Spying the Spartans

Shannon Shelton, who covers the Michigan State beat for the Detroit Free Press, joins Purple Reign for an email exchange to help break down Northwestern's visit to East Lansing. Inside, Shelton discusses how MSU fans feel about the team's 3-3 record, which of the numerous injured Spartans will play Saturday, and of course offers up a prediction.

Of football's innumerable life lessons, one of the most intriguing to Purple Reign is that the subjectivity of the word "success" is so beautifully and clearly revealed.

For example, there are probably oodles of Oklahoma fans who are more than a little bummed to be stuck at 3-2 after playing for the national title last season. But after it's 3-9 campaign in 2008, Syracuse's 2-4 mark probably strikes some Orange fans as downright acceptable.

Thus, whenever opposing teams' writers indulge Purple Reign in an email exchange, one of the first questions is how the team stacks up to people's expectations. This week's opponent, Michigan State, provides a case study in the subjective nature of how people view success.

The Spartans are 3-3, a truly ambiguous record. Some teams would be happy that bowl eligibility is within their grasp, but others would be ticked that the Top 25 is – for the time being, at least – a pipedream.

So while the "What do fans and players and coaches think" inquiry is always a pet question of PR, this week, with Michigan State, it is especially pertinent.

On the surface, it seems as though expectations would have been pretty high after last season. After all, MSU went 9-4, and its only losses were:

at Cal, which went 9-4 itself
to Ohio State, which went to a BCS bowl
at Penn State, which also went to a BCS bowl
vs Georgia, the preseason No. 1, in the Citrus Bowl

That's a good season, right? Sure, the Spartans didn't down any heavy-hitters, but they beat Notre Dame, they won at Michigan and they ended the season firmly planted inside the Top 25. Oh, they also handed Northwestern one of its worst losses of the season, a 17-point beatdown (that could have been worse) in Evanston in mid-October.

So Sparty seemingly had a lot of mojo or juju or whatever it is that teams have when they are coming off stellar seasons. Yeah, MSU lost its starting quarterback and running back to graduation, but we're not talking about some upstart operation over in East Lansing. Surely there were players waiting in the wings.

At least that's what pollsters and pundits thought. Along with being tabbed No. 3 or No. 4 in the Big Ten by a bevy of preseason publications and prognosticators, Michigan State was poised to crack the Top 25 after its 44-3 Week 1 win over Montana State. The Spartans were a measly six votes away from nabbing the No. 25 spot – MSU had 133 votes, No. 25 Kansas had 139 – in the USA Today poll.

But after that, things seem to have taken a dive for the Spartans. Or at least that's the way it looks from the outside.

To get an insider's view, Purple Reign is excited to bring in Shannon Shelton, who covers Michigan State for the Detroit Free Press and authors an MSU blog here.

Alright, Shannon. Before we get to MSU's injury report – which is the size of the House's health-care proposal – let's first talk about where the team is at. Or more specifically, where the team is at compared to where people thought it'd be at.

Of the MSU's three losses, two of them are pretty easy to rationalize – at Notre Dame and at Wisconsin. The Central Michigan game seems a little tougher to explain, but at the same time, CMU is 5-1, plus no Spartan loss has come by more than eight points; the combined margin of defeat is just 13 points.

Plus there's still that win against Michigan, and with Northwestern, Minnesota, Western Michigan and Purdue all coming up in the next five weeks, there are some very winnable games on the docket.

But maybe that's too rosy of an assessment. What's this 3-3 mark look like to Spartan fans?

Shannon Shelton: Right now, Spartan fans are sighing with relief about the team's 3-3 record. After MSU lost its third-consecutive game, a 38-30 defeat at Wisconsin, fans had already declared the season as a loss and were looking ahead to next year. Some started to break out that old chestnut, "When does basketball season start?" That's been a question that's soothed Spartan fans through multiple losing seasons, as they've known that Izzo and Co., would at least come through with winning campaigns each year.

But wait – MSU beat Michigan 26-20 in overtime in Week 5, and the losing streak ended in the sweetest of ways for Spartan fans. That was the second-consecutive win over the Wolverines, MSU's hated rival "down the road," and the Spartans hadn't won consecutive games against U-M since 1967. Although the Spartans were just 2-3, the Michigan win rejuvenated fans and the team itself, and MSU marched into Champaign and laid a 24-14 drubbing on a hapless Illinois team. The game was not as close as the score indicated, as the Illini scored its second touchdown with less than two minutes left in the game.

Now MSU is 3-3, and more importantly, 2-1 in the Big Ten. As head coach Mark Dantonio mentioned, that record puts them in the hunt for the conference title, and Wisconsin, the one team that defeated MSU, is also 2-1 now that it lost to Ohio State.

MSU doesn't play the Buckeyes, increasing the Spartans' chances of clinching at least a share of the conference title.

If you had asked Spartan fans at the beginning of the season how they would have felt about being 3-3 at this juncture, most would have considered that record incredibly disappointing, considering the high expectations the Spartans had entering the season. Knowing that the three losses would come in consecutive fashion against Central Michigan (shudder), Notre Dame and Wisconsin might have made Spartans fans even more despondent.

Looking back though, Central Michigan might be the best team in the state. The Notre Dame loss hurt, but the Spartans were hurt by an interception from a sophomore quarterback with lots of upside. Wisconsin might have been the only contest where MSU simply wasn't in the game.

Beating Michigan heals plenty of wounds though, and following it up with another victory can turn a team's fortunes around quite quickly. Is the MSU community thrilled with 3-3? No. But considering how much worse it could have gotten, Spartan fans are quite pleased to know that their team was able to recover, and is now aiming to go 3-1 in the conference, 4-3 overall, against Northwestern this weekend.

Plus, MSU fans haven't forgotten that Iowa was 3-3 at this point last season. Things worked out quite well for the Hawkeyes in the end.

And for an even more obscure note – when MSU has finished September with only one win, but beaten Michigan in the fifth game of the season, the Spartans have won the Big Ten title. It happened in 1978, 1987 and 1990. Look it up – it's true!

Purple Reign: Ha! The type of tidbit only an insider could provide!

That's interesting how much the Michigan win seems to have changed perception. It's a testament to the fact that "please" and "displeased," "content" and "bummed," are all so relative.

Northwestern is a good example of this, as well. Really, 4-2 isn't bad. Especially for a team that three seasons ago won just four games all season. But there are factors that make that 4-2 mark a bit discouraging. First off, the manner in which the team lost those two: A last-second field goal against Syracuse and, the next week, a fumble spree by Mike Kafka that undermined a potentially game-winning drive and ballooned a once-close score.

What's more, the schedule gets exceedingly more difficult, starting this weekend. No more Towsons, no more Miami (Ohio)s, no more Eastern Michigans (even though those last two weren't cakewalks). From here on out, the schedule is populated with Penn State and Michigan State and Wisconsin and Iowa. So while 4-2 in a vacuum isn't too bad, it's a lot worse when you consider (a) how those two losses happened and (b) what the Wildcats face down the road. It's going to be tough to find four more wins.

Anyway, moving on to this weekend's game, let's talk about some Michigan State injuries – of which there are a bunch. As you reported here, running back Glenn Winston has been lost for the season after tearing up his knee in last week's win over Illinois. And as you reported here, last week's starting quarterback, Keith Nichol, injured his elbow in the waning minutes against the Illini. And he was only the starter because the usual starter, Kirk Cousins, had a bum ankle.

Let's start with the quarterbacks, because injuries aside, that's been an interesting position all season for the Spartans. Purple Reign doesn't quite understand the QB shuffle that's been going on. To be fair, the Spartans have had lots of success passing the ball, so it's hard to indict the system. But this rotation is still strange.

So Nichol, a transfer from Oklahoma, and Cousins, a team caption, split time, yeah? Cousins has 125 attempts on the season, Nichol 75. Again, it's worked pretty well thus far. The Spartans are first in the conference in passing yards per game with 280. They are also No. 4 in the conference in scoring at 30.2 points per game – just three points behind Michigan's 33 per outing. MSU is also No. 2 in total offense – 423.8 yards per game – and No. 1 in team pass efficiency.

Thus, the quarterback shuffling or swapping or rotating or whatever you call it has apparently achieved its objective. But that's PR's question: What's the objective? What's the point? These quarterbacks seem, on paper, pretty similar. They're both sophomores; one is 6-2 and 215 pounds and the other is 6-3 and 205 pounds; neither seems to be much of a scrambler. What's the rhyme and reason behind this quarterback rotation? Also, any guesses on what's going to happen at quarterback this week? How's Cousins' ankle? How's Nichol's elbow? If both QBs are hurt, is it redshirt-burning time?

Staying in the backfield, what's the loss of Glenn Winston mean for MSU? Winston tore up his knee last week and is going to miss the rest of the year. In some ways, that doesn't seem like too big of a deal – on the season he was averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, had a long of 23 yards and scored but two touchdowns. At the same time, though, his 60 carries are tied for the team lead. What will his absence mean for the Spartans? More redshirt-burning?

Finally, it's a time-honored tradition – four weeks running! – to close these out with predictions. Purple Reign is a batting .000 after calling for close wins against Syracuse and Minnesota and instead getting close losses in each. The inverse happened against Purdue: The prediction was a close loss, the result was a close win. So don't put too much stock into PR's prediction (except maybe for the fact that it has been wrong a perfect 100 percent of the time…remember that if you're a gambler.)

It's hard for Northwestern fans to feel good about this week. Sure, NU has a better record than Michigan State, but there are so many discouraging signs: The Cats beat Eastern Michigan on a last second field; they got six turnovers from Purdue and still barely won; winless Miami (Ohio) was never totally out of last week's contest; the running game has been a liability for several weeks now.

Thus, Purple Reign is on blowout alert. Not only did the Spartans manhandle NU last season in Evanston, but NU just hasn't shown well recently. Sure, Michigan State has some injury issues, which should work to Northwestern's advantage. But this game is still scary. Keeping in mind that a Purple Reign forecast hasn't been worth much, the final score will be 34-17 Michigan State.

What do you think?

Shelton:There have been many moments this season when media members have asked the same question about the quarterback rotation. It's gotten to the point where some of us speculate about conspiracy theories – that Nichol, as a highly ranked recruit, was considered the heir apparent to the QB starting spot and would win it easily over Cousins, an afterthought recruit from tiny Holland Christian High.

Hey, if Oklahoma wants you, you've got to be automatically good, right?

But wait – Cousins has been much better than most could have imagined and Nichol hasn't been the second coming of, well, MSU isn't exactly known as Quarterback U. The point is, if the job was Nichol's to win, he hasn't done anything to put himself so far ahead of Cousins to make the choice an obvious one. In fact, Cousins simply has looked to be the better quarterback in all facets of the game. That doesn't mean that Nichol has played poorly – he simply has not done enough to put him ahead in the race. He was serviceable in a full game against Illinois, but for those expecting Nichol to finally make the most of such an opportunity to dominate a game, they simply did not see it happen.

Because Nichol is "day-to-day," as of Thursday (according to Dantonio), my bet is on Cousins to play the entire game. Cousins' ankle is fine, and he could have played against Illinois, but one benefit of the quarterback rotation has been that MSU hasn't had to rush a slightly injured player back onto the field because of a lack of options under center.

If both are hurt, Dantonio has indicated that he will burn the redshirt of true freshman Andrew Maxwell, another top recruit in the 2009 class. Maxwell is said to be just as talented as his sophomore counterparts, but just younger. Could there be a three-way competition and rotation next season? My head hurts to think about how we'll cover that all year!

Moving on to running back, the loss of Glenn Winston will hurt, as he was just beginning to show how well he could perform when he had a decent offensive line blocking for him and when he finally learned the schemes. Don't be fooled by his average statistics – they were improving each week. He also liked to run over defenders (check the tape) and was hard to bring down as a big, bruising rusher.

Dantonio will also consider a redshirt burning at this position to bring back true freshman Edwin Baker, yet another big instate recruit. Baker only played one game this season. Dantonio will try not to do that though, and the Spartans actually have more healthy running backs than any team really needs. The problem is that only one seems to be able to produce much on the field – freshman Larry Caper, of the 23-yard overtime touchdown run against Michigan fame. The Spartans will try to get as much as they can out of Caper, their starter, and the horde of backups in Caulton Ray, Andre Anderson, Ashton Leggett and A.J. Jimmerson, but if they have to reactivate Baker, that tells you how MSU feels about the combined talent level of the four backups. The three guys with first names that start with "A" were all backup last year to Javon Ringer, and Ringer had 97 percent of MSU's rushing yards last season. Yikes.

As for a prediction – MSU might own Northwestern in Evanston, but the Wildcats have spoiled two consecutive Homecoming weekends at Spartan Stadium (2005, 2007). Guess what weekend it is in East Lansing? Homecoming!

I predicted MSU blowouts against Northwestern the last two times they visited, and the Wildcats made the Spartans appear like they had never seen a spread offense before, despite the fact that in 2005, that's exactly what they put on the field. I think though that with Northwestern's inconsistency so far this season and the MSU injuries not completely depleting the lineup, the Spartans will have the advantage.

But not by much. MSU 31, NU 21.

Big thanks again to Shannon Shelton, the Michigan State beat writer for the Detroit Free Press. Read the Free Press' coverage of MSU here and check out Shelton's blog here. And as always, feel free to contact Purple Reign at Northwestern.Scout@gmail.com.

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