We checked in with Mike Wilson, our Scout MSU publisher, to answer the burning questions going into the showdown in East Lansing.
1. Connor Cook is suddenly the seventh-rated passer in the nation. Where has he appeared to make strides this year from a season ago?
Suddenly is a good word. He really has gone from a guy who was just the better option to Andrew Maxwell to a legitimate NFL prospect in a matter of a year. I think the biggest change in his game from when he took over the starting spot until now is in his confidence in his game. He also took big steps forward with his footwork this offseason, which led to improved accuracy – something he struggled with last season and still does occasionally. But definitely it is in his confidence and his decision making (usually) that he has taken steps forward in.
2. Cook isn't the only improved Spartan as the offense has made great strides since early last season. Between personnel and scheme, where have some of the major improvements happened?
Well, that starts and ends with Tony Lippett. I mean, he probably has been the best wide receiver in the Big Ten this season so far. I think the way he has emerged a true No. 1 receiver has allowed the offense to fully fall into place. But the fact is MSU is averaging around 15 points per game more this season than last year, so it has been a wholesale improvement. I think that is a credit to a team that brought back everyone, spare a wide receiver and three offensive linemen. I think with the experience and confidence, the offense now has become very efficient and has become more versatile and explosive early this season.
3. On the other hand, what are some of the weaknesses the team has had this year?
Lapses. Simply, the level of play drops sometimes and that has been an issue. MSU had Oregon down, the crowd out of it and really had a chance to claim that game coming out into the second half, but really let up and Oregon rolled. Same story with the fourth quarter against Nebraska and Purdue, both games MSU was rolling in, but let up and found itself in close games at the end. Michigan really was the first true game that MSU put together a four-quarter performance. This will be another one where a lapse for a quarter could be costly.
4. The Spartans are good on defense still but don't appear to be quite at the level of a season ago. Where have they struggled when things haven't gone well?
The struggle has been in the secondary. Well, specifically, the play of the safeties. R.J. Williamson struggled to the point that he lost his starting spot to true freshman Montae Nicholson for a couple games before taking it back against Michigan. Oregon really exploited both Williamson and Kurtis Drummond to bust some big plays. The defense has been playing better as it has adjusted to a new group of personnel, but it definitely has come with its lumps. It also is safe to say this defense is more prone to giving up big plays than last year’s was, which is what Pat Narduzzi’s defense accepts. The philosophy is to stop almost everything with the understanding that some big plays will happen. That has been more true this year.
5. Replacing such players as Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard and a few others was going to be key for the Spartans this year. How have the new guys done so far?
As I kind of said above, it has been an adjustment. The linebackers are the group that looks the most different, with two new starters in Ed Davis and Darien Harris, while Taiwan Jones is starting in a new position. That group missed too many tackles in space at Oregon but has for the most part been effective. The trio actually brings more speed to the table than last year’s linebackers had. In the secondary, Williamson has had his ups and downs, but has been playing better of late. Cornerback Darian Hicks has been the surprise to me. He was the biggest question mark coming into the season, but he has played pretty well through the early part of the season. This will be a big test for him. Up front, both defensive tackles – Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas – brought back experience but had rarely started. They have been hit or miss at times. Big games against Nebraska, but needing more consistency. All in all, I think there has been a drop off, but it had to be expected there would be one.