Preview: Michigan State Offense

IrishEyes previews the Spartans offensive starters and key reserves entering Saturday's game in South Bend.

Skill Position Starters

Departed running back Javon Ringer accounted for an astounding 97 percent of the Spartans rushing yards in 2008. Ringer finished with 203 yards and two touchdowns in last year's matchup with the Irish.

  • Quarterback – #8 Kirk Cousins: Has completed 23 of his first 35 passes for 347 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. The 6'3" 202-pound sophomore is a more conventional quarterback than the Irish defense has faced compared to its first two opponents. The redshirt sophomore has developed an early rapport with senior Z-receiver Blair White (below).

    Cousins is currently the sixth-ranked passer in the nation (Clausen is No. 3) and is developing quickly into an accurate, poised, quality drop-back passer.

  • Running Back – #24 Caulton Ray: The redshirt freshman has not stood out, running for a respectable 122 yards on 28 carries with one touchdown. At 5'9" 195-pounds, Ray runs with a low base and remains the Spartans starter but freshman Larry Caper is nipping at his heels.
  • Fullback – #45 Andrew Hawken: Hawken's role is to open holes in the Spartans power-I rushing formation (just 11 carries last season with one touchdown). The fullback has just 22 carries over the last three seasons (a span of 26 games) but averages a robust 7.6 yards per pop. At 6'2" 248-pounds, the 5th-year senior will be butting heads with Irish linebackers Brian and Toryan Smith as well as SS Kyle McCarthy for most of the afternoon.
  • "Z" Wide Receiver – #25 Blair White: The former walk-on (now a team captain) is off to a tremendous start with 16 receptions for 267 yards and two scores. At 6'2" 200 pounds, White is an athletic target with excellent hands and has thus far escaped national notoriety despite posting 30 receptions for more than 500 yards in the final six games of 2008. Irish defensive captain Kyle McCarthy noted White's polish as a route-runner on film.

    The Spartans move White around in their formations allowing him to find advantageous matchups from the slot and in motion. The Irish, however, boast three cornerbacks that can challenge White both outside and from the slots. Landed a the two-foot line on the game's opening drive last week or would have a third touchdown to add to his total. Occasionally punt returner as well.

  • "X" Wide Receiver – #3 B.J. Cunningham: The 6'2" 212-pound redshirt sophomore caught a one-yard quick look against the Irish last year but turned the play into a 22-yard gain, running through the initial tackle before bursting downfield. Cunningham has 7 receptions for 117 yards through two games. Two of Cunningham's grabs have gone for touchdowns including a 7-yard grab to tie the score at 20 late last week in the Spartans last-minute loss to Central Michigan. Cunningham is a willing downfield blocker and is often involved setting up his teammate, Blair White, on the Spartans oft-used quick passes off the line.

    Cunningham ran a beautiful double-move for a 35-yard gain to set up his own go-ahead touchdown late last week.

  • Tight End – #83 Charlie Gantt: 6'5" 248-pound junior has 3 receptions for 43 yards and a score (vs. CMU) in '09. Gantt's TD catch last week was a 16-yard grab from backup QB Keith Nichol to give the Spartans a 13-10 2nd Quarter advantage. Last season against the Irish, Gantt was held without a catch but did throw a key block on Irish DE Kerry Neal to open a lane for departed RB Javon Ringer's second touchdown.

    Gantt is a willing, quality run blocker who should be able to hold up at the point vs. undersized Irish DE John Ryan and Kerry Neal.

Offensive Linemen

The left side of Cironi and Foreman returns intact from last year's victory over the Irish. Both rushing touchdowns by departed running back Javon Ringer in the 2008 contest were scored behind the Cironi/Foreman tandem.

  • Left Tackle – #57 Rocco Cironi: 6'6" 309-pound 5th-year senior has started 17 games at left tackle including each of the Spartans last 15 contests. Cironi can be beaten by a speedy edge rusher, but is more than qualified as a blocker in the power running game and can get out and pull to lead the Spartans young RBs through the hole.
  • Left Guard – #67 Joel Foreman: 6'4" 306-pound redshirt sophomore has started 13 contests (including most of last season) and was named the Spartans Lineman of the Week in the season-opener vs. Montana State. Foreman appears a bit vulnerable to late blitzers, but (oddly) moves well down the line when the Spartans use a zone blocking scheme as well as pulling through the hole in MSU's Power-I.
  • Center – #66 John Stipek: 6'5" 306-pound junior made his first career start last week over injured 5th-year senior Joel Nitchman (below). Stipek isn't great in space, and Irish senior middle linebacker Toryan Smith must take advantage of this weakness.
  • Right Guard – #75 Jared McGaha: 6'6" 298-pound sophomore is at home on running plays, serving as a strong player at the point of attack when the Spartans feature their Power-I attack. McGaha looked lost at times last week in pass protection when Keith Nichol was the Spartans signal-caller, but held up well with Cousins (the drop-back QB).
  • Right Tackle – #64 Brendon Moss: 6'7" 284-pound 5th-year senior but in his first season as a starter. Moss appeared in just 13 games over three previous seasons. Moss does not have great feet and this is a matchup that Irish redshirt freshman DE Kapron Lewis-Moore must win.

Key Reserves

  • Quarterback – #7 Keith Nichol: The redshirt sophomore is an Oklahoma transfer (lost a competition to Sam Bradford in 2007, which is understandable) is more comfortable on the move but is not as elusive as last week's opponent Tate Forcier. Nichol is not yet a polished drop-back passer (he missed Cunningham, open by a solid 15 yards, on a post downfield) and was inaccurate last week on short throws (grounded three passes in the first half) from the pocket. But Nichol excels on the move; look for the Spartans to use him on play-action bootlegs to the defense's left (his right). He found tight end Charlie Gantt for a score down the seam last week though the inexperienced QB stared at Gantt during his entire route.

    Nichol might again receive ample playing time this week due to poor protection up front by the Spartans and what appears to be a weakness in the early-season Irish defense: tackling in space.

  • Running Back – #22 Larry Caper: 5'11" 215-pound true freshman has spelled Ray to the tune of 13 carries for 67 yards with separate gains of 15 and 16 yards vs. Montana State and Central Michigan. Head coach Mark Dantonio singled out Caper as the team's best back in pass protection. If Ray remains average early in the contest, look for the more talented Caper to emerge Saturday in South Bend.
  • Running Back – #4 Edwin Baker: 5'9" 200-pound freshman has just eight carries through the season's first two games. He and Caper are listed as Co-No. 2 RBs behind Ray but Caper appears to have moved ahead of Baker after last week.
  • Running Back/Kick Returner – #41 Glenn Winston: 6'1" 224-pound sophomore has seven carries this season including a 15-yard burst in the season-opener. Winston shows good vision on kick returns and has natural running strength through return lanes. Winston's a north-south runner when he gets a chance in the Spartans' crowded backfield.
  • Wide Receiver – #2 Mark Dell: 6'2" 197-pound junior has yet to play due to a pre-season shoulder injury. Dell hurt the Irish last season with four receptions for 80 yards, including a key 3rd and 14 slant reception after the Irish had pulled within six points early in the fourth quarter. Dell Dell finished '08 36 receptions for 679 yards (an 18.9 ypc average) and three touchdowns. He posted a 202-yard receiving effort last year vs. California in Berkley.
  • Tight End – #80 Dion Sims: The still-growing, highly recruited 6'5" 268-pound freshman is going to be a bear in future seasons. Sims has three catches, one for a score in his two-game Spartan career.
  • Tight End – #88 Brian Linthicum: Backup tight end occasionally lines up as a lead fullback as well as the Spartans swing tight end. Linthicum showed fine ability blocking in motion but is also occasionally asked to lead the play through the hole from Hawken's usual FB spot.
  • Wide Receiver/Punt Returner – #82 Keshawn Martin: One catch for 15 yards this season and also ran an end around last week vs. CMU. Martin is the Spartans No. 1 punt returner, averaging 12.2 yards over 49 career returns and shows quick feet after the catch.
  • Right Guard – #77 J'Michael Deane: At 6'5" 312-pounds, the junior is listed as the Co-starter with teammate Jared McGaha at right guard (McGaha started the opener with Deane earning a start last week). Deane was beaten by a quick interior rush in pass protection vs. the Chippewas last Saturday. Two plays later, Deane was completely blown up as a pulling guard leading by a CMU ‘backer who went through Deane to make the one-yard stop.
  • Center – #65 Joel Nitchman: 6'4" 296-pound 5th-year senior started the season opener vs. Montana State but gave way to junior John Stipek last week due to a knee injury last week. Nitchman started at center in last year's meeting between the Irish and the Spartans and has manned the starting spot for 22 of his last 25 games.

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