State faces must win situation in opener

The Michigan State's opener against Gary Darnell's Western Michigan University Broncos is as big as "must win" situation as there has ever been for the Spartan football team. They simply cannot afford to lose this one - or for that matter any of their first three ball games - if they intend to have a successful season.

2003 OPENING GAME: MICHIGAN STATE (4-8 in 2002) VS WESTERN MICHIGAN (4-8 in 2002)
SPARTAN STADIUM, EAST LANSING, MI 3:40 PM KICKOFF
TELEVISION: ESPN PLUS (REGIONAL)
LAST MEETING: Sept. 6, 1997, EAST LANSING, MI MICHIGAN STATE 42, WESTERN MICHIGAN 10
ALL TIME RECORD: MICHIGAN STATE 4-2

(EAST LANSING) - C'mon, how can an opener be a "must win" for Michigan State? After all, if they drop this one, there are ten more chances to turn it around, right?

Wrong, dead wrong.

The Michigan State's opener against Gary Darnell's Western Michigan University Broncos is as big as "must win" situation as there has ever been for the Spartan football team. They simply cannot afford to lost this one - or for that matter any of their first three ball games - if they intend to have a successful season.

Much has been made of MSU's spread offense which features at times four, five or even six wide receivers. The offense relies on quick decisions by an accurate quarterback with little margin for error. That is the reason that MSU went with senior quarterback Jeff Smoker ahead of rising star and redshirt freshman Drew Stanton. Smoker, prior to his battles with substance abuse, was one of the nations top collegiate quarterbacks and even thought of in some circles as a dark horse Heisman candidate.

Spartan Stadium was draped with billboard sized posters of the junior-to-be going into the 2002 season because it was expected that he would have a banner year after a Citrus Bowl win to end the 2001 season under new head coach Bobby Williams. But it all fell apart with Smoker being suspended and the Spartans grinding to a 4-8 campaign that led to Williams firing in mid-season.

Now Smoker is back in charge of new coach John L. Smith's spread offense that is vulnerable to pressure from the edges. Therein lies the challenge of Western Michigan pass rusher extrodinaire Jason Babin.

Babin, who recorded a school record 15 sacks last year, hopes Smoker's decision making is just a little off. To help disrupt the Spartans offense, expect the Broncos to continue to line up in their non-traditional 4-2-5 defensive set but the scheme will suffer from the loss of both starting corners, Anthony Carr and Sam Reynolds, due to academics. Smoker should be licking his chops at the thought of facing two inexperienced corners.

The Spartans will run out all-American candidate Eric Knott at the starting tight end position and senior Ziehl Kavanaght and sophomore Kyle Brown are expected to start at the wide receiver along with sophomore Agim Shabaj. Former quarterback Aaron Alexander and sophomore Matt Trannon will also get extended playing time against the Broncos.

Western would love to move the football against the thin Spartan defense. While MSU has talent at nearly every position, they have very little experienced depth. Western will run out senior quarterback Chad Munson (6-3, 210-lbs, Torrance, CA) a junior college transfer from Compton, CA. Munson is talented but erratic, throwing 17 interceptions combined with 14 touchdown passes, not the ratio Darnell desires. If Munson falters, fellow senior Jonathan Drach will be waiting in the wings for his shot.

The Broncos would love to unleash running back Phillip Reed on the Spartans. Reed rushed for 1,053 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2002 and if he had a better supporting cast, he would be a threat to repeat that feat. But with only one returning starter, an inexperienced Broncos offensive line likely wont hold up against the Spartans front four, but Reed remains a threat.

Outlook: Spartans may sputter early, but look for them to wear down whatever the Broncos have in the second half.

PICK: Look for John L. Smith to make this a statement game.
Michigan State 52 - Western Michigan 24


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