Keys to the Season for MSU football

Those who follow GSN know that we were the first to correctly predict in the spring that John Masters would be replaced at center, and that wide receiver T.J. Williams would contend for playing time. Now we outline our 13-point plan to get John L. Smith's Spartans into the Rose Bowl.

OKEMOS, MI - Welcome to the 2006 MSU football season. Lot's of excitement and hope ahead for this season as we take a look at some of the keys that will be important for the Spartans to accomplish the year they hope to have.

Those who follow GSN know that we were the first to correctly predict in the spring that John Masters would be replaced at center, and that wide receiver TJ Williams would contend for playing time.

We now bring you that same insight here, and an indepth look at what the Spartans will need to do to improve on last years 5-6 mark. So what do the Spartans need to do to have a big year? Let's get to those keys:

1. IMPROVE SECONDARY PLAY - MSU was absymal in attempting to cover receivers last season, in fact, it cost them more than two other weak areas-spotty special teams play, and a poor pass rush.

The Spartans plummeted in pass defense ranking's last year giving up a 60.6 percent completion rate with a whopping twenty-five touchdowns to just eight interceptions. To add insult to injury, they came at the worst moments.

They simply could not stop Notre Dame through the air in the fourth quarter, and barely won in overtime. UM burned them with a 44-yard touchdown pass to set the tone early in that game.

Despite dominating Ohio State on the road, the Buckeyes came up with touchdown passes of 51-yards, 57-yards, and 46-yards to offset MSU's huge first down, yardage, and time of possession advantage.

Even Minnesota, known for their running attack under Glen Mason, burned them for 312 yards through the air. It's also one thing to give up passing yards, it's quite another to be burned with big plays for touchdowns as the Spartans have the last couple of years. That must change.

Otis Wiley will be at one safety, with hard-hitting newcomer Nehemiah Warrick at the other. Greg Cooper moves to one corner, with Demond Williams at the other. This certainly looks like a more athletic secondary than years past, and they can hit, especially Warrick. So I expect them in to be much better in run support.

However, can they cover the pass?

This will say a lot about how much the Spartans will accomplish this season. Also, with the injury to Ross Weaver, this unit suddenly got much thinner, and some young and untested players will have to be ready to go in if further injury occurs.

2. IMPROVED PASS RUSH - This goes almost hand in hand with good secondary play, yet even in 2003 when the Spartans racked up 45 sacks, and held opponents to 3.2 yards per carry on the ground, MSU still got burnt through the air.

Yet, last year they gave up a whopping 4.6 yards per carry, and only accounted for 16 sacks, so certainly a good pass rush should help the play of the Spartan secondary this year.

The thinking is that a pass rush will cause pressure and more errant throws from the quarterback. In this system in 2003, quarterbacks were running for their lives, but still finding open receivers downfield.

Therefore it will be important for the secondary to play their man through the whistle and not give them open space. However, it should be noted than an improved pass rush with this scheme does not gurantee success in the secondary, as we have found out previously.

The addition of JUCO defensive end Ervin Baldwin, and JUCO defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo, who combined for nearly twenty-five sacks last year should help.

The MSU defensive line has good depth, and this should keep people fresh. Justin Kershaw, Brandon Long, Bobby Jones have all improved, as has solid long time starter Cliff Ryan. Keep an eye on reserve defensive end Jonal St-Dic, who can also rush the passer and may surprise.

3. IMPROVED RED ZONE OFFENSE - Offensive Cordinator Dave Baldwin took some heat after the Michigan game last year for questional play calling in the red zone. Some even mentioned he was over thinking the situation. Even coach Baldwin admits there was problems in the red zone, but he points to another legitimate reason, and that is, turnovers.

He says that nearly half of MSU's turnovers came deep in enemy territory. Ball protection emphasis will be important. Yet it is the chicken and egg theory. Do turnovers come from lack of care with the ball, a lack of belief in a play called, or trying to do too much with the ball?

Certainly at times, Drew Stanton was trying to force the ball via the air into places it wouldn't fit. Some would say that had better plays had been called, that wouldn't have happened to begin with, and perhaps these people are right as well.

We believe that plays designed to move the ball "between the twenty's" should be a little different than those in the red zone when the defense is covering a shorter field. Perhaps a few new plays along with better ball protection will get the job done.

4. BE MORE PHYSICAL AND ATTACK - Newcomer Nehemiah Warrick has brought the "hit first, ask questions second" mentality to the secondary and it has been contagious for the defense throughout the spring and fall. Inexplicably however, it hasn't been there in the past.

The Spartans need to be more more physical, especially on defense to win more games this year. When opponents receivers hear footsteps, and runners don't run with the same abandonment, and quarterbacks are nervous in the pocket, you have a huge advantage. In fact, some argue that MSU hasn't had a hard-hitting defense since George Perles was coach. If there was a time to be more aggressive and attack the opponent, this is the year.

5. DEVELOP THE OFFENSIVE LINE - The Spartans lost All-Everything center Chris Morris to the NFL draft. Underrated guard Gordon Niebylski has also moved on. On paper this could be a more athletic line than in the past, but will take time to jell.

Center John Masters, slated to be the heir apparent to Morris, was overtaken during fall camp by Kyle Cook, who moves over from guard. Guard Roland Martin was considered one of the top offensive linemen in high school, but has yet to live up to and perform at those expectations. Mike Gyetvai has flipped over to the left tackle position to protect Drew Stanton's backside at the right tackle position.

Gyetvai was a devastating run blocker on the right side but now will have to make sure his pass blocking skills are top flight on the left side. Pete Clifford will start at left guard and will have to jell with the other guys quickly. Jesse Miller has surprised at right tackle and there is great promise there. Let's hope Offensive line Coach Jeff Stoutland can also curb the frequent false start and holding penalties as well.

6. DEEP PASSING GAME - There has been talk regarding having the offense work for Drew Stanton this year, and not forcing things, and I agree. However, I believe you must keep the defense honest by taking an occasional shot down the field, otherwise defenders are going to jump the short passing game and take away space.

Even if it is a long incompletion, it prevents defenders from coming up too quickly and jumping receivers in the short passing game. A hitch and go, or a bomb or two would work. In keeping with this subject, Stanton's trajectory on the long pass in the spring was rather flat.

Steve Spurrier teaches the "lofted" pass that receivers can run underneath to give them a chance to catch the ball. Low trajectory often means an incompletion or intercepted pass. Hopefully the Spartans can get on the same page with the long passing game this year.

7. DROPPED PASSES - The Spartans have dropped their share of passes in the fall camp. This problem is easily corrected by keeping the hands soft and "looking the ball into their hands."

Matt Trannon especially has had problem in this area of his game, and if he hopes to reach his goal of a potential NFL draft choice, he'll have to correct that.

8. PUNT PROTECTION - Brandon Fields is a great punter when he feels comfortable and protected, when he does not, it hasn't been pretty. If MSU can protect the punter adequately, Fields will become a major weapon in terms of field position.

9. FOCUS AND FINISH GAMES - Drew Stanton mentioned that premature bowl talk last year threw the Spartans off track. Yet that seems to be the history at MSU and the difficulty of dealing with success. This year Stanton will receive Heisman hype, and the Spartans will be only as good as the focus they exhibit on the field, and how they finish both games and the season.

MSU has started the last six seasons with records of 3-0, 5-2, 3-2, 7-1, 4-3, and 4-0 out of the gate, but have had a record of 5-15 in November. They also had leads in many games only to falter in the last five minutes.

Few Spartans will forget the Rutgers, La. Tech, and UM games the last couple of years. In other words, the Spartans need to beat the teams they are expected to beat, and upset a few along the way. It may seem cheesy, but the adage, "one game at a time, one play at a time" seems to hold water here.

10. TIGHT END PLAY-This position is a little thin and will need to improve. Kellen Davis is a big target at 6-foot-6, and can get deep in the secondary, but his blocking thus far needs improvement.

Dwayne Holmes has good girth at 277-pounds, and is a good blocker, but he provides a short target at 6-feet even as a converted linebacker. Junior Eric Andino comes over from the defense, also as a converted linebacker. True freshman Charlie Gantt might have to be used sooner than expected unless some of these other guys produce.

11. SPECIAL TEAMS - Yes, MSU couldn't kick field goals last year, but I feel confident that Brett Swenson and Todd Boleski will able to get the job done this year. Swenson is a confident true freshman who can quickly put a bad kick behind him, and yet he hasn't had too many of those in fall camp, converting on ten of his first ten attempts.

Boleski had a strong spring, and exhibited a strong leg, and likely will be used on long field goal attempts. Boleski also will kick off. So if Swenson can keep his job, and Boleski can boom kickoffs, and Brandon Fields returns to form as a punter, MSU could actually go to one of the better kicking teams in the Big Ten if not the nation. Maybe.

12. KEEP JAVON RINGER HEALTHY - Most would mention keeping Drew Stanton healthy as well and I agree, but Brian Hoyer has really improved, and MSU could fill a hole there adequately.

However, Ringer and his home run speed and versatility would be difficult to replace. Consider this, not only is Ringer the starting running back, but he will be the edge rusher on punt returns, and will return kickoffs ala DeAndra Cobb.

Keeping Ringer fresh will help the Spartans as the season goes on. AJ Jimmerson is a solid replacement, but doesn't quite have Ringers speed, and Jehuu Caulcrick plans to run over defenders this fall. These guys are solid and important, but Ringer could be special.

13. BETTER COACHING - If the players are going to "play their tails off" ala the Ohio State game, one should expect good coaching to go with it.

MSU rode in the UM and OSU games with a lot of promise, and yet, after emotional losses against both teams, the coaches could not get the players to recover in a season ending tail spin.

Better scheming in the secondary defending the pass, on offense in the red zone, and in setting up correctly for kicks would help. It also seemed like against the "big boys", the players were expecting to win, and the coaches were "hoping" to win, and that, is a big difference.

It is the difference between dominating statistically as MSU has in recent years, and actually winning on the scoreboard.

It's time for MSU to take the next step and win on the scoreboard.

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