10, 186) is similarly fleet of foot, with enough shiftiness to make defenders miss in the open field. Kings can get a little cocky, though, and has shown a reluctance to call for a fair catch. For the season, he’s averaging 5.8 yards per return, with a long of 43.
In terms of coverage units, Michigan State’s gunners have been subpar defending punts, allowing 11.8 yards per bringback (110th in the FBS). The Spartans have been OK on kickoffs, allowing 21.27 yards per return, which ranks in the middle of the FBS.
Opponent Preview: Michigan State
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