The Spartans went a combined 16-4 in the first four games over the last five seasons, but managed just a 13-28 record thereafter. Michigan State started the 2005 season 4-0, but won just one of its final seven to finish with a 5-6 mark. In 2006, the Spartans got off to another great start, winning their first three, but lost eight of their last nine to finish 4-8 and cost Smith his job.
In 2007, Michigan St. hired Mark Dantonio away from Cincinnati and while the spread disappeared, the pattern did not. Michigan St. won its first four games, but lost six of its final nine, including a loss to Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Unfortunately for Irish fans, Notre Dame always finds itself on the top third of the Spartans' schedule. Notre Dame is 2-3 against Michigan St. in the last five years, including a 31-14 home loss in 2007. The road team has won the last seven games of the series, and if the Irish are going to continue that trend in East Lansing in 2008, their defense is going to have to play big.
Michigan St. went 7-6 in 2007, but did not lose a game by more than a touchdown. Dantonio and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell replaced Smith's offense with a more conventional balanced attack. The approach clearly worked as the Spartans averaged 417 yards and 33 points per game last year.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Hoyer is back to lead the offense. Last year, the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Hoyer was an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection in his first full year replacing Drew Stanton. Hoyer completed 223 of 376 passes for 2,725 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2007. Hoyer, who was picked off 11 times last year, has a 7-7 career record as a starter.
The knock on Hoyer is that he wins the games that he is supposed, but has not been able to make the plays to win the close games. While the Spartans were in every game they lost, they only won two games that were decided by a touchdown or less.
"The jump that Brian has to make is closing the game," Dantonio said. "I believe that that is where you separate the John Elways, Joe Montanas and Brett Favres from the rest of the quarterbacks. Those are the guys that get it done at the end of the game."
While the Spartans are in good hands with Hoyer, who is a preseason candidate for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, they have no experience behind him. The transfers of Nick Foles and Connor Dixon have left the Spartans with redshirt freshman Kirk Cousins as the only eligible scholarship quarterback behind Hoyer.
Dixon transferred to Duquesne after a tough spring and some talk of possibly being moved to wide receiver. Foles was highly touted when he signed with the Spartans in 2007, but found himself behind Cousins on the depth chart and decided to leave after the announcement that quarterback Keith Nichol was transferring to East Lansing from Oklahoma.
Cousins (6-3, 181) is a good athlete, having earned all-conference honors in baseball, basketball and football in high school, but he was not as highly rated as Foles or Dixon and has never taken a college snap. Still, as long as Hoyer stays healthy, the Spartans offense will be fine at quarterback.
Senior running back Javon Ringer will line up at running back behind Hoyer. Ringer (5-9, 200) rushed for 1,447 yards on 245 carries last season and earned team MVP honors. Offseason shoulder surgery kept Ringer out of contact drills this spring, but Dantonio expects him to be ready for the fall. Some experts already have Ringer rated as the top back in the 2009 NFL Draft.
While Ringer led the team in rushing, it was Jehuu Caulcrick who Dantonio called on to find the endzone. Caulcrick had 21 touchdowns as a senior, while Ringer had just six. Junior A.J. Jimmerson (5-10, 202) along with redshirt freshmen Andre Anderson (5-9, 188) and Ashton Leggett (5-11, 232) will compete for carries behind Ringer.
"Our system supports two backs getting 200-plus carries. It could conceivably support three backs getting 150 carries apiece," Dantonio said "However we do it, I think we have that dimension. When you look at our offense last year, you basically had 470 carries by our tailback position. So we can support two running backs, and as a matter of fact, I think it has to, two or three."
Ringer rushed for 144 yards on 26 carries in last year's win at Notre Dame, while Hoyer only had 135 yards passing, but did throw for four touchdowns. With their top offensive guns back, the other skill positions do have some question marks.
Michigan St. was hurt by the decision of wide receiver Devin Thomas to bypass his senior year and enter the NFL Draft after a breakout 2007 season. The Washington Redskins selected Thomas in the second round of April's draft.
Ringer was the Spartans' next top receiver with 35 receptions, followed by tight end Kellen Davis' 32 catches. The Bears took Davis in the fifth round of the draft.
The Spartans' top returning wideouts are senior Deon Curry (6-1, 208) and sophomore Mark Dell (6-2, 185) who had 24 and 20 catches respectively in 2007. Curry's father, Mike, was recently hired as the head coach of the Detroit Pistons.
The Michigan St. coaching staff liked what it saw from redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham (6-2, 205) during the spring and hopes he can develop in to the game-breaking receiver that the Spartans need to replace Thomas.
"We'll have a great tight end here," Dantonio said. "If you look at our past, whether it's Cincinnati or now here, the tight end in our program has played in the NFL, Brent Celek (Garrett's brother) for Cincinnati and Kellen Davis is about to get his chance. We'll find a guy that's suitable for that type of role."
"Jesse and Roland are fifth-year seniors and they both have a tremendous future ahead of them at the next level, but they have to get it done here, especially in terms of providing some leadership," Dantonio said. "Joel Nitchman is an overachiever in every respect."
Junior Rocco Cironi (6-6, 305) will take over at left tackle and junior Brendon Moss (6-6, 292) is listed as the number one right guard. The Spartans have depth behind the starters, especially since senior Mike Bacon (6-4, 298) can play guard or center and redshirt freshman Jared McGaha (6-6, 290) got extensive reps when Martin was sidelined this spring with an ankle injury.
It will be important for the offensive line to keep Hoyer on his feet and out of the trainer's room. With known commodities at both quarterback and running back, the Spartans only need solid play on the line and a receiver to step up and be the go-to guy to become a dangerous unit.
Defensively, Michigan St. lost some key performers from last year's squad, but the Spartans played plenty of underclassmen that needed the experience.
The Spartans graduated three starters from the defensive line, but are not short on veterans. Ervin Baldwin, Jonal Saint-Dic and Ogemdi Nwagbuo are gone, but senior defensive tackle Justin Kershaw (6-5, 278) is back. Kershaw has started 21 of the 36 games he has played in at Michigan St.
Sophomore Oren Wilson (6-3, 292) played some as a freshman and will start at tackle next to Kershaw. Senior defensive end Brandon Long (6-4, 240) also has some experience and will play at one end while Dantonio adds junior Trevor Anderson (6-2, 255), who transferred from Cincinnati with Dantonio, at the other end.
"I think we pick up a returning starter in Trevor Anderson because he has not only played at the Division I level in the Big East, but he's also been in our system," Dantonio said.
Dantonio has said that sophomore Antonio Jeremiah (6-5, 315) could be the surprise player of the year at defensive tackle, but the 18.5 sacks that Baldwin and Saint-Dic combined for last year will be hard to replace.
The Spartans may need some help from the linebacker corps to generate a pass rush. The situation at linebacker is similar to that at defensive line, as the Spartans lost three contributors, but still return five players with experience.
Sophomore Greg Jones (6-1, 222) led the team with 78 tackles last season and was named as a first-team Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America. Jones played both outside and inside last year and started the spring outside, but finished as the middle backer.
Sophomore Eric Gordon (6-0, 220) has shifted from weak side to strong with junior Brandon Denson (5-11, 216) taking the lead to play at the WILL. Senior Adam Decker (6-2, 233) and sophomore Jon Misch (6-2, 210) give the Spartans some more experience. Senior Ryan Allison (6-3, 209) was a receiver, but worked out at safety in preparation for the Champs Sports Bowl and has since been shifted to linebacker.
Senior strong safety Otis Wiley (6-2, 210) will lead a secondary that returns seven of its top nine from last year. Wiley fell out of favor with the new staff last year and was benched, but the coaches have loved the way he has responded.
"Wiley has been extremely productive this spring," Dantonio said. "You see him making a ton of plays, but most importantly, he's really taken command of the entire defense."
Joining Wiley at free safety will be junior Roderick Jenrette (6-1, 200), who was hurt for a large portion of the 2007 season. The Spartans have four good-sized corners who have all started at some point in their careers with senior Kendall Davis-Clark (5-11, 204), juniors Ashton Henderson (5-11, 184) and Ross Weaver (6-1, 203) along with sophomore Chris Rucker (6-2, 194).
The Spartans ranked 32nd in the nation in yards allowed last year and, despite losing key parts of that unit, they return enough talent to improve in 2008.
Thomas was the Spartans' big playmaker in the return game last year, but Dantonio has a history of getting guys to perform on special teams.
As always, the schedule gets heavy down the stretch for the Spartans, but Michigan St. thinks that this could be the first year it finishes ahead of rival Michigan since 1987 and get to a New Year's Day bowl.
Excluding last year's game, the Irish and the Spartans have not had a matchup decided by more than a touchdown since 1999 and it's hard to see this year's game being any different.