While we all tend to fall back on previous views of a team as the years pass, this Michigan State squad has some definite differences from the one that played the balance of the 2013 season.
For one, these Spartans didn't wait until the last two games of the year to get their offense in gear. Michigan State will enter this weekend second in the Big Ten in scoring, trailing Ohio State by one point (total, not average).
The most obvious difference is a more mature Connor Cook, but everyone in the offense seems to a have made strikes. That begins with the offensive line, which looks to have gone from an average or maybe even a little below unit to a strength. As a group, they move well and do a better job of resetting the line of scrimmage this season when I watch them. The Football Outsiders numbers also bear out an improvement, but maybe not as much as the eyeball test does. The standouts are left tackle Jack Conklin and right guard Connor Kruse.
Cook has a strong arm and is a pretty good athlete, but his mechanics let him down at times, hurting his accuracy. He also throws the ball into tight and/or uncertain areas a bit more often than a great quarterback should, and that could be a big factor in this game. Well, scratch that -- it will be a big factor because while it can lead to turnovers, it also helps him make more big plays than if he played it safe every down. This is a balance any quarterback who wants to be more than a game manager must strike, and he's been on the right side of the equation more often than not this season. But it's hard to shake the image of some of the bad decisions he makes.
Luke Fickell pointed out earlier this week Cook certainly trusts his receivers with his top target being Tony Lippett, a 6-3, 185-pound playmaker who is probably the best receiver in the Big Ten. His numbers bear that out, but so does watching him. He has great body control and will go up and get the football. He's also very good after the catch.
Cook forces the ball to him sometimes, but that's not because of a lack of other options. MSU's receiving corps, such a liability last time Ohio State traveled to East Lansing, is very deep and impressive. Keith Humphrey and Aaron Burbridge are also big guys who can run after the catch while R.J. Shelton and MacGarrett Kings Jr. are dangerous slot receivers. The receivers are talented and versatile, helping co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman open the playbook as wide as any you will ever see. They are involved in the running game a lot, especially for a "pro-style" team.
At running back, Jeremy Langford is back after a fantastic 2013, and he looks a little quicker and faster than last year. He looks like more than a chains-mover this year as he can make someone miss and create a big play that way. Fellow senior Nick Hill has emerged as a very good No. 2 option. He's a powerful runner with a low center of gravity that makes him hard to bring down.
As referenced, that offense is really fun to watch when it is rolling, kind of like a Jim Tressel offense during the few times they had a veteran quarterback and veteran skill players. They are happy to get in the I formation and pound people (remember the "Dave" play?), but the Spartans will spend plenty of time in the shotgun, and that package is full as well. Cook is certainly athletic enough to be dangerous if not accounted for as a runner, and they will use him in zone read, straight speed options and even the occasional quarterback power play.
If you're wondering how this offense compares to last season, I would say the unit that faced Ohio State has only made incremental improvements (they were pretty good by that time), but this Spartans offense is much better than last year's was for the majority of the season.
As for the defense, the numbers and the eyes say Michigan State has taken a step back but remains very good.
Defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush are an elite pair. Rush is a bulldog who can win one-on-one matchups or just gum up the works if he's double teamed while Calhoun is a great athlete who can get around the corner but also looks comfortable moving side to side if he is out in space.
Taiwan Jones has taken very well to his move to middle linebacker. He's a good athlete who runs well at 252 pounds and shows up when you're watching the unit. Another returning starter, Trae Waynes, has settled nicely into a more prominent role at boundary corner. He is long (6-1, 182), athletic and aggressive. He also plays with a lot of confidence.
Not sure there is a lot of greatness spread throughout the rest of the group, though. I was a big fan of Kurtis Drummond's last season, but he hasn't had quite the same consistency this year. He's still a big guy (6-1, 202) who runs well and has a lot of experience. The other safety spot has been split by junior R.J. Williamson and freshman Montae Nicholson with Williamson the more productive of the pair, while Waynes' opposite number at cornerback is a feisty little sophomore from Solon in Darian Hicks (5-10, 180).
The Ducks fell behind in the middle of the game then went on a scoring binge in the third and fourth quarters that was fueled by some MSU busted assignments and the individual brillance of quarterback Marcus Mariota. However, it might be worth pointing out Oregon put the game away with an outside sweep for a touchdown that looked a lot like the play Ohio State showed off for the first time last week.
Purdue hurt the Spartans in a variety of ways. They got the screen game -- which Ohio State's coaches have kind of indicated are a nonstarter with the way MSU plays defense -- going early and hit a couple of plays down the field as well. They also had some success running up the middle. At the end, MSU tightened up on those screens and brought evermore pressure to close the noose when it mattered.
The Purdue game was also an example of how Cook can keep both teams in a game as he made a couple of fantastic throws early while they built a big lead then threw a horrendous interception that jump-started the Boilers' rally in the fourth quarter.
While those games might be informative, we also can't overlook the performance against Nebraska. While Cook struggled, the defense really got after a very good Nebraska running attack, physically dominating the line of scrimmage. That put the game in the hands of Tommy Armstrong Jr., and he looked uncomfortable most of the night while making a fair amount of unforced errors.
The advanced stats say Ohio State and Michigan State are both good, not great teams with the play-by-play-based metrics preferring the Spartans and the drive-based stats favoring the Buckeyes.
Also of note: Michigan State's special teams have been pretty bad this season. Kicker Michael Geiger is only 7 for 12 on field goals, including 3 for 7 in Big Ten games. Punter Mike Sadler, who was a first-team All-American last season, is 10th in the conference in net punting at 40.3 yards per attempt this season.
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